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Atlanta Jewish Life Magazine, August, 2002

BACK TO SHUL: The Road to Affiliation

By Robert J. Nebel
As the lazy days of summer come to a close and back to school fever hits, we typically have breathing room before the high holidays. This year we are in for calendar shock as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive early. And with the onset of the high holidays, temples and synagogues experience a surge in attendance and prospective membership rolls. Call it The Back to Shul Effect-when most of the non-affiliated experience “motherly guilt” and feel the need to not only attend services, but make the commitment to regular shul attendance year round. Inquiring Jewish people “who want to know” keep area shul membership and executive directors busy in the autumn by touring area shuls; attending Shabbat services and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs; and taking advantage of welcoming activities such as, prospective membership lunches, coffees klatches and parties.
Also, after September 11th, surveys show that more Jews wish to affiliate. Is this true in the Atlanta area? Atlanta Jewish Life followed three families who are or recently were, in the synagogue shopping mode.

Erica and Elisa Palefsky are a thirtysomething Alpharetta couple living with their two children, Sydney, 6, and Marria, 2. The Paleskys began their shul search when Sydney was an infant. They quickly discovered that their choices were limited to rather new congregations with what they felt had little character, history and tradition.
Eric and Elisa wish to belong to an established shul that has solid congregation, Sunday school and most of all, a building. “I understand that the new congregations do not have an established building and they would like its members to contribute to a building fund, but it’s not something that I want to commit to,” says
Elisa. “At this stage, I want to join a synagogue that has been in place for many years and does not have a rent-a-rabbi.”
A dedicated Rabbi and an established shul is what Elisa experienced in her youth when she attended The Temple in Midtown. Elisa fondly recalls a sense of belonging at The Temple with children’s activities, family get-togethers, attending Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and wedding. Eric also experienced solid relationships with his fellow congregants at the traditional Orthodox temple he was a member of while growing up in Savannah. While Elisa was raised Reform and Eric, Orthodox, they both want to belong to a shul that not only welcomes them with open arms, but is “broken-in” and steeped in tradition.
While Eric and Elisa share a common view on their synagogue search, their backgrounds are vastly different. Elisa remembers when she visited Eric’s temple and found the experience to be less than enthralling. “I was sitting next to a dozing female in the women’s section, while Eric was having a great time with the men,” Elisa recalls. “After that service, I said, ‘Eric, I’m never coming back here.’” The two are willing to compromise in their shul search. Elisa is looking to join a Conservative or Reform, while Eric is willing to move towards Elisa’s desires and away from his Orthodox roots.
On their synagogue shopping, the Palefskys have found that they were not approached at the shuls they visited. Whether it be congregants, the Rabbi or membership directors, Eric and Elisa felt out-of-place and not welcome. When they did seek out the membership or executive director at a shul, Elisa and Eric say that there was no follow-up. “Every shul that we visited did not call us or mail any information,” says Eric. “We understand that the synagogues might be busy, but I think they should make more of an effort to welcome you into their synagogue,” Elisa says.
As the Palefskys remain non-affiliated, the obvious question is, “Why don’t they join an established congregation that is not in their neighborhood?” The closest established shuls for the Palefskys are in the Dunwoody area, which would add to their already hectic life. Elisa, a manager of business development for Coca Cola has a 30-40 minute daily commute. Eric, who telecommutes on most days, is a regional sales manager for the Evergreen Company. He takes their two children, Sydney and Marria to school and daycare respectively, but that routine is broken up when he travels. As their children grow, Elisa and Eric feel confident that they will become active in one of the nearby shuls. “Maybe in a few years, we will try it again, but for right now, we are not sold,” says Eric.
Ilana Roth and Spencer Preis have not quite found their shul of choice. “Lani” is a 24-year-old marketing assistant job for Turner Sports who is engaged to Spencer, a third year law student at Emory. As they embark on a life together, Lani and Spencer would like to get off on the right foot by joining a shul that they where they will be loyal for many years to come. The young Emory couple say they are close to joining a synagogue, but have yet to find a shul that speaks to them. Over the course of the last two years, Lani and Spencer visited a variety of synagogues.
“I visited a lot of shuls here and to me, Reform is not happening,” Lani says. “Yes, I like the singing and some of the other rituals (in Reform synagogues), but it just doesn’t feel real (to me).” Lani grew up in Cincinnati where Conservative ideology was instrumental in her upbringing. As Lani scratched the Reform synagogues off of her list, she is now zeroing in on the conservative congregations. Spencer has a Reform background and was raised in New Orleans. He is willing to let Lani take the lead in where they will ultimately affiliate. “I went to her shul in Cincinnati and it wasn’t all that different from my Reform synagogue,” says Spencer. Both agree that they wish to join a smaller conservative congregation, the ones they visited haven’t exactly lured them in.
