Fostering an Environment of Inclusivity and Accessibility at Agudas Achim Congregation

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Members of Agudas Achim gather at a member’s house for “Hanukkah in the Hood” Photo Courtesy.

Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexendria has been working hard over the past few years to provide a synagogue experience that brings people in and provides them with the tools to comfortably join the congregation, with a variety of methods that include changing the dues system, introducing a young families program and working on adopting a regional diversity initiative to improve inclusivity.

These changes have allowed the congregation to grow dramatically over the past several years. Since they changed their dues model, the congregation has grown in size every year, with their number of member families rising over the last decade from around 500 to 567 as of their most recent count, according to Agudas Achim President Arden Levy.

“Our membership has grown, in particular with our young professionals, younger singles and young married [couples] who don’t have children yet, and that’s an extremely hard cohort to attract. So, we just feel great about this,” Levy said.

Levy explained how the switch from a conventional dues system to what she called “community commitment” allowed people to be able to participate without having to make a big financial commitment.

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Instead of paying dues based on a variety of demographic factors, members make a financial contribution and commitment, which allows for a lot more flexibility for congregants as they look to join the community and stay attached to the synagogue.
Another key factor in getting people more involved is through the recent inclusion of a young families program in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which has improved outreach and seen families with young children show up in
higher numbers.

“It’s funded by Federation, and its young family programming for anyone who wants to come. So, we get lots of non-members, people who are curious, and so we don’t track whether some of those people come to our young families program and then decide to join afterward,” Levy said. “But what we do know is that we have a much larger group of very young families, preschool age and younger children, that come to our High Holiday events and our services in the building on a regular basis.”

Levy added that being able to provide these services to a wide range of families is good for the whole community, even if it doesn’t always directly impact their membership numbers.
Agudas Achim is also working to increase diversity at the synagogue through the adoption of an initiative called SEA Change, which is geared toward increasing inclusion with a focus on racial diversity, special needs and other groups often left out.

“A group in the synagogue began the process of looking at inclusion with a focus on racial inclusion, both internally and externally, but also broader inclusion, not necessarily focused on special needs, but just, who is the community? We want the community for everyone who wants to be a part of our community,” Levy said.

Levy added that several other synagogues in the region are also participating in this initiative and that it’s growing.

The Federation is enrolling about three new synagogues in the program every iteration, and this is the third one they’ve done, according to Doug Fagan, one of the leaders of the SEA task force at Agudas Achim.

Fagan said that while the Agudas Achim community was already one with good inclusivity and an accepting mindset, there were a lot of possibilities to expand further upon that with this program, and that brought a lot of excitement to the community.

“The intention is to make synagogue communities more inclusive and focused on racial equity and social justice. So really, the whole intention is to make our synagogues much more welcoming to everybody, no matter how they present, which is what got me excited about the program,” Fagan said.

He added that the internal Agudas Achim task force has been looking at potential partnerships with interfaith and social justice groups. They’ve also spent several months interviewing about 40 members of the congregation to see where room for potential improvement with inclusivity efforts may lie.

Fagan said that the task force had their last meeting on Dec. 17 and will take some time to review what they learned before making a recommendation about things they can improve to the synagogue’s board members.

It’s all part of an environment that Agudas Achim is looking to create where they can be welcoming to as many people as possible and create a large, friendly community that’s able to grow with demographic trends and societal ones as well.

“We’re very closely connected to the synagogue. I’m proud of it and I’m proud of our congregants,” Levy said.

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