The following article appeared in a special 2014 issue of Reform Judaism entitled, “Strengthening Congregations: A Symposium”. It is being published here with the permission of the Union of Reform Judaism.
Today’s most successful synagogues share six faces:
- Successful synagogues link people to what matters in life.
Engagement goes to the heart of what successful congregations strive to achieve, not as an end in itself but as a means to creating the relationships that build communities in which Judaism confers meaning to life and opens the door to making a difference in the world. When a congregation creates sacred relationships, fosters Jewish meaning, and helps people make a real impact, people become and remain engaged. When they are so engaged, a self-reinforcing “virtuous cycle” is created in which each investment of mind and heart feels so worthwhile that people seek to engage more often and more deeply.
- Successful congregations are intentional.
Having a vision statement and/or list of core values is neither new nor sufficient. Successful congregations, whether or not they have statements or lists, act with vision in keeping with their values consistently and over the long term–not just for a few weeks or months after a statement is written.
A successful synagogue has at its core a clear set of shared values and a vision that communicate what the community aspires to be and for what it stands. By not trying to be all things to all people, it attracts those who want to be part of realizing that vision in their own lives, and who seek like-minded people with whom to form and sustain a community. Being part of a particular congregation means something when that congregation stands for something.
In an intentional congregation that values relationships governance is not top-down or secretive–it is open and collaborative. Leaders who regard Judaism as a source of meaning in life are guided in their governance and daily management decisions by Jewish values with the understanding that the synagogue is not a business. When faced with a challenge, they not only look at best principles and practices of other synagogues or organizations, but also at Jewish texts and tradition.
Belonging to a sacred community means treating one another with care and kindness in board meetings, in the religious school, in contract negotiations, and from the bimah. A person’s status in the congregation is measured on the basis of his or her adherence to those values, not on the size of his/her financial contributions. In successful synagogues, you can sense alignment between intention and action in all aspects of congregational life, decision making, and culture. It’s in the air of a successful congregation. You can feel it from the moment you walk in.
- Successful synagogues regard “members” as parties to a covenant (b’rit), not as consumers of a set of services.
The people who are part of successful congregations forge rich and nuanced relationships with one another, with the community (synagogue, local, national, world), with their Judaism, with God, and with Israel. They express and enact these relationships through learning, service, prayer, contemplation, and deeds of lovingkindness. They support one another in times of joy and trial. They feel both needed and served by the community. In the best of circumstances, this reciprocity matures from a simple transactional exchange to a sacred sense of covenantal relationship.
Congregants freely contribute to the ongoing support, maintenance, and financial needs of the congregation, not as a prescribed obligation, but because they value the role that the synagogue plays in their lives and they understand what it takes to create and maintain that kind of consequential community. The congregation thrives because it matters in the lives of its “members,” who view it as a vehicle to find and enact meaning in their lives and they see themselves intricately engaged in helping to make it thrive.
- Successful congregations build competence and confidence in Jewish practice and synagogue leadership.
In successful congregations, rather than “doing Jewish” for congregants, the clergy and professionals (if any–many of our smallest congregations are lay led) see their roles as resources, guides, and sources of inspiration. They invite people into the world of Jewish knowledge and practice, helping them to find their paths into a Jewish life they create. They strike a delicate and ever-dynamic balance between leading congregants to engage with and fulfill the congregation’s Jewish values and vision, while also responding to the needs, preferences, and current realities of the community. And they work to develop, empower, and support lay people to exercise leadership in a wide array of ways–not only in formal roles on a synagogue board or committee but also
in the day-to-day Jewish life and practice of the congregation. Congregants learn to lead prayer, chant Torah and Haftarah, facilitate text study, write and share a d’var Torah, lead motzi and birkat hamazon at synagogue events. They also learn to visit the sick and homebound, to comfort one another in loss, and to rejoice together in the high points of life.
- In successful synagogues, though congregational life may be centered at the synagogue, it is neither restricted to nor bound by the building.
Congregations with chavurot, small groups who meet in people’s homes to learn, socialize, and celebrate Shabbat or Jewish holidays together, get the idea that Jewish living is not confined to the synagogue. Other congregations are learning from Temple Israel of Boston’s Riverway Project or North Shore Congregation Israel’s Beyond and Back how to reach out to young adults, meeting them “where they are geographically, developmentally, and spiritually,” and engaging them in creating experiences that they value.
- Successful synagogues adapt and innovate.
In successful synagogues both the leaders and the members are eager to try new things and ready to experiment and learn from experience. They are confident enough to let go of past habits and wise enough to hold onto what’s core to who they are. These congregations constantly reflect on what they are doing and achieving, and compare it to their vision and values. They rejoice when something they do is pitch-perfect and are brutally honest with themselves when they fall short. They are, as negotiation experts William Ury and Roger Fisher would say, soft on the people and hard on the problem. They constantly look both inward and outward to gauge how the world around them is shifting and how well they are fulfilling their sacred task. And they are agile in innovating to meet new realities; they don’t hide their heads in the sand. They don’t blame or shame. They reflect, learn, and move forward.
I’ve seen well over 100 congregations work to re-imagine the way Jewish learning happens for their children, families, and, in some cases, adults. The most successful congregations engage in what my colleague Cyd Weissman, director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project, calls a “spiraling series of innovations in the direction of their vision.” They try something, learn from it, and try something else, all the while building on what they’ve learned about their learners, about Jewish education, about the community in which they live, about what’s working to create the kind of experience and results they are after.
One example: Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills, California is well-known for its innovative Shabbaton program–a Shabbat Family community that engaged families in learning that looked nothing like your parents’ religious school. Other synagogues have emulated and adapted the program. But after going through a renewed process of re-imagining Jewish learning, Beth Am decided to phase in a completely new set of educational experiences, including Connections
(an experimental program to establish small learning communities where children and parents develop deep and lasting friendships and work with a mentor to experience many opportunities to connect Jewish learning with Jewish living), Camp Beth Am (for 5th through 8th graders), and Avodah! Jewish Service Learning for teens. They weren’t afraid to sunset Shabbaton despite its national reputation.
Successful congregations treat each success as a stepping stone to the next greater success, always mindful of what’s changing around them. They don’t assume that yesterday’s answers fit tomorrow’s questions. They don’t say: “We changed once and now we’re done.” They constantly find new ways to get at what’s essential and timeless.
Dr. Rob Weinberg is a leader in the field of synagogue transformation and has served since 2001 as national director of the Experiments in Congregational Education (ECE), an initiative of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.