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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776
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Renaissance Groups

Reform Jewish congregations throughout North America are facing the challenge of a changing congregational demographic. An unprecedented number of members are over the age of 50, including many "empty nesters". Increasingly, congregations are facing the challenge of retaining these members as active participants, once their children are no longer the ties that bind them to temple life. Congregations are learning more and more how to capture the interests and tap the energy of this growing segment of their membership.

While congregations have traditionally focused membership recruitment and programming on young families, many are surprised that the number of congregants and new members over age 50 exceeds those who are younger.

Renaissance Groups provide a framework for offering creative programming and activities to this growing segment of members, and for creating a viable constituency from which to draw volunteers and supporters.

What are Renassaince Groups?

Renaissance Groups are affinity groups under temple auspices created specifically to meet the needs of the segment of a congregation who are "empty nesters" in their middle years. Born as a grass-roots movement in the Union's New Jersey/West Hudson Valley Region, there are now about 35 active Renaissance Groups that have taken root since the program began in 1989.

As a membership retention program, Renaissance Groups bring together the demographic component of a congregation whose children's education is no longer the reason they are affiliated with a congregation or the tie that binds them to temple life. Frequently, the need to send their children to religious school is the motivation for many families to affiliate with a temple. However, unless there is something else to hold their interest, many families terminate their membership when their children have completed the requirements for B’nai Mitzvah and/or Confirmation and have left home for higher education and careers.

Renaissance Groups offer an alternative motivation for the parents to stay active in the temple. Rather than leave the congregation, many of these "empty nesters" now participate in peer-oriented social, educational, cultural, and recreational activities that keep them interested and involved in temple life. In addition, many congregations can document increased membership thanks to their Renaissance programs that offer non-family-focused alternatives. Because most Renaissance Groups do not emphasize fundraising, they differ from other temple affiliate organizations such as a Sisterhood or Men’s Club.

Renaissance Group membership is focused on temple members who are “fiftysomethingplus” – whether married or single, employed or retired. Programming ideas and planning is most often shared by the group.

Why Renaissance Groups?
Changing demographics in many congregations have resulted in a growing proportion of members who are over age 50 and/or who are “empty nesters.” Yet, many temples continue to emphasize programming for younger families, thus causing older members to feel alienated, lose interest and ultimately leave the congregation. Therefore, Renaissance Groups can be part of a successful Membership Retention Program.
  • Renaissance Group activities are specifically intended to meet the changing social needs, lifestyles and interests of those congregants in their middle years who are “empty nesters.”
  • Appropriate programming for congregants who are in the 50-plus age group can offer a social, educational and religious alternative to retain them as active members.
  • Congregations that have Renaissance Groups have reported that fewer members are leaving when their children’s religious education is completed.
  • Many temples have reported that their membership has increased among the “empty nester” age group because of the presence of a Renaissance Group
  • Newer congregants in their middle years without children at home are seeking non-family-oriented activities that can help them get more out of a temple’s social, educational and religious life.
  • Renaissance Group members tend to attend services more regularly, often as a group.
  • They can be likened to a Chavurah – only larger.
  • Renaissance programs offer older congregants an opportunity to explore new friendships and interests within their congregation.

Renaissance Groups can provide a valuable contribution to the congregation. While, social, educational and cultural programming may draw them in, once they are active Renaissance members, they are more likely to participate in service-oriented activities that benefit the congregation.

  • Renaissance Groups offer synagogues a cadre of willing and available congregants to draw upon when help is needed.
    • Renaissance Group members frequently have the time to volunteer their services since many are retired.
  • Renaissance Group members have demonstrated strong loyalty to the temple.
  • Renaissance Group members may be long-time members of a congregation who have been around and “know the ropes.”
    • Because of their extensive experience, as well as business and professional acumen, they can - and should - be tapped for their expertise.
    • Renaissance members can become part of a successful mentoring program for newer congregants.
  • Renaissance Groups give temples the opportunity to offer programming to promote multigenerational fusion.
    • Many Renaissance Groups participate in “surrogate grandparent” programs that pair Renaissance members with Religious School students.
  • Renaissance members use fewer of the temple resources than younger families.
  • Members of Renaissance Groups often have greater financial resources to contribute to a temple than do younger families.
How to Start a Renaissance Group in Your Congregation

Meet with the temple Membership Committee and/or Board of Trustees to determine whether a Renaissance Group is appropriate for your congregation.

  • Do you have a population of “empty nesters?”
  • Do member families seem to leave or lose interest once their children have completed religious school?
  • Are older members becoming less involved in temple life?
  • Do you have programming for other specific age groups (i.e. Young Couples Club; Senior Citizens/Retirees, etc.)?

It is essential for Renaissance Groups to have the support of clergy as well as temple officers.

  • Renaissance Groups should be considered a valuable temple affiliate on a par with other temple standing organizations.
  • The Renaissance Chair should have a designated seat on the temple board

Secure budgetary support of temple Board

  • Seed money
  • Annual subsidy
  • Subsidy for specific programming

Schedule and host an organizational meeting

  • Send announcements -- via t bulletin, general congregation mailing, or targeted mailing to specific demographic population that represents potential Renaissance Group members

Decide on the purpose/objectives of the Renaissance Group

  • Social, educational, cultural, religious, temple/community volunteer service, fundraising, etc.

Develop criteria for Renaissance Group membership

  • While each group sets its own requirements for membership, most are open to
    • Members of the congregation only
    • Congregants in the “50-plus” age group
      • Minimum age is generally agreed upon as a criterion for membership but most Renaissance Groups do not set a maximum age.
    • Empty-nesters
    • Both couples and singles
    • Congregants either working or retired

Decide on Administrative Structure

  • Renaissance Groups can choose the administrative framework that works best for them:
    • Chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, treasurer, program chairperson, etc.
    • Steering Committee with rotating responsibilities
  • It is suggested that administrative responsibilities be shared by more than two people
    • To encourage greater participation of membership
  • Plan for leadership succession

Determine annual dues

  • Dues should be modest
    • Most Renaissance Groups set annual dues at $10 per person, although some charge as much as $15-$20 per person
  • Dues can be used to subsidize expenses for programs.
  • Dues can entitle paid members to special and/or discounted programs and activities.
  • Establish separate bank account or accounting system so that Renaissance Group funds can be kept separate from other temple accounts.

Establish Program Planning Committee

  • Determine optimum number of activities per year
    • Some groups hold regular monthly meetings/programs.
    • Some groups plan only 4 – 6 programs per year.
  • Share planning and execution of all activities/events.
    • Solicit volunteer coordinators for individual events.
  • Gather suggestions for programs and activities
    • Discuss interests of potential members
    • Circulate questionnaire, if desired
    • Actual activities will vary according to the interests of members, types of other temple activities offered, programs available in the community within reasonable proximity to temple, etc.

Set calendar

  • Scheduling should not conflict with other similar temple activities
  • Rabbi and/or temple Ritual Committee should advise whether events can be scheduled on Shabbat
  • Initial event should be social and should be geared toward attracting new members
    • Make dues the “price” of admission.

Publicize Renaissance Group activities

  • Use general temple mailings/bulletin to publicize all Renaissance Group events
    • To ensure the widest audience is aware of the programs

Tips to gain and sustain Renaissance Group membership

  • Send annual dues bill along with schedule of programs at start of temple calendar year
  • Send invitation to join Renaissance Group when a temple member reaches qualifying age
    • Offer free dues for first year
  • Promote Renaissance Group activities through regular column in temple bulletin
  • Publish and distribute special Renaissance Group newsletter
Sample Materials

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