Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chapter Seven: Getting Started

Chapter Seven: Getting Started

If you have read this far, and see all the work that synagogues need to do to turn themselves around, you may despair that your synagogue can be saved. Your board will never go for all of this, your membership is uninterested and the atmosphere at meetings is toxic to put it mildly. Maybe you are one of those members of the leadership of your congregation and you don't think that what has been proposed here has any merit and you think that synagogues are fine just the way they are. The facts of synagogue life, however, are hard to ignore. Membership is declining, financial resources are declining, volunteerism is declining and the situation in your congregation seems to get worse every year.

You don't have to believe all that I have said, but clearly the status quo has got to change. Can restoring synagogues be this easy? Can it be, at the same time, so hard? It is only a matter of time before all congregations that have not yet struggled with the issues I have outlined, will have to confront the serious challenges that the twenty-first century presents. When a synagogue is ready to change there will be many on the board, some new and some old timers, who will be asking “what can we do to save our synagogue?” Here are some final thoughts on synagogues and change.

First of all remember that synagogues did not get this way overnight and they will not change overnight either. Even corporate turnarounds can take three to five years. Be patient, plan carefully, get support from anyone who shares your goals and be persistent. I think that it is only fair to warn you, however, that those who work hard to bring about synagogue change are often called upon to be a synagogue president. This can be very rewarding work but it is not for the faint of heart. My father used to say that “if you don't know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” First have a plan, a vision of what the end will look like, the more concrete the vision the better; and then go step by step to reach the goal.

Do not let your own ego convince you that you know best what the synagogue needs. Gather together those who want more from the congregation and share ideas and approaches. Synagogues can't be changed by bullies who demand “my way or the highway”. We need to build bridges and make people feel that their input and work are welcome. Collaborate on the vision and on the changes needed to get there. Inspire others; don't dictate. Build bridges to others instead of building a fiefdom of your own. We once had an accountant who would come to the congregational budget meeting and literally go over every single line of the budget, making the meeting long, tedious and not as productive as it should have been. A budget meeting is where the congregation funds its priorities. We did not send this man out of the meeting. We actually invited him to be a part of the budget committee so he could have a say in each line of the budget as it was being written. The next year, at the budget meeting, he was the biggest supporter of the budget since he had a hand in creating it. Don't drive away your gadflies; make them a part of the program.

To really change a synagogue you will need everyone's help. Think about surveys, parlor meetings, lunch discussions after services. Talk to the minyan attendees, the Shabbat regulars, the Sisterhood members, the Men's Club members, the Gift Shop volunteers, the Religious School parents, whoever makes up a niche in the synagogue and give them a voice in shaping the future. Not every idea will be a good one but there will still be many good ideas offered. Don't let any good idea get away, and anyone who is willing to help should be given the opportunity to help. If everyone is not welcome, then you will soon be working against yourself.

There are some people who will stonewall any changes. Do all you can to bring them into the program. Sometimes, however, it is impossible. There are members who will leave the synagogue because it is “not the same shul I joined years ago”. This is a sad thing, but it happens. If it is someone who has done a lot of work for the shul, make sure that someone writes a thank you note for all their service. Tell them that you miss them. But eventually, they will have to let the change come. If not, there really isn't much you can do. They are entitled to their opinions and if they feel the need to go elsewhere, there is nothing that can be done to stop them (unless you stop the synagogue renewal program).

There is no substitute for having a plan and being consistent in your changes. Sometimes changes happen rapidly, sometimes they take a long time. There will be bottlenecks that, when they clear, will open up a time of significant changes. There will be setbacks that could take some time to clear. In congregations where there is a set progression of officers, where each member of the executive board is moved up each election until he or she becomes president, it could take a number of years before reform minded officers become members of the executive board. Work on other aspects of synagogue life; for example, work on making your congregation more welcoming as you wait for a more accepting governing committee.

Most of all, never forget that you are doing holy work. If it all falls apart and you are the one who decides that it is time to leave your congregation and find a new spiritual home, do not despair. A failure is only when you can't find any lessons to learn from what has happened. Somewhere there is a congregation that will meet your needs and will be a place where you can fill your potential as a Jew. Maybe, with your friends, you will start something new in your living room. Maybe you will find new friends in a different congregation where the leadership is not so entrenched. Maybe you will discover a dying congregation where they are willing to take a chance and do something radically different to save themselves. Only God knows the future. What is important is that you remain open to new ways to serve God. We learn from the Torah, the scroll that is central to our lives, that even though the people never enter the Promised Land, they traveled together and they supported each other and most of all, they trusted in God.

May God bless you in all that you do for our faith and for your community.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Growing a Synagogue Part Six - Some Final Thoughts

Community Organizing

A Rabbi, Cantor, Jewish Educator, or a teacher can only be in so many places at once. Because these professionals are so important to the Jewish world we need to use these precious resources wisely. The principles of community organizing teach us that if each professional can train 5-10 others as par-professionals, who in turn lead another group of 5-10, the growth in Jewish activities grows exponentially. Our trained Jewish leaders can have a far greater impact on the wider Jewish community. Over a serious of years, this leadership core can become an important part of how the new Jewish community operates.

Rabbi Harold Shulweiss first talked about Rabbinic Para-professionals about twenty years ago. Their roles was to be like the judges of parshat Yitro, trained to address the everyday concerns of the Jewish people and using the Rabbi to address larger or more difficult issues. In the world of Cantors, volunteers would be trained to lead daily and Shabbat auxiliary services freeing up the Cantor to both compose new music and bring new musical possibilities to the congregation. These Cantors would not just be a pretty voice, but a true music professional coordinating all the musical resources the congregation has at its disposal. The same kind of system could also be used to create Jews who can lead others in learning and growing Jewishly.

This community organizing principle can also work in the area of fundraisng as well. The more people a congregation can touch, the more opportunities there will be for contributions and volunteer activity. As I described earlier, a community of different vaadot (different missions) under one roof, all can work together to provide for the common institution that stands behind them. The wider the net we spread, the greater the participation in our mission and the greater the financial possibilities.

What is important is to put people before finances and involvement before dues. I do not, for one minute believe that synagogues can operate without proper financial funding. But it must not and can not be the motivating factor if we are looking to increase participants and interest in our programs. First comes the engagement, only later will the financial resources come. One thing is for sure, we can no longer mortgage the future of our synagogue to big beautiful buildings. We need to use the building we have more efficiently and perhaps partner with those who have extra building space to keep our costs down. We can not afford to take literally anymore, the slogan “If you build it, they will come”.

Final Thoughts

1. Non profit organizations are complicated institutions. I know that sounds obvious, but we also must understand that no two organizations are exactly alike and no two synagogues share exactly the same issues. While there are issues that all congregations share, there are also significant ways they differ. Congregations in an urban setting do have fundamental differences from synagogues in the suburbs. Large city synagogues are different from small town shuls. Congregations with large memberships do not see the world the same as do congregations with smaller memberships. I have tried to keep things generic in my discussions here but remains the responsibility of the leadership of the organization to pick and choose the sections that speak to their issues and pass by the sections that do not seem relevant.

It is important, though, to be aware that while your congregation may not feel like it shares some of these problems, a third party or some other outside adviser may think that the leadership is fooling itself if they think they are immune from some of the problems I have outlined above. It is very easy for congregational leadership to want to stick to what they know and ignore the signs that times have changed and that they are falling very far behind. Sometimes everyone on a synagogue board “knows” what the problems are and has their own pet project that will solve all the problems in one swoop. Maybe they have a good idea and maybe their idea may work for your congregation. What I am proposing, however, is not a “cure all pill” for synagogues, but a long term program for synagogue renewal and growth. Nothing happens quickly. A synagogue does not get in trouble quickly, it takes years to really get into trouble and it will take years to dig out of the hole. Anyone who promises a quick fix should be greeted with a raised eyebrow.

