Synagogue to open Jewish outreach center

With almost 90 percent of Broward County's Jewish community not affiliated with a synagogue, Ramat Shalom in Plantation will open The Sam and Laura Hoffman Center for Jewish Life in September to provide spiritual direction and perform Jewish life cycle events for the growing number of Jews who have not made a synagogue a part of their lives.

The unaffiliated rate is "getting higher and higher," said Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs, who will direct the project. "We can make a difference in the face of Judaism and how people relate to their Judaism," said Jacobs, who is married to Ramat Shalom's Rabbi Andrew Jacobs.

Cheryl Jacobs is mindful of the many organizations that offer classes and programs for the unaffiliated. The outreach center is "just another option," she said. "Certainly there is enough learning going around."

The success of The Sam and Laura Hoffman Center for Jewish Life "sort of depends on where the minds lie," Jacobs said. "I guess we will be a test case."

The idea for an outreach center began to germinate last year when Rabbi Andrew Jacobs studied at the Clal (The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership) in New York City. Rabbis in the program discussed the future of the Jewish community and how it would survive, Andrew Jacobs said.

"The synagogue as we know it as a membership model is not going to be the synagogue 10 years from now," he said. "The synagogue has to change the way we do business."

Some of Broward County's unaffiliated Jews cannot afford membership in a synagogue, some have no interest in membership and others want to be involved in the synagogue without being members, Jacobs said. "Membership isn't the key. It's involvement."

At the same time, there are individuals who want to be synagogue members, so Ramat Shalom will keep the "hybrid model," Jacobs said.

The outreach center will offer "a la carte Judaism," he said. People will choose the classes and lifestyle services (baby naming, b'nai mitzvah, wedding, funeral) that they want, Jacobs explained. "You pay for it as you go."

The Center will also organize special programs on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover.

Jacobs hopes the program will "knock down a lot of the borders that prevent 90 percent of our community from participating in Judaism."

Cheryl Jacobs said the outreach project is not seen as a way for Ramat Shalom to get new members. But, she said, "If you can give people an experience where they feel truly wanted and heard and respected, it is entirely possible that they will affiliate." She added, "If you can give people a positive religious experience, it is possible they will try again."

Ramat Shalom congregant Craig Lamm is underwriting the start-up costs for the outreach program named in memory of his maternal grandparents, Sam and Laura Hoffman.

"We have a gap there," Lamm said. "People aren't joining [synagogues]." There are people in the community who will never join a synagogue but want a Jewish life, he added. Lamm said he wants to "allow people to be Jewish in their own ways. Fee for service," he said, "is as simple as you can get.

"There's a side door of the synagogue," Lamm said, "and everybody should be welcomed in."

Dr. Ron Wolfson, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a consultant to synagogues, said he doesn't know of any synagogues that have started an outreach center like that at Ramat Shalom, although a number are ramping up their outreach programs.

The question for synagogues is how to organize what they are doing for outreach and to put a value on those services, Wolfson said. "I think it's exciting that a synagogue is thinking creatively about offering their services in a different kind of way to engage people."

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