Federations and Synagogues: A Mutual Partnership

Handshake on Puzzle Pieces. Conceptual image for partners partnership and working together.
Handshake on Puzzle Pieces. Conceptual image for partners partnership and working together.

[This article is based on a blog post originally posted on the JFNA Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement Blog Series.]

What is the value proposition of a mutual partnership between Federations and synagogues? In a world where institutions and institutional Judaism is evolving, what role can and should Federations play in supporting synagogues to help them adapt, evolve with the times, and thrive? In this week’s collaborative post, leaders from four communities (three Federations, one Central Agency) invested in this work share their ideas of how Federations can help, their snapshots of success in their local communities, and ways to get started in our own communities.

Cantor Adina Frydman is the executive director of SYNERGY at UJA Federation NY and Kate Lauzar is the planning director of SYNERGY at UJA Federation NY.
Lisa Harris Glass is the Chief Planning Officer at Jewish Federation of New Jersey and Joshua Keyak is the Program Associate at Jewish Federation of New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative.
David Trietsch is founding Director of Leadership Development Institute at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.
Rabbi Philip Warmflash is Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia.

Each facilitate significant projects in synagogue investment and change and are willing to be teachers to our field.


Now is the time for Federations to step up and engage their local synagogues to ensure that they adapt and evolve in these rapidly changing times.

Today’s institutional Jewish community is the wealthiest and most influential at any time in our history. Over the years, we have invested significant resources and time building and sustaining our core institutions. And yet, as it relates to synagogues, there is no coordinated effort that integrates an understanding of the changing needs of our people, the innovations and practices that foster learning, engagement and meaningful participation, and the training of professional change agents to bring this learning to bear.

There is, of course, tremendous rhetoric and new data about declining rates of synagogue membership, the lean away from “joining,” and the increasing desire to curate one’s Jewish experience as opposed to paying full freight for “the works” membership package. Still, we continue to see that a strong desire for deep connection with others in order to make meaning through ritual, study, and action abides. If anything, this desire for connection should compel us with an even greater urgency to help these legacy institutions become the space for innovation in order to speak to both current and future generations.

As professionals committed to this work, we wish to shine a spotlight on what we do, how and why we do it, why Federations are compelled to engage in this work, and some practical steps to get started.

In a Synagogue-Federation partnership, synagogues gain by having access to high level, relevant resources to help them thrive. Federations gain when synagogues stand as viable and compelling partners in the Jewish ecosystem, ultimately engaging more Jews and Jewish families in Jewish life. In a partnership, Federations become valued by synagogue leadership in appreciation of Federation investment in their institutions. And, while this cannot be the primary motivation for engaging in this important work, it helps that those connected to synagogues give more philanthropically to Jewish causes. In total, healthy, thriving synagogues are vital for a healthy thriving Federation, and the collaboration is good for both.

How can Federations help synagogues thrive?

There are a number of ways in which Federations can help synagogues thrive. Some help with day to day operations, others with longer term capacity building and sustainability and probably the most pivotal, albeit least measurable in terms of short term impact, is that which elevates the field by introducing new ways of thinking or doing that will be key to reimagining the synagogues of tomorrow.

Training: Provide training in key areas of synagogue life can equip synagogues with critical skills and best practices. There is a robust marketplace of experts willing to work with Federations to bring their expertise to bear. Ex: Workshops and webinars on the topics most critical to synagogues such as leadership development, financial and membership models, engagement, and marketing.

Consulting: Organizational and leadership development consultants/coaches can support synagogues as they navigate change. Consultants who have worked with synagogues have a better understanding of the synagogue milieu; consultants who come from the outside need to be trained or sensitized to work in that environment. Although resource intensive because of its 1:1 nature, consulting creates the deepest impact and may led to more lasting change. Ex: Offering synagogues the opportunity to work with a congregational coach in an area of the congregation’s choosing.

Networks: Local networks bringing together synagogue leaders enable the cross-fertilization of ideas and experience which strengthens all of the participants. The relationships that emerge as a result sometimes lay the groundwork for future collaborations or partnerships. Ex: Convening rabbi, synagogue presidents’, or executive directors’ roundtables by neighborhood.

