In the five years before Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham arrived at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, the temple had lost about 20 percent of its membership.
In the roughly year and a half since Abraham took over, 24 new families have joined the temple. While that’s just about 15 percent of the membership, not enough to make up for the previous five years, Abraham thinks membership is still growing.
A major reason for the increase in membership is that Abraham is reaching out to those in outside communities.
“While I was in rabbinical school learning to become a rabbi, I was looking at the larger Jewish landscape,” he said. “If temples keep going like they used to, the synagogue world can fall apart. To survive now you have to think outside the box.”
For Abraham, this meant getting involved with outside agencies to draw more attention to the temple. He started with with the Jewish Outreach Institute under its Big Tent Judaism program, which teaches leaders to engage and welcome all to the teachings of Judaism. Additionally, Abraham and the temple are members in the Nyack Interfaith Clergy Association, a group of about 10 religious organizations based mostly in Nyack that meet to further understand their neighbors and other religions. The temple joined before Abraham was at Congregation Sons of Israel, when the association started hosting an annual Thanksgiving service which rotates between the congregations.
They started with an interfaith Thanksgiving service that rotates each year to a new location and it grew from there.
“What stemmed from this was the laypeople from the different congregations got together and said, ‘We really want to create something more than just on Thanksgiving’ and they created what’s been called an interfaith symposium,” Abraham said. “We began last spring with our first one at the Islamic Center [of Rockland] right here in Valley Cottage. We had a wonderful service and learning session there. This past fall had a learning session and service at Grace Episcopal Church here in Nyack.”
The next symposium is on Judaism and is being hosted by Congregation Sons of Israel and Temple Beth Torah. The event is Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Torah, located at 330 N. Highland Ave, Nyack. Abraham said the service should last about 30-45 minutes, giving those in the audience a chance to see what a typical Friday night Shabbat services looks like. It will be followed by a question and answer portion.
“The idea is for us to really get to know each other’s services,” Abraham said. “It’s a really great way to bring the community together in ways that haven’t been done before.”
It’s also a way to get people who might not be comfortable in a temple into a temple.
“There are people, even Jewish people, who are just scared to come to temple,” Abraham said. “So it becomes a situation where you’re trying to engage people who don’t want to come to the temple.”
This led to Abraham holding events away from the temple to try and engage with the public. He hosts annual events called Party On The Porch, where people in their 20s, 30s and 40s get together one night at Art Cafe in Nyack.
“It’s really relaxed,” Abraham said. “We schmooze and eat great Art Cafe food.”
He’s also held reading events at Barnes & Noble at the Palisades Mall around holidays where he teaches children the history of Jewish holidays. The temple also opened a preschool and offers an interfaith children’s music class, in which Abraham estimated about half of the children aren’t in families that are members of the temple.
“The only way to survive is to do these type of outreach events,” he said.
The temple has also hosts monthly discussions as part of its Visions Lecture Series, with topics ranging from equality in Israel to the LGBT Jewish community.
But Abraham isn’t just getting new members for the temple out of all his outreach. He’s learning about other religions and helping to build up the local community, a big reason he said he especially enjoys the interfaith symposiums.
“When we had the service at the Islamic Center, to me, I was amazed by how many similarities there are between Islam and Judaism,” he said. “For two religions that in a different part of the world in the Middle East seem to clash over political differences, religiously we’re so similar and even in just the amount of times a day that we pray and the way the service is structured and who we’re praying to. They’re essentially having the same stories, just taught slightly differently.”