The first step before using any part of this book is to take a good hard look at your community demographics. Some suburban areas don't have the influx of singles that can be found in urban or near urban areas. University towns and those with large numbers of transient people, for example tourist destinations or large medical school/hospital, will have different needs than those who are in more stable communities. Congregations also get pegged for being the place where one demographic is preferred over another. One congregation may have a great deal of success dealing with those who retired or nearly retired and then may find it hard to attract a younger population. As I mentioned earlier, congregations with couples and families often have a difficult time welcoming singles into their community. If an established synagogue suddenly finds itself surrounded by a growing community of Jews who are radically different than the current population, i.e. immigrants from Israel, Hispanic Jews, gay and lesbian Jews etc.; it can be hard to welcome those who somehow were never welcomed before. What is important is to recognized the changes and challenges that the new realities present and then face them head on. Prejudice and bigotry will kill a congregation. Turning away members because they don't fit a stereotype of “those who are members here” could explain why your synagogue is struggling. If we close our eyes or our hearts to those who are seeking Jewish community because they don't look or act like us, or because they have new ideas that we don't like, will mean that we will be turning away our best members. As Rabbi Akiva said, “Don't look at the flask, rather pay attention to what is inside.”
We need to establish that our congregations are open to all, to singles and couples, families and childless couples, young and old, men and women, gay and straight, black, white and yellow, Jew by birth and Jew by choice. It is not good enough to have the community segmented into different groups that never talk to each other. Social Action projects are one way that all elements of the community can gather together and get some good work done. We need to build bridges between communities and not keep them apart. If we can reach out to all groups of Jews who are in our community, we will be blessed with a strong membership and one that is loyal to the congregation that has given them a spiritual home. In the 1960's, there was one congregation on Miami Beach that welcomed Jewish refugees from Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power. These refugees were so thankful for the welcom that this congregation gave them that they continued their membership long after they became successful and moved away and even after they joined another synagogue. It is important that we not overlook this kind of loyalty that comes from being welcoming and accepting.

2. Synagogues must be continually motivating their staff and volunteers to work for the institution. One would think that Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, Youth Directors and Executive Directors as well as the Teachers and Classroom Aides, would need no more motivation than their monthly paycheck. This is a wrong assumption. Every member of a synagogue staff could easily make more money in some other related occupation. Clergy and staff work for synagogues because they believe in the work that is done in synagogues and have dedicated their lives to it. While everyone needs to make sure that they are taking care of their families, synagogue work rarely pays enough to really compensate for the hours and stress that come with congregational work (full disclosure: Just a reminder, I am a pulpit Rabbi who has almost all of my working life in synagogues and my wife's career is in Jewish Education. My knowledge of staff motivations come from my own family and from the motivations of those whom I have had the pleasure of working with over these many years.) Contract negotiations can be difficult for both the congregation and the Staff. If we treat our staff with respect and appreciation for the work that they do, it will make a profound difference in the way they conduct themselves on behalf of the synagogue. I know that there are staff members who have not fulfilled their responsibilities and of congregations who not only don't appreciate the work that staff does, but treats them like some kind of hired help. Both situations are bad for the synagogue. We need to employ staff that are dedicated to the mission and goals of the synagogue and then pay them a living wage and show our appreciation in word and deed when they go above and beyond the duties outlined in their contract.

Rabbi Charles Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs has written a whole book on how to motivate volunteers (Building a Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish Community: Jewish Lights Press) This is just a reminder that volunteers need to be thanked “early and often”. You can never thank a volunteer enough. Working for a synagogue is not their full time job, it is an act and labor of love. This includes board members who serve each year, they too deserve a verbal and written thanks for their service. All the more so this applies when a volunteer steps down from the board or a committee. If we hope to have them volunteer again someday in the future, we better show our appreciation on the day they step down. If they tell you they don't need any thanks, then don't go overboard in thanking them but make sure they get a personal note anyway. They may not need to be publically awarded a plaque for their service, but they do need to know how much the leadership, staff and lay leaders, appreciate their service.
It is also important, when it comes to volunteers, not to let any volunteer get too connected to any one position. While some work is skilled work. Not everyone can answer a phone, make table seating arragements or put together the pages of an ad journal. Still it is important that every volunteer train the person who will eventually replace them. No matter how crucial a person may be in a job, nobody is irreplaceable. Volunteers on committees should be asked to chair the committee. Committee chairs should be asked to join the board. Board members should be asked to become officers and officers should be asked to serve as different officers and eventually to asked to be president. Two terms in any office is enough. When someone is given “life tenure” in any position (other than an honorary one) whatever benefits the synagogue may gain, it will be lost by good people not being able to rise past that one position. It will form a wall that will lock out new, up and coming talent from serving the congregation and they will take their time and effort somewhere else that appreciates their commitment. While the immediate past president should have a voice and vote on the board due to his or her recent experience and knowledge of recent decisions, even past presidents should be consulted and even venerated, but they should not have a vote on the board.

3. It is not uncommon to have other congregations in the same town or nearby. Some of these may be start up groups, others may be congregations in decline and some may be going strong and are widely accepted as “cross town rivals” to your community. Whenever and wherever possible, try and build bridges rather than enter into competition for members or programming. We need to work together and not duplicate services or programs. It should not be difficult to create an agreement between congregations to end the rivalry, i.e. to not solicit membership from those who are already members of another congregation. The return on this cooperation is very large. By sharing resources and programming it saves both congregations time and money. It created the impression that the Jewish community is united and supportive of each other and this environment is welcoming to those who are thinking about joining. It opens up new opportunities to engage Jews who are not yet connected to the community and lets them know that their participation, no matter which building or organization is running it, is appreciated. Large congregations with empty space should invite new or smaller kehillot to share their space and perhaps some administrative help. Even when two congregations share space in a building, it does not mean that they are competing for members. If the two congregations are different in halachic approach or in age of the members, there will be little serious movement of members between them. If they are very similar, then, it could be the beginning of a merger that will strengthen the overall community. There just is no good reason to build rival buildings and congregations. If there are those who are “angry” with one congregation for some reason, outside arbitrators could be brought in the help heal the rift before it becomes unbridgeable. We need to work together whenever possible.
I also believe that any congregation who insists on “going it alone” and refuses to participate in communal programming and fund raising should not be a part of the community and should not receive communal funding. I personally believe that those organizations who work against the communal agenda for their own promotion or purposes, are free to do so but the community should be free to stop supporting them as well. For example, Federation funding should not be shared with those who do not participate in the campaign. (I find it rather weird that Synagogues are often asked to participate in the campaign but are then refused funding for their programs because “Federations do not fund synagogues”. It is well documented that when there is full cooperation between Federation and synagogues the entire community is stronger and the fund raising is stronger as well.)
National synagogue organizations have been in the news a lot lately. At one time these organizations were vital to provide services to congregations that they could not provide for themselves or services that would make congregational life easier. The largest areas were in professional searches and educational/teen activities. These organizations also helped congregations by publishing books that the congregations needed and advice on best practices so each congregation was not out there going at it alone. These national organizations were mostly reactive to the expressed needs of the congregations who paid membership dues to receive the services needed.
For a number of reasons, the need for these organizations has changed over the years, and, like the congregations they served, they too fell behind the curve, and were not able to provide the leadership and resources needed for the changing role of synagogues in the twenty-first century. Because they operate in a reactive manner, that is, they react to the issues rather than anticipate them and offer a way forward, they were not always helpful when the synagogues needed them. They also, over the years, became over staffed and bloated and needed larger and larger dues contributions to keep going. It is no big surprise that the congregations began to resent the fact that a lot of dues was being paid and no real help was coming from the national offices. These national organizations are now going through the same kind of soul searching that the congregations are struggling with. They are trying to become leaner and to provide more resources, especially in the area of technology. They have had to take a new look at their mission and regional structure.
It is not my intention to critique their struggles or to help them chart a new path. They will do what they think is best for their organization and for synagogues. I will only say that congregations need to follow what is going on nationally closely. There are many advantages to being part of a national organization and they are trying to find ways to be helpful. It is not a good idea to reinvent the wheel every time we have a new issue to address. National presidents list-serves, Rabbinic list-serves, Regional offices and nationally known advisers who are part of these national organizations can be a source of good ideas, solutions to problems and advice on “what NOT to do” to address an issue. (Like all of life, sometimes the obvious answer is a wrong answer.) I am a big believer in getting good advice from every source and these organizations can be a good source for issues that congregations face. But they will never replace the local synagogue board of directors who know their community and know what the congregation is ready to support and what will never work in this setting. If a congregation needs outside help in creating a mission statement, organizational remodeling, leadership training or if they need advice on websites, social networking, web hosting, then a good place to start for information and advice can be national synagogue organizations.

