By Robert Evans
Two critical gatherings of American synagogue leaders attracted major support and interest from a significant percentage of Reform and Conservative congregations in recent days. The Biennial of the Reform Movement attracted an estimated 6,000 delegates in Boston; the Conservative movement’s convention in Atlanta, while on a significantly smaller scale, attracted representatives of several hundred congregations across North America.
I consider myself lucky, as I was able to attend both gatherings, which prompted me to write this opinion piece based on what I observed: both multi-day conventions were energizing, inspirational, thought-provoking, and extremely uplifting. Of course they left many issues unanswered and they require continuing discussions.
Attendees at both conventions were presented with options to attend workshops that ranged from addressing dues terminology and philosophies, to retrofitting existing facilities to allow for more contemporary programs, to tackling marketing messages, and how to use technology more effectively. The Boston Biennial had a significantly larger turnout and its plenary sessions and discussions were planned so that attendees could hear a wide range of experts and synagogue leaders who have experimented with diverse approaches. The Conservative curriculum covered most of the same topics, but in different ways.
These national events represented incredible opportunities to bring together committed Jews from all parts of North America and from congregations of different sizes. For all who partook in these meetings – either in part or in their entirety – the levels of excitement and of achieved successes reached new heights. The sharing of data and profiles of today’s “best” congregations was widespread and at both the Conservative and Reform gatherings, there were positive outlooks that should bode well for the next few years of congregational management.
Of note, too, is that the organizations that address executive directors’ needs and priorities (NAASE for Conservative congregations and NATA for Reform congregations) again scheduled their regular meetings prior to the start of the respective movement gatherings. Their meetings were very specific and addressed internal priorities. Afterwards the executive directors joined the clergy, other professional staffers, and top leaders at the conventions.
Of the various topics each movement developed for discussion and examination, one topic that should require much more attention was missing (but I admit that I’m biased about this!). Neither the Conservative nor Reform movements offered adequate programming about the importance of fundraising in synagogue life: I noted only one or two workshops in Boston and only about four in Atlanta. I led one of the fundraising workshops for USCJ – on “Building Endowment” – and it was very well attended. I was also a panel member with an architect and a rabbi on a related topic. I feel this issue should be addressed more extensively at future conventions.
I have been present at almost every Reform Biennial since the early 1990s, and this year’s was the best attended. Either a member of our firm or I have also participated in numerous USCJ programs since 1991. One observation that I can make this year: just about every aspect of each gathering was choreographed beautifully and professionally. The end result is that many of North America’s congregational leaders, including clergy and professional staff, have benefitted from thought-provoking and challenging discussions. Much work remains to keep our Conservative and Reform congregations relevant, inviting, and meaningful, but the Atlanta and Boston conferences truly represented critical and strategic ways to think about how to succeed as 21st century American houses of worship. Let’s let American Jews know that they have indeed been heard, and that our leadership is responding in unprecedented, extraordinary, and creative ways.
Robert Evans is founder and president of the Evans Consulting Group, a full-service firm that helps nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals. Now in its 26th year, Evans Consulting leads fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. Mr. Evans is a member of the Giving USA editorial review board and is also a board member of the Giving Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.