Just as a diner’s super-sized menu has items to suit everyone’s taste, metro Atlanta synagogues now offer a wide variety of groups and clubs to cater to the interests of their members and make a big community feel smaller.
Synagogues today have become an extended family in addition to being a place to attend services and participate in Torah study sessions, educational programs or events. And with memberships ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, synagogues are becoming more proactive to create small groups, combining fun with friendship and adding another reason to belong to a synagogue community.
In contrast to a committee or traditionally larger organizations such as a Sisterhood or Men’s Club, synagogue groups are more niche.
Temple Emanu-El has a long history of supporting chavurot or friendship groups, for 20-plus years. Rhea Berger, co-chair of the Chavurah Steering Committee, said TE grew from 12 to 23 chavurot since 2016 to include seniors, singles, teens, young couples and people in their 50s and 60s. “Even our 2019 adult b’nai mitzvah class recently formed a chavurah,” Berger said.
Small groups often entice their members to volunteer through the synagogue or attend services.
Allan Slovin, a member of Congregation Dor Tamid in Johns Creek, said CDT Primetimers Group motivated him and his wife to volunteer for other events at the synagogue, and “yes, to attend CDT’s beautiful religious services more often.” Volunteer coordinator Carol Kovar of the CDT group creates activities such as attending “Fiddler on the Roof” in Cumming. Other groups in this demographic include Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s Mature Active Adult Community, Congregation Gesher L’Torah’s 60+Club, and Congregation Shearith Israel’s L’Chaim Group for adults 55+.
Synagogues are increasingly reaching out to their young adult members.
Melissa Kaplan, co-chair of CSI’s NextGen group, said that while “typically most people join a shul when their kids need Sunday school, our group is made up of young adults and young families with babies and preschool age children.” In addition, NextGen members regularly attend Friday night services and Tot Shabbat “to build our community on a weekly basis,” said Ellen Rothburd, Kaplan’s co-chair.
Congregation Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Ilan Feldman said, “It’s my firm belief that there is great value in large groups of people of different orientation coming together to mimic the larger klal Yisrael, but it is always important for large groups to allow smaller groups of common interest to take place.” The Orthodox synagogue’s group Wiser Women focuses mostly on senior citizens. BJ also holds periodic meetings for Empty Nesters, couples whose children are no longer living at home.
In 2013, the Union for Reform Judaism formulated a plan of action to more fully engage membership in their 900 affiliated synagogues across North America, “Engaging Congregants: A URJ Resource and Discussion Guide to Move Your Congregation Forward,” with suggestions on how to formulate small groups.
Rabbi Lydia Medwin, director of congregational engagement and outreach at The Temple, co-authored a new book, “The Relational Judaism Handbook: How to Create a Relational Engagement Campaign to Build and Deepen Relationships in Your Community.”
She said small groups like those in Temple Connect Groups at The Temple are “a way to creatively engage with your own Jewish life with greater meaning and relevance.”
Jamie Boettcher, membership and engagement director at Temple Sinai, said Sinai Circles such as Deep Dive Torah Study and Wine Tasters are small groups, ideally between 8 and 15 people, that “offer an ideal way to engage and connect more intimately and meaningfully in a larger and diverse synagogue community.”
Margo Gold, past international president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said “groups are a wonderful way to create deeper personal connections, expand interests and explore new areas of involvement in relationship with others.”
Referring to the popularity of chavurot in the 1960s, Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Gesher L’Torah said small groups often “combine a social aspect with learning and prayer.”
When Nikki and Roger Goodstein became empty nesters, they started a hiking group at Temple Kol Emeth called the TKE Trekkers. “We hike locally usually within 30 minutes of TKE. Our hikes are 3 ½ miles, start at 9 and usually end by 11:30 or 12. All ages of adults and dogs are welcome,” Nikki Goodstein said.
Diane Weinberg, a Sunday morning regular at Congregation Beth Shalom’s Knit & Kvetch Group, said “a lot of tikkun olam occurs when items are made for others or for charitable organizations.”
One thing is clear about the synagogue groups around Atlanta: Those with similar interests seem to be finding that they open the doors to new friendships in a warm, welcoming Jewish environment.