4. There has been a lot of talk about if we are in a “post denominational” age, where people don't care any more about the denomination of their congregation. They will go the the synagogue that meets their needs. As I have mentioned before, this is true, especially in congregations serving a population of Jews under the age of 35. I am not under the age of 35 so I am not sure that denominations are ready to be cast into the dustbins of history. But I think that what a denomination defines may be in flux more today than in any other time in our history. We live in an age where most Jews define themselves as “Just Jewish” rather than Conservative, Orthodox or Reform. In fact, over the past half a century, there have been all kinds of new “denominations” that have come onto the scene: There is Reconstrucionist, Renewal, traditional, Modern Orthodox, liberal, spiritual, havurah, ultra-orthodox, Jew-Bu, gay/straight congregations, senior congregations; and each has its own issues and contributions to the overall Jewish community. But the titles of the denominations have hidden the real differences between them, differences that more often than not were differences of degree and not differences in kind. Forty years ago it was apparent that there really were only two kinds of Judaism, those who were biblical literalists and those who were not. We might say today that there are congregations that are egalitarian and those that are non-egalitarian. Other than this, most congregations specialize in various kinds of programming and that is how they identify themselves from the other congregations. My point in this book has been that these differing programs began to take center stage from the real business of synagogues. We began to be social centers, fund raising organizations and architectural wonders. Synagogues forgot about their core mission of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim (learning, prayer and social action). As synagogues return to their “roots” we will see that the different denominations will slowly coalesce into larger generic groupings. The ties will be looser to national differences and more about the needs of the local community. Learning will demand that we follow either the literal understanding of Bible or the Non-literal approach. Synagogues that are egalitarian will not have a following that is non-egalitarian even if both groups meet under the same roof. There may be differences in approach to the community as well. For example, Habad has long held itself outside the local community, working only for its own national organization. Other congregations remain committed to the local Federation, Jewish Family Service and Community Day School. The national organizations will try to cast their approach as widely as possible and the meaning of Reform or Conservative may represent less and less the differences between congregations. We will still find ways to “classify” our synagogues, but I predict (and I know predictions are always dangerous) that the classifications of tomorrow will not be the same as the denominations of today.
5. Synagogues remain the foundational and fundamental unit of Jewish involvement. I have no reason to doubt that what has always been in Jewish History, will change in modern times. But I also understand that there are many other worthy organizations, both secular and Jewish that should share our time and efforts. Some of these are active in the world of political action. Some are social action oriented. Some are dedicated to raising funds for worthy causes and some are the worthy causes who fill important needs in the community. In an age where government is getting out of the social agenda due to budget concerns and political sniping, it will fall more and more upon the religious community to help support those who are in need. Jews should be a big part of this movement. I have encouraged congregations to partner with outside organizations that could help the synagogue with its own agenda. For example, a congregation that has a core of members who are interested in political support for the State of Israel, could forge alliances with Israel Bonds, Zionists organizations, political organizations and tour operators. A congregation that has a group that wants to work with the local community on economic issues could forge bonds with a soup kitchen, food pantry, job bank, homeless shelter and thrift store. Any of these organizations could be the recipient of both financial support or volunteer support. Just as I support congregations joining together to combine resources, we do not need to create new organizations to compete with existing organizations serving the public. We should look for ways to collaborate and not compete.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Growing a Synagogue Part Six - Synagogue Finances: Part B

Fee for Service

There is a great fear both in synagogue leadership and at Federations, about adopting a “fee for service” approach to finances. What would happen to American synagogues and to the rest of the structure of the Jewish community if Jews were allowed to pay only for the programming and services that they need? Could a synagogue exist without dues? If we pause to think about this question we should see how absurd it is. Why should it be that Jews should pay for programming they don’t need or want? Are we so paternalistic that we know better what Jews “should” want? Unless we sell them on a program, why should we require them to pay for it? And yet, this is the way we run most of our Jewish organizations. I have heard communal leaders say over and over, “Why don’t young Jews care about us anymore?” Just because it was important to a previous generation, if we can’t convince a new generation of its importance, then we can’t expect them to pay to keep it running.

Synagogues are not doing all that well with a financial program that relies on dues. Shrinking memberships and increasing expenses are forcing congregations to look to other means of fundraising to make up the shortfall in dues. Dues used to represent just about half of a congregations budget. Today, it can be as low as one quarter to one third of the budget. It is also a number that is shrinking so fast that calculating the amount a congregation will collect in dues can be somewhat of a guess at the beginning of the year. Often this budget line falls below expectations.

Synagogues do charge fees for Religious School, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and a variety of other services but often these do not cover all the costs involved. Dues are used to make School and other services more affordable for families, in effect charging those without children to help cover the cost of education so it will not be too expensive for those who might not be able to afford to pay.

Even in the best of times, fundraising can represent at least half of the annual budget. Most of this is pretty mundane stuff. It is collected from dedications that are in memory of the departed or in honor of special life cycle events. Many congregations have an annual fund raising event that the whole congregation gets behind to make is successful. This portion of the budget is often estimated low and when all goes as planned, there may be extra monies raised. I know of congregations who just assume that whatever the shortfall will be in other areas, they will make up in fundraising from large donors in the congregation. Sometimes this works, sometimes the shortfall is so large that no one person can cover the debt.

This model of dues, fees and fundraising clearly is not working. There are way too many variables and without an endowment, often synagogues find themselves running serious deficits. Congregations that have been in existence long enough to have an endowment fund, find themselves in a better situation as the restricted funds cover most standard programming as well as capital expenses and the unrestricted funds cover innovation and new ideas. But the recent financial crisis in the world showed us, that endowment are also subject to falling interest rates and sometimes the principle has to be raided to cover unexpected problems.

I recently heard of an organization that did financial audits on synagogues and discovered that the dues model was not as effective as once believed. There are so many “hidden” costs in a synagogue that some of the programs that were thought to be carrying the budget, in fact were losing money if all the real costs were put together. Synagogue budgets often list staffing costs, insurance costs, publicity costs, maintenance costs and utilities in other parts of the budget effectively hiding the real cost of running a religious school, a preschool and even High Holy Day services. It turns out that these programs are not as cost effective as we usually believe.

A fee for service model, if priced according to real costs, could resolve many of the issues caused by hidden expenses. In much the same way that costs are factored into the price of a restaurant meal or the retail price of groceries, so too we can determine the cost of a Shabbat Dinner, A Bar or Bat Mitzvah or the cost of educating a pre-school student and set the fees accordingly. In this manner everyone who is in need of what synagogues offer will pay their fair share of the expenses. In a capitalistic approach, this makes a lot of sense. If the congregation does not create services worth the cost, then Jews will go elsewhere and the synagogue will have to improve or close up. Good organizations will rise to the top and those who are being mismanaged, will either have to reconstitute or merge with a more successful neighbor.

In a fee for service model, expensive annual dues are reduced since everyone only is paying for what they use. This could create substantial savings for Jewish families.

This model also has its pitfalls. Already, the real cost of a Jewish education is almost beyond the reach of middle class Jews. Would the actual cost of hiring a Rabbi or Cantor, using a synagogue building or buying Kosher meals be so great that they would be undercut by untrained practitioners, hotel ballrooms and treif catering? How could a synagogue justify high costs when similar services are found in the secular world at substantial savings?

Toward a New Financial Model

Next Dor, a synagogue renewal project of Synagogue 3000, insists, as part of its program that congregations first “engage young Jews” in the life of the synagogue and only later bring them into the congregation as dues paying members. The focus is not, at first, on membership. Membership is for those Jews already engages and committed to the work of the synagogue.

Next Dor already recognizes the new realities of synagogue commitment. This approach also has financial ramifications. By concentrating on the relationship between Jews and the synagogue first, these newly engaged Jews will come to see the importance of all the congregation does and will be more willing to invest in the ongoing program. To pay for the outreach, we could use a fee for service approach. As newly engaged Jews become involved in study, social action and ritual, they will come to value membership and have the desire to make want to be a part of the organization and invest in their mission. This engagement brings with it eventually dues and donations. These Jews are less “members” and more “investors” in the mission of the synagogue. The return on investment is in the educational advancement, the feelings of having a meaningful life and the spiritual feelings that are all part of what a commitment to the new synagogue model should look like. Don't get me wrong, Dues and donations to a synagogue are not “real” investments (This is not a place that the SEC should need to investigate) but rather than asking people to pay dues first and only later become active, this will encourage all to become active and then to join others who believe in the mission.

