by Nanette Fridman
Sadly, too few board chairs, rabbis and executive directors of synagogues are focused on moving beyond the hand-wringing of the Pew report to ask the probing questions that, if answered and prioritized, can strengthen and sometimes save their communities. As someone who cares deeply about the future of American Judaism, this troubles me because I believe that synagogues and their communities are critical to our peoplehood collectively and to our humanity individually.
In my nonprofit consulting practice, I have worked on strategic planning with synagogues of different denominations and varying size, stage and relative strength. Today with few exceptions, the well-documented economic and demographic realities affect almost all synagogues.
Constraints on time and energy, and lack of knowledge and funding to pay for expertise are constant challenges that prevent strategic planning. Further, many organizations, synagogues alike, are wary to start dialogues because they don’t think that they have the bandwidth for planning processes.
To encourage strategic thinking, I offer these seven questions to stimulate conversation among professionals and lay people alike.
- What are the demographics and trends of our synagogue membership and the larger Jewish population within 15 miles?
- What are our current and potential alternative sources of revenue beyond traditional dues and school fees?
- Can we afford our building including maintenance and upgrades in the near and long-term?
- How can we better serve the needs of ALL of our congregants and attract the unaffiliated including, singles, divorced, widowed, LGBT, interfaith, disabled and others?
- Are we in touch with the real and changing stresses and challenges that our congregants face? More importantly, are we doing anything pro-actively about them either directly or as a connector? No synagogue can tackle all of life’s challenges, but if you want to be relevant to your community, you need to address their pain. Today, the following are causing tremendous stress and pain: infertility, work-life balance, teens in the “race to nowhere”, college pressures, college graduates living back at home, sandwiched generation caring and paying for kids and their parents, long-term unemployment, substance abuse and aging in place.
- Are we staffed appropriately and are we investing in training our staff on customer service, technology, development and our processes?
- How can we best work with the other agencies, shuls and groups in our area including temples within our denomination and across denominations, Federations, JCCs, vocational services, family services, minyanim etc.?
While the resources to investigate and address these questions differ, the need to realistically and strategically assess the state and viability of the synagogue and plan for the future remains. Congregations that fail to act while there is time to course-correct and take action will suffer the all too well-known consequences.
The good news is that with objectivity, forward thinking, clarity, openness to change and perhaps most importantly, leadership, synagogues can do more than just survive; they can thrive. It all starts with brave honesty and asking the right questions.
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development and governance for nonprofits. Nanette can be reached at email@example.com.