by Rabbi James Prosnit, November 2017/Cheshvan-Kislev 5778
I had an “aha moment” last spring that revealed one of the biggest challenges we have as a congregation.
I was meeting with a group of first grade parents and as I typically do, I asked each to introduce themselves to one another. As we went around the room it was clear that many did not know each other. They came from a diverse array of neighboring towns. Among the first ten who spoke there were probably 8 different communities represented: Bridgeport, Stratford, Milford, Trumbull, Monroe, Fairfield, Southport, and Easton.
Later that same week I was meeting with our Confirmation class parents. Their children were all sophomores in High School. Most knew each other pretty well. But when we went around the room they came from Fairfield, Fairfield, Fairfield, Fairfield, Trumbull, Fairfield …. You get the picture.
So the question – are we as a congregation expanding our demographic base so that newer congregants are coming from more diverse places in the Great Bridgeport area. Or are children who come from the more distant towns with fewer Jewish families, more apt to drop out of religious school, perhaps right after Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
I fear it’s the latter.
So a tremendous challenge awaits – and it’s not new. If we pride ourselves in being a regional congregation that draws families from many different communities, how do we best integrate the children and their parents so that all will want to stay.
A Catch 22: Some of the programs in our religious school are designed to make sure the students get to know each other. But here’s the scenario I envision in the home of say a Monroe family. A weekend retreat at Camp Eisner is planned. One of the goals is to connect the kids who come from the various towns. But a child from Monroe tells his or her parents that he or she doesn’t want to go, because they don’t know anyone. The parent decides not to push it and tells their child they don’t have to. I understand that. But a program designed especially to bring the kids together ends up being populated mostly by the students from the same communities who know each other already from their secular middle schools.
Our recent Temple online survey, while overwhelming positive in its results pointed to some of these concerns. As a follow up to that survey, several focus groups are being organized to address some of the challenges. We would love for you to participate – especially if this column resonates with some of your concerns.
One of the strengths of B’nai Israel is its diversity. Another is its willingness to talk about and tackle the challenges before us. Please help us nurture a spiritual community where folks feel comfortable and connected, no matter where they’re from.