This kind of an approach to membership should not only stabilize income but should create larger groups of volunteers willing to donate time and effort to further the synagogue mission. Would everyone who came to our programs eventually become a member? Probably not. There will be those who only have a short term need and will, in the end, only pay for what they use. But they are still a valuable asset to the congregation. As “alumni” of a synagogue program, they walk away with feelings of goodwill and are grateful for the efforts of the synagogue when they had a need. This can translate into future donations word of mouth publicity that are very valuable in today’s “social network” economy. I don't know if Angie's List has a section on Synagogues but to have a number of satisfied former “clients” posting good “reviews” of our services (in both meanings of the word), is another way we can capitalize on our good works. It is not a perfect system but one that can be a viable financial model.

I know that there are some who say that if we really want to bring in Jews, we need to offer them learning and activities for free. I respectfully disagree. If we are offering the public something important, they will have no issues about paying for what it is worth to them. Nobody, in this day and age expects something for nothing (and when offered something for nothing, they usually consider it a scam.) Let them pay a small price for their activities today, and later, if when they are fully engaged in the community, they will want to join and invest in dues and ongoing charitable giving.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Growing a Synagogue Part Six - Synagogue Finances: Part A

It is easy to get inspired by the creative thinking that is going on in the Jewish world today. It is easy to think of how a synagogue can be changed for the better and what that would mean for the members of the congregation and for those in the community looking for a spiritual home. I can hear the financial people in the congregation saying, “But how much is this all going to cost?”

I started out this book with the issue of financial problems that congregations are facing. I really hesitated as I started my writing because I didn't want either the Jews or the non-Jews to think that synagogues are all about money. But in some ways, that is a big part of the problem. We have become so focused on fundraising, dues and budgets we are in danger of forgetting our mission and our core principles. A synagogue is not about money, it is about people, teaching them, sharing with them and directing them on how to live better, more meaningful lives. The reality eventually hits us, however, that to do these things, we need to raise the money to make them happen. That is not a bad thing. The problem in American synagogues has been, over the past five or six decades, that money has been the main focus of our synagogues and we continue to struggle because we are so focused on the finances that we have forgotten our values. Now we are facing a future where nobody wants to buy what we are selling. We are selling memberships but we never make clear why membership is important. The value, we say, is belonging to a community, but what kind of a community and what meaning does it have in a person's life? How valuable can it be in facing life's challenges? That we never clarify.

Financial managers in the private sector teach us that money is not a value; it is the means to attain our values. If we say that we are saving money; that tells us nothing. If we say we are saving for retirement, for a special vacation, for our children’s college education, then we have stated the value. Retirement, college and vacation are values; saving is the way we attain what we value. The same applies to the non-profit world. What is it that we are trying to accomplish? If we are creating a new adult education program, if we are bringing in a Scholar in Residence, if we are planning a weekend of intensive study, we are raising money to help educate our members. If we are raising the money to create a program to help educate migrant workers, to support Habitat for Humanity in our neighborhood, to take out an ad in the local newspaper in support of Israel, it shows that we value social and political action and the money is just the tool we use to support our causes.

The same applies to membership. What are we spending the money, that members pay, on? We have many good causes in our congregations. We are paying dues in order to conduct beautiful services with the help of a Rabbi and Hazzan. We are supporting Jewish education for children by subsidizing the cost of our religious school. We are also showing our concern for those who are in need in our community, making religious services available even for those who may be suffering financial hardships. Those are also values.

All too often, we get caught up in the details of fundraising and forget the values that are important. Congregations get so upset that someone might be not paying their fair share that they begin to deny membership for those who can’t pay. High Holiday tickets must be bought if you want to pray on the Holy Days. On the one hand, seating is limited and we need to know how many will be attending the service, but we forget that we also have to be welcoming at our High Holiday services and to make those attending feel at home. All too often, we treat members and non-members as just another ticket and we wonder why they don’t connect spiritually with the service. Sometimes we get so caught up in making a building beautiful that we forget that the building is to be used, not just to be another pretty place. It is important that we don’t get disconnected from our values.

If the programming aspects of synagogue life has drastically changed, so too have the financial aspects of a congregation. We live in a world where the best intentions die due to lack of funding. All the hopes and dreams that are in this book will be useless without the financial backing to make it all happen. Let me say this right here and now; there is nothing evil or non-spiritual about raising money. Money is not the root of all evil but another tool that we can use to advance our goal of a more spiritual and meaningful Judaism. What is worthwhile is worth paying for. We must not forget this. Fund raising is not a necessary evil, but the way we prioritize the many important parts of our life. Money is not the reason a spiritual program exists, but it is one of the many devices we use to bring God into the lives of others. The Torah teaches, “Six days you shall labor and on the seventh day you shall rest.” this means that work and raising money should take up 6/7 of our time. To be sure, some things are beyond money, but an underfunded program will not help us grow either.

The usual synagogue model is to charge members annual dues. This is the fee that is required to belong. In most congregations it is one fee for the entire family. The dues for singles and those without children are often half the price. Membership does have its privileges, there are discounts on other fees and there are some programs open for members only. Only members can vote on vital matters to the community and members have a hand in selecting clergy for the congregation. When a family joins the synagogue, they are usually asked about what parts of synagogue life they would like to get involved with, but the sad story is that far too few congregations have anyone from the Membership committee who will actually read the application or contact the family about their interest. The usual story is that a new member will have to show interest in an area of synagogue life and persist in asking to be a part of the program. As I mentioned in the section of cliques and fiefdoms, breaking into a group in a synagogue can be not just hard, but almost impossible for a new member. I believe that for this reason alone, we are seeing most of the disinterest by Jews in synagogue membership. Synagogues are asking for significant sums of money but never invite new members to be a part of the inner circle. After a while, the money is not worth the expense anymore and ignored members take their money elsewhere. It is not that families are poorer today than in the past. It is rather that they are more careful where they spend their money. One financial adviser noted that if you only join a synagogue for the High Holy Days and only use your membership three days a year, it is a poor investment. But if you get involved and take part in the ongoing programming at the synagogue, it is a really good buy. A membership committee has to make sure that new members are “getting their money’s worth” from their dues.

By laying out reasons for people to get involved; in the learning program, in the social action program and in services, we give people in our community a reason to join. This is not as easy as we might think it should be. It is not a matter of creating a website, printing a membership brochure or knocking on doors. These membership activities may have worked in past decades, but they will no longer work today. Why? Because there has been a fundamental shift in how and why people join a synagogue. I noted before, that in the past, people would join and then look for a way to get involved. Today, people need to be engaged, they need to be connected to the synagogue before they will give their money and become members. This means that the first contact with our synagogue will be through events open to the community. We will have to invest in engaging Jews in Jewish activities if we hope to bring them into membership sometime in the future.

If we hold adult studies programs open to the public. If we take our ongoing study groups and open them up to all those who are searching, we will find that there is a great untapped group of Jews who will commit to an ongoing study program. If we make public our social action/political action programs, we will soon attract those from the larger community who share our goals and who will be willing to give their time and effort for the cause. Once they are engaged, they will come to pay for what they are doing. Nobody in this country really expects anything for free. If we show them the value of what they are getting, they are usually happy to pay their fair share. Once they have strong ties to our program and to the current members, they will affiliate and they will remain active. They will come to understand that the dues and other fees are worth the investment. That is how people get connected today. It is all about doing something important and making the personal connections that eventually bring in the commitment.

