Six-in-10 U.S. synagogues from two major traditions within Judaism are either growing or maintaining membership levels, according to a Faith Communities Today report published on May 17.
The data in the report was provided by the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, which together comprise 54% of synagogues in the U.S.
“Our survey does not include Orthodox Judaism, which is institutionally more diverse and harder to survey, therefore; nor does it include significantly smaller movements (Reconstructionist Judaism and The Alliance for Jewish Renewal [Aleph]) and unaffiliated or emergent synagogues of various sorts,” the report said.
Four-in-10 of the surveyed synagogues reported growth, while 20% said they are “holding steady” and 40% of the synagogues affiliated with these two groups reported membership decline.
The report suggested that willingness to move locations was a potential factor in the 60% of the synagogues surveyed either growing or holding steady. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of all synagogues have relocated during their history.
In the 2020 survey, 5% of all synagogues said they do not have a permanent location, with the report calling this “a trend we need to watch.”
Explaining that worship attendance isn’t a workable measure for synagogues because they “base membership on communal identity,” the report sought to assess vitality by asking if the following definition accurately described each respondent’s synagogue:
“A thriving synagogue readily attracts, involves, and retains members and participants. It is financially sound. Thriving synagogues are dynamically heading toward their future. They have a clear sense of purpose and a vision and plan for fulfilling it. They are on the move, and members and participants are excited about the possibilities for the future of their synagogue.”
Respondents were very positive in their assessment, with a strong majority (83%) affirming that their synagogue fits this definition.
“Because synagogue staff and clergy were likely overrepresented among the respondents, it is probable that the 83% figure for ‘overall vitality’ is somewhat inflated,” the report said. “But barring outright and large-scale self-denial, the very optimism reflected in the response is itself encouraging.”
The same number (83%) either agree (48%) or strongly agree (35%) that their synagogue is “willing to change to meet new challenges.” This is a notable increase from the 2010 survey, when only 4% agreed.
An area for growth and change among U.S. synagogues is their engagement with young Jewish adults. A majority of respondents (55%) said their synagogue has no emphasis on engaging this age group, while 38% said they have some and 8% a lot.
Most congregational rabbis (75%) in U.S. synagogues are over 50, with a plurality (43%) aged 51-60. Among the rabbis 50 or younger, 19% are aged 40-50 and 6% are under 40.
A majority (62%) of congregational rabbis in the Reform tradition are male (data was not available for Conservative congregational rabbis.). However, a majority (55%) of all Reform ordinees in the last decade have been women.
The full report is available here.