Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shul on a Shoestring

 Creating and Sustaining a Jewish Community in Tough Economic Times

Dressing the torah with Service Leader, Rena Morano.
“Everybody’s hurting,” is the one thing that politicians can agree on and for synagogues throughout United States, the lament rings true.  In fact, only one half of all American Jews are members of synagogues and only 8% of the membership attends on a regular basis, i.e. at least twice a month.

To add insult to injury, philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman, of the World Jewish Congress confessed, “I don’t like going to synagogue. I generally find the atmosphere stultifying, the services overly long, boringly repetitive and mostly without meaning to the young Jews of today.”

These were the challenges faced by Bradenton, Florida’s Congregation Ner Tamid, a rabbinically advised, lay led small congregation that set out to meet the needs of disaffected Jews, many of whom were tired of the constant appeal for funds and fed up with synagogue politics that created a less than pleasant atmosphere within many synagogues of all Jewish denominations.

Ner Tamid, which in Hebrew means, “Eternal Light,” began 8 years ago and started as most new congregations do, when a small group, dissatisfied with Jewish business as usual, decided to create a new community.  But unlike other split-off groups, Ner Tamid did not fall into what Einstein called the definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Ner Tamid founding members: Shepards and Solomons.
Instead Ner Tamid’s founders examined the pros and cons of traditional synagogue organization and made the conscious decision to create a congregation that was vibrant, accessible and affordable for Jewish and Jewish interfaith families. 

“From the beginning I have served as Ner Tamid’s rabbinic advisor,” says Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who helped create the foundation of the shul.  The largest single expense for any synagogue is the rabbi’s salary, says Rabbi Aiello, “so the first thing we tackled was eliminating the need for a full-time full service rabbi.” 

With founding members Elaine Mittler and Miriam Gooslby (z”l), Aiello suggested that another founder, Rena Morano, be asked to serve as lay leader for the fledgling congregation.  Morano, an experienced Jewish educator, had worked previously with Rabbi Aiello.  The two knew each other well and shared the same commitment that Shabbat and festival services should be accessible and participatory so that young and old, and Jewish and interfaith members could share in the experience. 

Ner Tamid's Purim spiel, Jews in the Jungle.
When Aiello left Florida to take a pulpit in Milan, Italy, the Board and the rabbi continued to work together continent to continent.  “The internet is a wonderful thing,” says Morano who regularly communicated with the rabbi as they planned festivals and other special events together.

On the financial front, Board Chair Elaine Mittler reinforced Ner Tamid’s commitment to affordability by finding a centrally located building that agreed to share space with the fledgling shul. “We determined what our rent would be and then asked everyone to donate two dollars at the door.  We did this before lighting the Shabbat candles so that everyone would feel comfortable and every week we covered our costs.” 

When it came time to announce a membership drive, dues were kept at an affordable level. “With no rabbi’s salary to cover and no building fund or maintenance fee, we could ask that families donate at first $54 and then $72 for an annual membership.” 

Rabbi Aiello and Service Leader Morano shared ideas for organizing services and special events, and together they planned congregational experiences ranging from rousing Purim parties (The Jews of the Old West, The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean and Fashion and the Jewish Influence) to High Holy Day services where parents, children and grandparents all take a part.

Maddie portrays founders of Suriname's early synagogue in the Purim play.
The rabbi’s presence within the congregation has varied throughout the years and has included special lectures and, at congregational request, the rabbi has officiated at life cycle events. Rena Morano, as service leader, has tapped the rabbi’s expertise at officiating at funerals and memorials, baby namings, weddings and  B’nei Mitzvah celebrations and today Morano, who also serves as director for Ner Tamid’s Hebrew school and adult education program, conducts the majority of these life cycle events on her own.

What makes it work and work so well?  Beyond the commitment to keep costs down, the Ner Tamid Board, the lay leadership and the rabbinic advisor are all on the same page. “We see how synagogues are suffering,” says Aiello. “Membership is in decline and as more traditionally organized synagogues must continue the donation drum beat, spirituality is lost in the din.”

Not so with Ner Tamid.  Certainly the congregation has its struggles, but above all there’s that “meshpucha” feeling that never fades. One interfaith couple who are long time Ner Tamid members put it well when they said, “At Ner Tamid we feel accepted for who and what we are. We’ve found loving and caring people.” Others agree. “It’s a feeling that we’re all in this together,” says one long time member. “We work together and year after year we pull it off.”

*To contact Congregation Ner Tamid, see

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