This is also why I believe that denominations in Judaism are not as important as they once were. My teachers once told me that there really are only two kinds of Judaism, fundamentalist Judaism, and non-fundamentalist Judaism. I believe that most Jews don't know the difference between Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism and really don't care. Only the leadership and scholars really know and argue the fine points between movements. Once a Jew finds a group that meets his intellectual, spiritual and social needs, they will join and adjust to Jewish life in that denomination. If the congregation then fails to live up to those needs, the Jew will eventually quit the congregation and will go where they will be fulfilled. If that congregation is a different movement, they will adjust. For some synagogue leaders that may sound like heresy, but you can see the truth of this almost every day. Jews who affiliated with one denomination, will move to another community and affiliate with a different denomination because they like the programs there more that the other synagogues in their new community. Certainly there are some Jews who could not belong to a congregation, for example, that is not egalitarian, or one that does not have a social action program, or that does not have a kosher kitchen, but I believe that most Jews are looking for a welcoming place, as place where people care about causes that are important to them and who offer them some meaning and purpose in their lives, and when they find that place, they join. Christian mega-churches grow so very large by getting their membership to find meaning and purpose in any combination of the myriad choices they offer. No matter what denomination they may be coming from, they stay because they find fulfillment in their lives. If there are some religious details to observe, like dressing conservatively, eating vegetarian at events, or separate seating for men and women, then they just go along. It is the purpose that drives the commitment. Most Jews today don’t really care about the use of microphones on Shabbat, if swordfish is kosher or not, who wrote the Bible and they don’t care if there are stained glass windows or not. The real issue for these “seeking” Jews is, at the end of the day, they feel that their participation has made a difference in the world. If it does, they will pay what they can to support that program.

As I noted, for some Jews, there are some exceptions to this rule. Egalitarianism sometimes can be a big issue. While there are families that will even connect to an orthodox synagogue if it meets their intellectual, spiritual and social needs, I suspect that the women in the family will eventually be less than enthusiastic about the limited role they play in orthodox congregational life. There are families that don't mind the different gender roles, and some orthodox congregations work hard to keep the genders separate but equal. When we look at long term commitments, however, if there is an inequality of genders, it eventually will turn off members who don’t feel appreciated.

Kashrut can be another important issue. Families who already keep kosher want their synagogues to be kosher as well. This may be only a small minority of Jews, but they are adamant about Kashrut. They will be surprised and disgusted if they find a synagogue serving food that is treif. Most of the people who don't care about Kashrut will not care if the congregation is kosher or not, and if they attach themselves to a Kosher synagogue, they will easily embrace the rules and live by them, maybe not in their homes and personal lives, but certainly in their Jewish communal life. If the family has children they may keep their membership with a Kosher congregation longer so as to be consistent with the rules they have taught their children, but once the children have gone, if Kashrut is not important, than it will not be a barrier to changing communal commitments. Once again, it takes a special commitment to belong to an Orthodox community since the laws of Kashrut are far more demanding and change more frequently. One has to be current on what is considered kosher, what has been rejected, who is accepted and who is no longer accepted and a host of minutia that make keeping Kosher a challenge. Those who like that kind of detail will not be put off by this but the constant addition of new kosher regulations can put off someone who does not arrive at the door with that commitment.

Shabbat can be a third area of some concern. If there are affordable homes in the area around the synagogue where families can afford to live within walking distance to the synagogue, then those who are already Shabbat observers will feel welcome. Since most non-fundamentalist congregations allow driving, most Jews will not find this an issue. For those who want to walk on Shabbat and have a community of other walkers to share time on Shabbat afternoon, this could be an issue that will keep people away. It is a small part of the community but a vocal one. Often it is the Rabbi who is the leader in this group. If the Rabbi lives within walking distance, he or she sets a good example. If the Rabbi rides to shul on Shabbat, then it will be up to others to create this “walking community”.

But even with these few areas of concern, many Jews, especially young Jews who are just beginning to form their ties to the Jewish community, they are less concerned with the details of observance in the congregation and more concerned about getting what they need from the synagogue programming. If all they are looking for is a place to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for their children, these parents will not really care at all even about egalitarianism. They will have their ceremony and then go on to have a party somewhere else. They will pay for the service and move on. Such Jews have no interest in long term communal relationships. If we work to engage Jews at a younger age, when they are in their mid to late twenties, we will find them open to what we offer in their lives and eventually open to the way we connect with Judaism and Jewish ritual. If the first thing we ask from these young Jews is thousands of dollars in dues, we will find them uninterested. First we must engage them in Jewish activities and only later will they see the value in joining.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Growing A Synagogue Part E – Staff and the Modern Shul

There are kehillot (communities) that have a wealth of talented members who don't need the guidance of a rabbi or cantor in their congregations. If rabbis are involved, they are teachers in the adult studies program or advisers to the leadership team.

Full disclosure: I am a pulpit rabbi and have worked in and with a variety of congregations that have used my talents in different ways.

There are some today who think that rabbis should no longer be the spiritual leaders of congregations. I disagree with that but I do agree that the basic role of the rabbi in a congregation has changed and continues to change. There are some rabbis who have been able to work in this different environment and some who feel that they need to hang on to the older style of synagogue. Some of my colleagues have told me directly, that they are uncomfortable with new ways of leading a congregation and want to keep things the same for as long as they can. While I understand the need to sometimes be the one who holds the line to changes in halacha, as we have discovered, the issue is not halacha at all; it is the very nature of the organization that is changing. I have tried to show many times that there is still a great respect among Jews for rabbis and for Jewish tradition. Young Jews who create meaningful communities do not reject Judaism; they embrace it in some very traditional ways. I think that issues like egalitarianism and pluralism are crucial concepts in the creation of new communities, and once these communities come together, they retain traditional observances, like keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.

If I were to talk to my colleagues, I would tell them that the halachic issues that are being presented as things that need to be changed are not the crux of the problem, only the symptoms. When people are unhappy with programming and prayer in our congregations they may say things like “Services are boring” or “Why do we have to pay so much for X?” or “Why can't you talk about current events?” The fact is, many of our current members really don't know at all what they want, only that they are unhappy with what they have. If we press them to tell us exactly what they are looking for, they usually don't have an answer or tell us that they want us to do what we are already doing but somehow to do it differently.

I believe that a rabbi must be constantly looking at what successful models of congregations look like and creating new ways to bring the successful models to their synagogues. Naturally there will be those who don't want anything to change and those who want everything to change. Reality is still somewhere between those two poles. Leadership is not easy. My sister is a hazzan and long ago she told me that a hazzan that is not introducing new melodies and new liturgical configurations and changing up the service is just being lazy. The same applies to rabbis (I know, I know, who am I calling lazy?!) I don't mean this with disrespect for my colleagues, both those who are my senior and those who are junior colleagues. We have a lot of things that we must do as rabbis. But growing our congregations is one of the most crucial. If you look at congregations that are looking for new rabbis, it does not take long to see that all of them want help with “change”. They want to change and they don't want to change (“change what I don't like and don't change what I do like”) but that, we know is impossible. An executive director once reminded me that “nobody likes all the focus on the Bar Mitzvah boy at Saturday services, except the members of the family. Yet the family makes up over 75% of the congregation that morning, and they want the focus to be on the boy.” So how do you make the regulars happy without angering 75% of the people in shul that morning? When we give blessings at the Torah for those with a birthday or anniversary, everyone tells me that it takes too long, except those who are getting the blessings. (It is always too long unless it involves me.)

Congregations have a history. Congregations like to write their history and invite others to read it. Often synagogue websites have links to the history of their communities. These histories often point back to the wonderful days when the congregations were small, or when they were in their heyday. Sometimes, however, there are darker secrets in the history of a congregation that the members don't like to recall or don't want to recall; problems with clergy, financial problems, members and staff who are arrested and the synagogue is implicated, sexual harassment of a employee, sexual abuse of a child in the school, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, the sudden death of beloved rabbi or president. All of these can devastate a congregation and produce years of upheaval. When a congregation faces these kinds of serious issues the officers and members of the congregation want to quickly get past their problems and return to the way things used to be. But going backwards is impossible. Things will never be the way they used to be because we only see the past through the rose tinted glasses that will not let us acknowledge the problems and difficulties that we also endured. In synagogue life, the past is interesting, but we can't live there. We need to constantly have vision and focus on what lies ahead.

One colleague reminded me that this is the reason that cars have a large windshield and a small rear view mirror, so we can see more of where we are going and less of where we have been. What would success look like in the twenty-first century? It will not be the same as it was in the twentieth century. Life does move on and we must not let our history cloud our vision of the future. The questions we need to ask are what are we doing now that we want to continue and what needs to be changed/updated/renewed or created? This is not a challenge just to synagogues. All modern organizations and businesses have to look to the future or face difficult consequences that come from living in the past. As rabbis we need to encourage these questions and we must be prepared to answer them.

