An Entrepreneurial Method for Engaging the Next Generation of Synagogue Leadership

by Rabbi Fred Guttman

We have all heard the complaint in our congregations, “Where is the leadership that will be in place to lead this congregation ten years from now?” Put differently, the challenge before us is how can we engage people between the ages of 30 to 45 in programs which will eventually lead to some of them taking the mantle of leadership?

This age cohort, a slight expansion of what has been called “Gen X,” is largely not engaged in Temple life. Some of them have in their minds that they will join or become active in Temple life only after they have children. One problem, however, is that young Jews are getting married later and having children later than ever before.

Many in this generation have negative memories of their experience with their own home congregations and rabbis. Even though these experiences often occurred decades ago, members of this age cohort will be skeptical if you tell them that the Temple of today is (hopefully!) different from what it used to be when they were younger.

But, there is hope. If they don’t come to our doors, we need to meet them where they are both physically and mentally. This age cohort is very entrepreneurial. They wish to become involved in the creation of new things, new businesses and new rituals. They are not satisfied with something that is not relevant or adaptable to change. In larger cities, non-synagogue groups such as independent minyanim, social and sports groups have been created. The Federation movement in the past few years has tried to attract this group with “Tribefest,” a national three-day get together of young people.

In our rather small but very active community, I have become convinced that the prospect of a non-institutional, non-synagogue affiliated Judaism surviving here is very bleak. On the other hand, I am also convinced that a “business as usual approach” to synagogue life will not attract Gen X’ers.

So in an effort to create future leadership and to harness the entrepreneurial nature of this age cohort, we at Temple Emanuel have created a year-long program know as the Atid (Future) Visioning group. Our program began in late August and will continue with learning sessions throughout the year.

There are almost thirty participants in the program. Our program began with a “getting to know you” social. For the first session, we brought in Linda Rich, a Jewish field consultant with the Alban Institute. The Alban Institute, known primarily for its leadership development work in Protestant congregations, recommended Linda. Linda led a five hour program on current trends with the American Jewish community. The program was highly interactive and involved quite a bit of small group discussion. I highly recommend Linda Rich as a leadership consultant.

Future sessions will include the following topics: the history of the congregation and a tour of our buildings and cemetery, the governance of the congregation, the relationship of the congregation to the greater Greensboro Community and beyond, Jewish and non-Jewish; finances, educational programs, and a demographic analysis of the congregation.

In order to increase the social capital among the members, the group is also being encouraged to come together to certain Temple events including our annual family Hanukah party, the Martin Luther King Shabbat service and Mitzvah Day. Since almost all of the participants have young children, the sessions will take place on Sunday mornings during our Religious School program. For those with very small children, babysitting free of charge is being provided.

So what makes this program different? The answer is that in April, the group will begin to formulate a series of short and medium goals for the congregation. These will be presented and worked through during the summer, first to the Executive Committee and then to the Board as a whole. Thanks to the leadership of our wonderful president, Gail Bernstein, the Temple Board has committed itself to relating seriously to and working with these proposals.

We are hoping to empower this age cohort and harness its entrepreneurial spirit within the framework of Temple Emanuel as a Jewish institution.

Nineteen years ago, as a forty-three year old rabbi with a wife and three children, I came to Temple Emanuel of Greensboro. I had a definite vision for the future of the congregation. Thanks to terrific lay leadership which responded favorably to my vision and added to it, the congregation grew from 360 to 600+ families and a new, fully paid for $8,000,000 building was built. To a large extent, the vision which I had nineteen years ago has been fulfilled. I thank God for our wonderful lay leadership and for bringing me to Greensboro.

Now, however at 61 years old, my vision of what will be attractive to the next generation of Jews is not as clear. Therefore, I am very excited to work with this group and to learn from them. I am convinced that by working together, the future of our congregation will indeed be bright.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the spiritual leader at Temple Emanuel, Greensboro, NC.