“I went to a young adults program at a nearby temple,” Lani recalls. “I had a great time, but I never heard from them since”. In addition to that gathering, Ilana and Spencer have attended several functions at shuls stretching from the Emory area to Marietta and Dunwoody. Lani feels that the Jewish community has not coordinated itself to the best of its ability. “I find that the synagogues do not ‘woo’ you,” she explains. “It is hard to believe that the synagogues cannot tap into the huge databases of AIPAC and The American Jewish Committee. I do realize it might be difficult to figure out who is who, but I think that with some team effort, they can reach out to members of the Jewish community.”
They plan to stay in their Emory apartment for the next year. While the Emory area shuls are attractive to them, they are not limiting themselves to their university neighborhood. For Lani, traveling a bit of a distance to a shul is not a problem. “I wouldn’t mind going to Dunwoody if the shul is right,” she says. “But I will not travel up to Marietta.” Lani adds that she is an involved MJCC member who doesn’t mind the trek up to Dunwoody. In addition to her JCC trips, Lani heads downtown on a daily basis to her job at Turner. Spencer adds, “I love Atlanta, but I don’t know if we will be here forever. I want to affiliate with what’s right for us.”
Dunwoody is a suburban community that sports a number of shuls, a large JCC and kosher offerings in the local supermarkets. It attracts a large number of Jewish people because of the choice of amenities These amenities attracted Todd and Stephanie Wachtel to move from their in-town home to a spacious colonial within walking distance of their shul and the JCC. “We felt that our old neighborhood was transient and our children were not going to have lifelong friends,” explains Stephanie, a 38-year-old mother of two, Rachel, 6, and David, 3. “We wanted an old-fashioned neighborhood.”
Those sentiments prompted the Wachtels to look for a new home and shul about two years ago.
Moving to Dunwoody also cut down on the Wachtels’ stress level. Tood, a financial analyst and Stephanie, a speech pathologist, have cut their commutes in half.
It is during these times of synagogue shopping when prospective members try to match their background and philosophy with their shul of choice. Stephanie Wachtel, an Atlanta native, was raised in a Reform family. Her husband Todd’s family were members of traditional orthodox temples in San Antonio, Philadelphia and New York. Both jokingly refer to their union as a mixed marriage. They have found that several congregations on their shul search did not quite match their level of Judaism. “We were looking for a congregation where people want to grow, find support and feel comfortable,” Stephanie recalls. “The other shuls also did not have services that really sparked our interests. It took some time to find the right shul that did this and we found it.”
Those who are in the shul shopping game have plenty of tips to offer. “Shop before you buy,” says Leah Sharff, Temple Shir Shalom’s membership director. “Go to other events before you attend Shabbat services. Many shuls have open houses and prospective member dinners.” Jack Lockspeiser, Executive Director at Temple Beth Jacob concurs and adds that, “you should pick a shul that matches your philosophy not only on Judaism, but on life.” David Gittelman, membership director at Congregation Bet Haverim urges shul shoppers to listen to word-of-mouth comments, request brochures, browse the shul’s website and get to know its congregants. “With our congregation, our motto is, ‘It’s not your Mother’s synagogue’,” says Gittelman. “So, get to know us and try it, you might like it.” Kim Cohen of Congregation Ariel also feels that it is up to the prospective member to get to know the shul they are shopping. “Make an attempt to get to know the rabbi,” says Cohen. “Don’t be shy.”
Todd and Stephanie Wachtel feel that it is imperative that a shul should be located near all of your amenities. The Wachtels believe that you are more apt to attend a shul that is nearby your home and having an environment that is conducive to a commitment to Judaism. Eric and Elisa Palefsky tell people who are in the market to join a shul to be optimistic. “Don’t get disappointed early,” says Elisa. “Manage your expectations.” Lani Roth and Spencer Preis urge prospective members to attend adult minglers where they have had the most success. “The most fun is at the mixers where it is more relaxed and you are more likely to meet others who are in the same boat as you,” says Lani.
Attracting and ultimately retaining members is the challenge that area directors face in their positions. Many Jewish people feel the need to connect with others in a community-based setting, but find it difficult to find what they want in a large metropolitan area. While feelings of disconnect coupled with a sluggish economy proves to be a hurdle for membership and executive directors, they remain upbeat in the work.
Rochelle Turoff-Mucha uses her marketing background in her vice president of membership role to attract a diversity of new congregants. “We have outreach meetings that seek out others beside families with children,” she says. “We also have a rainbow coalition which reaches at to gays and lesbians.” “I’m trying to increase membership by advertising in playbills, community papers and protable displays,” says David Gittelman of Congregation Bet Haverim.
If you are also a prospective member or are just starting to jump on the shul shopping bandwagon, you are not alone. Similar to purchasing a house or car, know what you are buying and remember the phrase, “Buyer Beware”.