Jack and Suzi Welch in the article I mentioned earlier, write, When a team is infused with trust, people play to their better angels. They share ideas freely. They help their colleagues when they are stuck and need an insight. What they do every day then becomes about the group's success, not their own. They're not worried about not getting the credit for some big win; they know a teammate will say something like “Hey, don't thank me. Cary was the one with the eureka moment that set the whole thing in motion.” and Cary will say, “Thanks. I may have had the idea, but you executed.” The candor-trust connection has another benefit: it promotes an environment of risk-taking. Who wants to try something new if they sense they'll get a stick in the eye (or worse) should they fall? Leaders of winning teams encourage their people to take on huge challenges and let them know that they're safe no matter what happens. And then they make good on their word.

I have seen boards that are so risk adverse that they quash every new idea that should arise. I have seen rabbis and directors tell excited lay leadership that what they propose can't be done. Anyone who has ever served on a synagogue board or who has served on the professional staff has heard the phrases that kill new ideas, “We tried that once and it didn't work.” “Who will you get to chair that project?” “That may work in big cities but in our town it would never fly.” “That is not what our congregation is about, if you want to do that, you should join a different synagogue that does stuff like that.” We have thousands of ways that leadership, both lay and professional, can kill new ideas. What we need is a culture that encourages new ideas, new programs and forward thinking. It is not about who gets the credit, but what is for the good of the congregation. If we try something and it fails, then we have learned something and, if we think the idea is still good, we can try again with an eye to overcoming the obstacles. If it just doesn't work, well, then we will try something different. The payoff of an idea that does work is worth the previous failures that have helped set the foundation for the success. We can find new ideas in the talent that we already have, and in searching for ideas that have worked elsewhere. All we need to do to make these ideas our own is to be open to possibilities.

I therefore believe that the best approach is for both rabbi/staff and lay leadership to create a working dialogue. Often the rabbi only hears good things and the president hears all the complaints. That needs to change. Both rabbi and president need to share their points of view with one another. Together they need to identify the real needs of the congregation (not just the personal needs of those who complain all the time) and then look into how other congregations deal with these issues; what may be working and what clearly is not working (and what would never work here!). Complaints about things being too long (services, religious school) are symptoms of programs that do not engage the participants. “Boring” (services, programming) is the symptom of the lack of change. Dropping membership is the symptom of people who are voting with their feet to find something meaningful somewhere else. It means we have missed their needs. If young Jews are not joining, it is because they don't see anything for them in our congregation. And that is why you are reading this book.

Cantors have an even harder time. New hazzanim are trained to be not just singers, but auxiliary staff members. They are often trained to be teachers, education directors and even executive directors. Older hazzanim were trained to lead services with classical cantorial melodies. The problem is that many of those melodies are anywhere from 50-150 years old and are not appealing to most contemporary audiences. In the documentary, “100 Voices: A Journey Home” the hazzanim in the film understand that these old classic melodies, many of which came from Europe, are not meaningful to younger Jewish audiences. I recently wrote in my congregation’s bulletin, “I still love the song that Michelle and I danced to at our wedding. Sometimes, if we are out dancing, and I feel really romantic, I ask the band to play it for us to dance to. I would never expect my radio station to play it anymore. Music has moved on and while there are still some of us who like “oldies” it is not the way for a radio station to stay on the air. Even my favorite station that played music from the 1950's, now plays “oldies” from the 60's and 70's. My music is now older than the “oldies”!” Musical styles change. That is a fact of life. A cantorial concert can be the showcase for classical hazzanut, but the liturgy deserves more modern influences. Hazzanim who can't keep up may find themselves left behind.

It is crucial that the rabbi and hazzan work together to create a meaningful service. There should be no reason for rabbis and hazzanim to be feuding or working at cross purposes. While each needs to respect the role of the other, and must treat each other as colleagues, there will not always be agreement on everything. What is important is to try new things, and then come back and assess how it is going. What is important is to talk each week as to what will make that service unique. Sometimes it may be a reaction to something in the news. Rabbi Sharon Braus said after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the countries of the eastern Indian Ocean, “If your service before the tsunami is the same as the service after the tsunami, then something is very wrong.” We have to be sensitive to what is happening in our world and how it affects those who are worshiping with us in our sanctuary. Our service has to reflect whatever is important and on the minds of the congregation. Sometimes a service may be built around a moral issue in the community; sometimes it will be built around getting more participation from the congregation. When the rabbi and hazzan work together, it creates a better atmosphere for really good things to happen.

If we are to change the focus of learning in the synagogue from school for children to educating adults, this will mean a change in education staffing as well. Rather than an “education director” what will be needed is a “director of life-long learning”. Certainly we will need to oversee the Jewish education of children, but the main focus has to be on adults. There will need to be a movement away from lectures and more to “hevruta” learning. There will need to be more texts and more discussion. There will have to be higher level learning and ways for those who are just beginning to “catch up” without dragging the whole program down. Education programs must also reflect that some learning will be in people's homes and perhaps in the work environment as well. Coordinating study groups can be a full time job alone once the program takes off. There can be ongoing study programs that feature evening learning for those who work during the day. There can be special week long programs of learning based on the “Limmud” program that takes place each winter in England. There can be weekend programs and Shabbaton programs that can offer a wide range of topics to give everyone a chance to try something new. These shorter programs should kick off a longer program if enough people show an interest in the topic.

Teachers can be the rabbi and cantor and any other staff member with an educational background. Often the same teachers who do so well with our children may be able to teach adults. Many congregations are blessed with lay members who have solid education backgrounds or strong Judaic backgrounds who can also lead these study sessions. Many communities have colleges and universities with a Judaic Studies department that can be the source of teachers and the students in the program may also be able to lend a hand. All of this, of course, takes investment of money as well as time. Just as the religious school for children has school fees, so too adult education, if it is to be credible and challenging, will also require fees from the participants. It may be possible to find outside money from foundations and funders, and a fund raiser in the community on behalf of adult studies could involve a patrons' program, where people with an interest in adult studies can help fund the program. There are opportunities for endowments and legacy gifts as well. There may even be corporations who would sponsor events in exchange for publicity that could help raise money for the adult studies program. The key to the program is to create it with high caliber talent so that adults will want to join in the study program. Clearly we need educators who are up to the task of creating serious adult learning.

Finally, we need to insure that the entire synagogue staff are involved in the overall program and are adding in their own way to the goal of engagement of the membership. We are no longer in an age where people say, “you should hear my Rabbi/Cantor,” etc. In the future, we will want to hear: “This is what I learned/taught in shul this week. It is important that our professionals be able to put their own egos aside and let the learners learn and the members sing. It is not about the staff; the purpose of the synagogue is to teach Judaism, spirituality and how to find God and meaning in life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How Does The Book End?

It has been awhile since I last posted a chapter of my book. I was working on it one chapter at a time and as I approached the end of the book I needed to draw it all together. I have continued to work on the book, trying to update the chapters, tie it all together and get it ready for prime time. I did not count on this process taking so long. My usual proofreaders now need to cull the entire book, looking for redundancies, and work on ways to edit the long run on sentences I have a tendency to use.  My usual writing style is for sermons. I am not as skilled to write for reading.  So this process has been a learning process for me as well.
Over the next few weeks, I will get the final chapters out on this blog and I hope that you will take the time to read them and to comment on them. I am also looking for comments on the entire enterprise and what I may have missed. I know it is easier to challenge what I have written and much harder to identify what is missing. I am sure that you, my readers, will share your ideas and comments so I can include your thoughts in the final draft.
Don't be afraid to tell me what you really think. We are all adults. Be kind, but you can tell me what you feel. I promise not to get snippy in return. I do value your comments. I thank you in advance for your help in my quest to change the face and approach of American synagogues.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Growing A Synagogue Part D: Building and Rebuilding

Maybe it is because of the weak economy, maybe it is a result of our new awareness of environmental concerns, or maybe because of the shrinking number of children in need of our religious schools, but the size of synagogue buildings is decreasing.

