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.