Look for Best Principles, Not Best Practices

(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the Union for Reform Judaism’s blog, Inside Leadership.)

Everyone wants an easy answer: “Tell us what to do, and we’ll do it!” synagogue leaders often plead – but given congregations’ varied histories, cultures, demographics, physical spaces, and resources, no single solution will work for every community. Even if it did, given the complex challenges presented by a fast-moving and rapidly changing world, a simple plug-in solution is unlikely to work for long.

Instead of trying to replicate best practices that seemed to work for another community, congregations should seek “best principles” to guide them in the work specific to their community’s needs. This shift from seeking practices to seeking principles is one of eight principles that drive strong congregations.

But what does this mean?

A best principle is a broad concept that, based on trends in the field, generally leads congregations to success. Best principles can and should be manifested in diverse ways, depending on each congregation’s individual needs, resources, and culture. A best practice represents the unique way a specific congregation successfully implements a certain principle.

To clarify this distinction, let’s look at a specific best principle: bringing the sacred to congregational deliberations. You might immediately think of the common congregational practice of giving a d’var Torah at a board or committee meeting, but many different practices can achieve this principle. Some congregations hold text study during their meetings; others ask board members to share stories about their Jewish identity; still others start with a blessing on the bimah and then move into another space for the meeting itself. Each one of these practices can bring Jewish text or ritual to leaders’ deliberations, and they all illustrate the same best principle of bringing the sacred into the work of congregational leadership.

Here’s another example that stems from a best principle of religious education – involving parents in their children’s Jewish education. Different congregations will use different practices to achieve these principles: Some use a model of family education in which parents join children for learning every week; others have intermittent family programming within a more traditional drop-off model. In each case, congregations have chosen the best way for them to include parents in their kids’ education.

Now that these two terms have been defined, how can your congregation use them?

  1. Uncover a best principle from another congregation’s best practice. Using the principle, figure out what practice is right for your community.

When connecting with leaders from other congregations, whether at the URJ Biennial, at URJ Community events, or in discussion groups in The Tent, you’ll learn about what’s working well for these congregations. If you try to implement the exact same things in your own congregation, though, you might find that they don’t work for you. At times, you’ll even know, immediately and intuitively, that these practices won’t work in your congregation. Maybe a different congregation hosted an outdoor event at a time of year when you can’t be outside. Maybe another congregation’s best practice requires a unique set of skills. In any case, by examining the other congregation’s success and asking why it was successful, you can begin to uncover principles and then find the practice that works for you.

For example, you might hear that a different congregation has significantly increased engagement of families with young children by holding free story time sessions at a local bookstore, led by a rabbi. The way to learn from this experience is not necessarily to replicate this exact practice, but rather to seek the principles at play by asking why it worked in the other congregation.

In this case, it might be that the best principle was to lower barriers to attending a program. While the local bookstore was perfect for another congregation, in your community a park or a coffee shop might be better. Alternatively, the best principle might have been to find the person with the right skills and stature in the community to lead programming for families with young children. While this congregation’s rabbi might be terrific at interacting with very young children, your rabbi might have other strengths. Therefore, your community’s implementation of this principle might be to have an engaging lay leader or a beloved teacher lead story time at the local park.

  1. Identify your practice from a given best principle.

When you are experimenting with ways to innovate in a certain facet of congregational life, you will be working on an opposite process – you will start with a given best principle and establish new best practices. For example, you might be experimenting with a new way to greet congregants at services. You know that the best principle is to hospitably acknowledge the presence of every person who is there. Turning to the person next to you to say, “Shabbat shalom!” might be getting old. If you stick to the best principle of acknowledging every person and continue experimenting, eventually you will get to a practice that works for you.

To date, the URJ has published guides that include best principles for engaging families with young children, engaging young adults, and reimagining financial support. We will continue to publish guides in other areas of congregational life. As you experiment and innovate, we hope to learn from you about why you have been successful, so that together, we can discover new best principles that help congregations stay strong, relevant, and innovative.


Amy Asin is the URJ’s Vice President and Director of Strengthening Congregations. She is a past president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA, and a former board member of URJ Camp Newman. Asin holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and spent 15 years consulting to Fortune 500 businesses with Booz, Allen & Hamilton.

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