In the 1950's a synagogue aspired to have a large building, perhaps designed by a famous architect, in an upper middle class suburb. Today, many congregations in these “designer” buildings, are finding them expensive to maintain and no longer as useful for what modern Jews expect from their religious space. A Rabbi I know had his congregation move into a new sanctuary in the 1970's that featured a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, that was not electric, rather it was a real flame burning butane (basically it was a somewhat large cigarette lighter). Shortly after the building was opened, came the first oil crisis in this country and the cost of butane shot up. What had seemed like a good idea at the time became an expensive headache. In a similar way, as styles of worship changed, large sanctuaries with fixed pews, once a standard in religious buildings, suddenly just condemned the largest room in the building to just one or two days when it could be used.

A modern synagogue today is a very different kind of a place. Sanctuaries are definitely smaller. Where once it was common to see sanctuaries seating 600-700 people and expanding to seat 1500 on the High Holy Days, today the standard size of a sanctuary seats less than 400, expandable perhaps to 1000 on the holidays. But the size of the room is not the only feature that has changed. To keep energy costs down, there is a lot more natural light being used; in some cases, the sunlight actually helps keep the building warmer in the winter. The bima, the raised platform where the service is conducted, is much lower, dropping from seven to eight steps up, to just one or two steps above the floor of the sanctuary, giving everyone the feeling of being close to the “action”. It also makes the bima more accessible to those with disabilities. Instead of narrow stairs leading up and down, the entire bima can be accessed from any direction, with a simple step up across the entire front of the bima. Bima furnishings, once very ornate and dark, are now simple and lighter in color.

In addition to changing decor there is a trend to return to the “older” synagogue style of placing the bima in the middle of the room. Where this is not possible, often the seats will be on three sides of the bima, not just in the front facing forward. This circular style, where the worshipers can see each other lends to a feeling of everyone being together in prayer. Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, in his book, “Empowered Judaism” notes “The other layout popular in independent minyanim, and the one that I advocate, is that used in many traditional Orthodox synagogues; all rows face forward, and the prayer leader stationed in the center, also facing forward. This sends a few important messages. First that everyone is facing the Aron Kodesh (the holy ark) rather than facing a leader who is davening toward (at?) the congregation. The unity of purpose is clearly reinforced by the direction of the community. Second, the charismatic role of the prayer leader is diminished – half the congregation sit in front of the leader, while the other half sit behind her. While at first blush this may seem impersonal, it actually allows both the congregation and the leader to avoid self-consciousness, putting the focus on sound rather than sight. A third advantage is that the prayer leader experiences a different relationship to the congregation by being in their midst. She can better gauge to what extent a melody is “working” and can feel supported by the more active daveners in the congregation. She is simply closer to the entire congregation than in a standard synagogue layout, and she draws strength from that closeness.” (p.114) Kaunfer admits that the feelings of “self consciousness” that can come when a congregation prays in a circle, with the leader in the middle, is what makes him prefer the facing forward model. But he admits that some find davening in a circle, seeing each others faces actually fosters a connection with God and other human beings. While I may differ with him on the feelings of “self-consciousness” and tend to prefer the more circular seating, we both agree that theatrical seating, with the bima in front and everyone watching the “show” is no longer a useable model for prayer. The need for participation and inclusiveness would have us put the bima in the midst of the congregation no matter which way the daveners may be facing.

Synagogue seating is better when we get away from fixed pews. Moveable seating has many advantages. First of all the room can be reconfigured to fit the size of the congregation you are expecting. Hadar, the independent minyan in New York City, puts up a slightly smaller number of seats for what they are expecting so that everyone will sit together rather than spread out all over the room. The feeling of being in a room with everyone nearby helps lift the spirit of the service. If you have moveable seating, and you need more seats, you can bring them in as needed.

Another reason movable seating is better is that there is flexibility in the arrangement of chairs. One week there can be semicircular seating, then placing the bima in the middle the next week and setting up a front facing congregation the following week. Aisles can be wide or narrow. You can have seating in two rows, three rows or just one inner circle. Ansche Chesed in New York had very old hard pews from almost 100 years ago all set facing forward with a very high bima. They took out the first ten rows of pews in the front and replaced them with moveable seating in a semi-circle and moved the bima to the center of the circle. Now more people sit up front, the action is closer to the congregation and it is a great, participatory service.

A third reason for moveable seating is that it makes the room usable for more than just services. One can hold a number of discussion groups on a weekday, there can be multiple Torah readings on Simchat Torah, it can allow room for dancing for Kabbalat Shabbat and the room can be used for larger meetings as needed. Rearranging the seating can have a great impact on a program that can begin as soon as the people come into the room and have to find a seat. [While I know that it is customary that people want to sit in the same seat each Shabbat, by reconfiguring the seating, people will sit in different seats and meet different people than the crowd with whom they usually sit.] I am not advocating using folding chairs. There are many comfortable seats, with pockets for books and information, that can be used without needing to bolt the chairs to the floor. It is a wiser use of space to scrap the pews and switch to moveable seating.


There was a time in this country, where the Rabbi spoke from “on high” and everyone literally looked up to see and hear him (there were no women Rabbis then). There was an invisible wall between the congregation and the bima. Just as in the theater there has been an attempt to break down the wall between the actors and the audience, so too we need to break down the barriers that separate prayer leaders from the worshipers.

When one of my congregations moved to a new building, we gutted the sanctuary to completely refurbish it. I insisted that the bima, seven steps high, be removed and lowered to no more than two. The building committee came back to me and said that, for some strange reason, the bima in the old sanctuary was made of poured concrete. It would take a week of jack hammering and then the removal of the debris to lower the bima. It just did not make economic sense. So I had them take out the narrow steps up and replace them with steps that spanned the entire face of the bima. No matter where someone sat in the congregation, they had direct access to the bima. It also freed me up to come down from the bima and speak from the floor of the sanctuary for a more informal discussion on Shabbat. As I mentioned before, Ansche Chesed in New York moved the bima to the center of the circle on the sanctuary floor and congregants only go up on the bima when they need to open the ark and take out the Torah. Otherwise, the bima is just a nice backdrop for their service.

These days,on Friday nights, for Kabbalat Shabbat, our congregation does away with a bima altogether. The service is held in one of our smaller social halls. The Hazzan stands in the middle of the circle with only a music stand to hold his siddur. I wander around through the aisles and around the back, encouraging the congregation to sing and participate in the service. I enter the center of the circle only when I have something I need to do in the center, i.e. give a d'var Torah or lead a reading. I encourage others to lead reading just by standing up at their seats.

Beyond the Building

My good friend Rabbi Edwin Farber told me a story of a renovation of the sanctuary that happened at his synagogue. The plans called for the Torah reading table to be built into the bima, right on the edge next to the steps. Rabbi Farber tried to explain to the builder that there had to be room for four people to stand around the table: a Torah Reader, a person called to the Torah but who couldn't read the Torah so the Torah Reader would read for him, a Gabbai who made sure the Torah Reader did not make a mistake and another Gabbai who made sure that a mistake did not slip past the first Gabbai. The builder listened carefully and asked, “How many classrooms are we including in this building?” “Seven” said the Rabbi. “That's a good thing,” replied the builder, “since none of your people can read!”

A synagogue is more than a sanctuary. It needs office space, classrooms, meeting rooms, perhaps a smaller chapel, a kitchen and a space for dinners and social events. The key is to be able to use the space effectively and efficiently. Moveable partitions between classrooms can give more room but could be noisy when both rooms are used. Early Childhood classes can be converted to Religious school classrooms but that change could be more work than the time between schools allows. A secretarial pool is an efficient use of space but makes it difficult for members needing a private meeting with the Rabbi to set that up. Designing a building requires a lot of thought and consideration.

For start-up and small congregations, one must consider whether a building is really necessary. Meetings and adult studies can be held at the homes of members. After school classrooms can be rented from a public/private school that has empty rooms after the school day is over. A storefront with moveable chairs, some office space and some moveable partitions may be all a congregation needs for awhile without requiring a mortgage and full tilt capital campaign. This could allow financial resources to be concentrated on people and programs and not on maintaining a building. Building maintenance can be an expensive overhead that makes future budget cuts difficult. In these days of home offices, conference rooms that rent by the hour and the local copy store serving as an email, snail mail and package office with computer equipment to get office work done, there may be fewer reasons for small congregations to own a building at all.

Another possibility, in this time of large synagogue buildings with shrinking congregations, is to rent space from a congregation that is different from yours and run two different congregations from one location. Costs can be reduced by sharing office and janitorial help. If there is a big age gap between the two congregations there will be little reason to fear one group “stealing” members from the other. The mission and atmosphere of the two congregations would be just too different. If not, perhaps create the possibility of moving from one service to the other which can enhance both services rather than create a turf war. I think it is wonderful if a minyan can move into the empty space in a larger synagogue, as long as the details of what is permitted and what is not permitted is negotiated in advance.

A small orthodox minyan once asked to meet in one of my classrooms on Saturday morning. It was a group from a local Young Israel affiliated congregation and after speaking to the Rabbi at the Young Israel ( I was not looking to create a rift in his congregation) I gave them the green light to meet in our building. In an act of cooperation, we offered, gratis, the use of the room. A couple of years later, the Young Israel Rabbi told me that they were ready to spin off the group using my space. We then renegotiated with the group; they would act like a congregation and charge nominal dues and we would give them the space for only the cost of the maintenance to keep the room clean. That group was mostly older men and slowly they were no longer able to attend. Sometimes they came into our service to look for men to help them make a minyan. There were some in my congregation who were offended by this but nobody was required to join them; some were happy to help out and go to the other service. The only other restriction we placed on this minyan was that they could not “denigrate” our Conservative congregation because we did not agree with them on issues of egalitarianism and participation. After many years, the group was no longer able to continue and the remaining members joined our congregation. We were happy to have them join.

I said earlier, that the “one size fits all” type of service is way out of date. Offering multiple services that have multiple options is a way to be more things to more people. Bringing in other smaller groups can be a way of helping them and having more to offer the community. It is important, however, to make sure that the concerns of both congregations are addressed in advance. There will need to be really good communication between the different groups to make this kind of an arrangement work.

Virtual Buildings and Virtual Community

Modern technology does not require community to actually be inside the same building all the time. Technology allows us to create “virtual” buildings. This works particularly well when it comes to educational programs. Classes can be recorded as MP3 files and put on the congregation website to be listened to later, or even posted as an MP4 file, a video of the class, for those who missed the session. An internet “forum” can be used to encourage discussion by those who may be taking the class later and questions can be posted so that participants can see what other learners are thinking. Prior to an advanced text class, basic information can be posted to the web as a “prerequisite” for those who missed the beginning semester. Together with the List-serve, a virtual community can be set up, so that in addition to learning, questions and answers, day to day information like finding a baby sitter or asking for the name of a qualified painter, can be provided; members can reach out to each other even if they can't make it that day to the building. There may be some who think that this kind of community is impersonal and cold, but given the busyness of people today, making ideas, lessons and communal information available after hours can make the difference in keeping active members involved. Young adults today, are more familiar and less put off by virtual community and this could be a way of getting them and keeping them connected.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Growing a Synagogue Part 3: Communicating in the Twenty-First Century

C. Email, Listservs and Social Networking.

We are working from the inside out when it comes to publicity. Once you have a good looking and up to date website, you now need to get word out that you are open for business. When Ikar, the successful young synagogue in the Los Angeles area, was ready to start, it sent an email to everyone who was a friend of the founders telling about what the congregation was about and how they were going to be different from other congregations. The email stated that “if this kind of a synagogue sounds like something you would be interested in, join us for a service on Shabbat and pass this email on to others you think might be interested.” Over 200 people came for that first Shabbat.

If you have a core of members of a particular demographic and want to increase participation in that group, email can be a very effective way to spread the news. Everyone who inquires about your congregation should be asked to leave an email address in addition to more conventional contact information of address and phone number. Instead of a weekly announcement sheet, (or in addition to that sheet) there could be a weekly email about what is happening at the synagogue. This email should mention that recipients can forward the information to anyone who may be interested. Try not to make these announcements just plain blocks of text. Include graphics, the synagogue logo, and even pictures if possible. It should always include both a phone number for information and a link to the synagogue website where more information can be found.

This announcement email should go out to every email address you have on file. You do not, however, want to end up as spam in somebody's email box. There are a couple of things to do to be kind to those who will receive your email. First of all, never send an email out with every one's name in the “To:” box. Email addresses should be as private as snail mail addresses. You would not sell your snail mail list; don't publish your email list either. Emails from the congregation to the list should only have the synagogue's email address in the “To” box. Consider using a mass mailing/marketing service such as Constant Contact. If you do send the email directly, all the other addresses should be sent out as “blind copies” (BCC). If you don't know how to do this with your email client, then get someone to teach you. Keep away from sending attachments and links to untrusted websites. Be considerate of your users and try not to send more emails than they want to receive. Having someone's email address is a privilege; don't make them regret that they gave it to you. It is also proper web etiquette to include an opt out link at the end of every email so users can remove themselves from the list. Don't take requests to be removed personally, but it is a good idea to try and find out why they left the list. Perhaps they have moved to a different community or have joined another synagogue and no longer need your information or perhaps your email is not meeting their needs. Consider having a variety of mailing lists focused on different groups so that you can target parents with small children for one type of program, and for another, reach everyone who has participated in a food drive. This ensures that you are making the most of your email list and reaching members with the information that is of particular interest to them.

A variation on the email list is a Listserv. This is a forum where everyone on the list can contact everyone else on the list with one email. This can be used for announcements but usually it is a way that members can stay in contact with each other. The list is usually private, for congregational members only. They can share ideas, look for babysitters, recommend a plumber or give away tickets to a show they can no longer attend. It’s a good idea to establish guidelines and policies for use of the list. Make clear what sort of communication is welcome and what is not. Also be clear about what the consequences are for unwelcome behavior. A Listserv can be a way to discuss interesting articles or lessons with the group. Like the mailing lists above, your Listserv does not need to be all members. You can have targeted lists for college students who are away at school, for the youth group, for the Sisterhood or Men's Club. If you have multiple minyanim at the synagogue, each minyan can have its own Listserv to stay in touch with its group and to assign parts in the service in advance.

There are also a number of other social networking sites that members may already belong to and you can stay in touch with them by asking them to connect with you there. Social networks are a great way to extend relationships or start new ones. Instead of reaching members only when they are inside your building, you can extend your reach to meet them where they are. Social Networks are often the first place where people post their news, both good and bad, and presents many opportunities to hear from, help, and be there for your members. It is also a good place to ask questions about what they may like to see in the future from the congregation, survey your members as to which programs they might attend and have them give you a hand in planning what the next program might look like.

One common objection to social media is that it opens up the channels of communication and creates the possibility of negative publicity or a forum for those who are dissatisfied to let others know about their unhappiness. This objection is rooted in a misunderstanding of the medium. Whether you are on Facebook or not, the conversation is already happening! Isn’t it better to keep track of issues and use a negative post as an opportunity to fix the relationship and let others know what you are doing to resolve the situation? Making this shift can be difficult, but it is very worthwhile.

If you’re not familiar with the variety of social network options, take the time to learn about each of them. One common mistake is to treat them all the same. Instead, determine your goal and then choose the right tool to meet your needs.
  • Do you want to bring more people to your building? Consider using Foursquare to offer a promotion for anyone who checks-in at the synagogue.
  • Do you want to establish a professional network to help congregants find jobs? Start a group on Linked-in.
  • Do you want to send out short blasts to the public? This may be a good use of Twitter.
  • Do you want to establish mutual relationships with members? Start a page on Facebook.

Ea  Each of these methods can be very powerful tools when used correctly, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the tool you’ve chosen and take some time familiarize yourself with them. Social Media users can be very forgiving so don’t be afraid to try new things or take chances.

Texting is mainly for personal communication. Since texts can cost the recipients money, ask for permission before sending out text messages, but they may be good tools in certain circumstances, when time is short, such as notifying parents of an emergency.

Instant Messaging (IM) is also often personal, but consider having someone in the office staff an IM account to answer questions. The more entry points you have, the more you enable your members to connect.

One last thought, consider finding out what mediums and tools your congregants are using and meeting them there. Don’t jump in just because it sounds cool to be on Facebook or Twitter. Starting a Linked-in group if your congregants don’t use it doesn’t benefit anyone. Make sure that you’re where your people are, or work on a plan to help them gain the proficiency that they might need to connect with you.