Cohorts for Change: Probably the most resource intensive but the most effective, cohorts for change bring together clusters of synagogues over a period of time to focus on a common area of challenge in synagogue life. Often these cohorts are strengthened with training, consulting, and seed funding. Ex: Synagogue 2000, SYNERGY’s Connected Congregations, Synagogue Special Needs Inclusion Cohorts, ATID, LeV

Research: Federations invest in research at many different levels, from community demographic studies to scans on particular content areas to inform their planning. The findings from research can be invaluable for synagogues to understand that they exist within a larger local ecosystem that is impacted by similar trends and challenges. Ex: Are Voluntary Dues Right for You Synagogue, Strategies for Maintaining Synagogue Spaces, Should We Stay or Should We Go: Synagogue Empty Nesters on the Edge

Grants: While there is never enough money to address the financial challenge of synagogues, grants can be utilized to seed innovation, to support the expansion or scaling of an existing program/project, and to encourage explorations into collaboration. Ex: 2-5K micro grants for innovative or collaborative programs

Convening: Federations have the ability to convene stakeholders across multiple institutions and to be a rallying point for areas of common concern. Do not underestimate the power of convening as a way first and foremost to listen to your community and its leaders, to coalesce around shared issues, and to craft and execute a collective response or strategy. Ex: Bringing together synagogue leaders to address how to meet the needs of isolated/homebound elderly, inviting synagogue leaders to unity forum on Israel

Partnerships with Movements and Other Resource Providers: Federations and local agencies need not be the exclusive direct service provider for synagogues as there is an entire marketplace of organizations and consultants at the ready to work for you. The national movements, while providing resources at a national level, are often challenged in working at the local level with individual synagogues and are eager to partner to support their congregations. Ex: The movements providing support at national training institutes and then bringing the local Federation’s synagogue department to provide follow up individual consulting to the congregations.

Federations in partnership with local agencies can support synagogues through an individual intervention or through a cluster of interventions. Of course the deeper and more continuous the interventions, the more likely to result in real change and capacity building. Remember that at the core, synagogues are challenged by the constant turnover at the lay and, less so, at the professional leadership levels, so the work needs to be revisited on a regular basis. One additional note is that while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to working with synagogues, it behooves Federations to think about how to scale and replicate efforts to most effectively impact their networks. It is also necessary to consider how to work differently with synagogues of different sizes, in urban and suburban settings, and of different denominations and ideologies.

Snapshots of Success

How have our varied approaches helped synagogues thrive?

Leadership Development Institute (Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston)

The effectiveness of synagogue leadership is greatly dependent on the strategic partnership between the rabbi and temple president. CJP’s Leadership Development Institute (LDI) in collaboration with the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, supports and enhances this partnership with an annual Rabbi-Incoming Presidents workshop held before the new president’s term begins. Feedback from dozens of rabbi/president leadership teams has confirmed the enormous difference that clarity as to roles and responsibilities, shared priorities for the coming year, and recognition of unique communication styles can make if explored and agreed upon prior to the beginning of a new term of office.

SYNERGY (UJA Federation NY)

Congregational Coaching is the latest initiative developed by UJA-Federation, through SYNERGY, to help synagogues get unstuck and move into action. NY area synagogues can engage expert organizational change coaches, with a very modest participation fee, to identify goals, discover new methods of problem solving and create a customized plan to address the challenges they face in almost any area of synagogue life. Guided by SYNERGY coaches, synagogues take action to achieve congregational goals and implement lasting change. Launched fall 2016, six SYNERGY coaches are now working with 20 synagogues in the NYC area, with the expectation that the program will grow in the coming months.

Reshet/LeV (Jewish Learning Venture, Philadelphia)

The Reshet Network for Synagogue Change has demonstrated that a key element of successful change is partnership and networking across synagogues. By leveraging the shared challenges and knowledge of the network, participating synagogues are better able to build off of one another’s ideas and share successes. Further, our LeV initiative has shown that making changes in any aspect of congregational life requires the engaged participation of multiple stakeholders from across the synagogue ecosystem. Recently three congregations, representing two movements, were challenged by declining demographics and needed to take action. With guidance from Jewish Learning Venture facilitators, they constructed a broad-based leadership team to create and implement an innovative educational program. The new collaboration balanced each congregation’s desire to build relationships with its families while also meeting their students’ needs by creating a large youth community.

Synagogue Leadership Initiative (Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey)

The Synagogue Leadership Initiative/ ATID (Addressing Transformative Innovative Design in Jewish Education), a school improvement, system change/capacity building venture through which Federation provides best practice, resource research, education and facilitation services to change-ready synagogue schools; designed in collaboration with Debra Brosan, CEO of Gestaltworks. Through ATID, SLI works with synagogue teams on their mission and vision; brainstorms alternative models, provides mechanisms for feedback from stakeholders, and develops metrics for success. Synagogues which complete the program are eligible for grants to pilot their change. Additionally, panel discussions sharing successful alternative models form suburban settings are held semi-annually. These panel discussions are open to the whole community and serve as both information resource and interest ignition for synagogue leadership.

How to get started

While it may seem that stepping into this work with synagogues can involve a significant shift in strategy, resource and funding, it need not be so. Here are some first steps to get you on the road to developing this mutual partnership.

1. Articulate case statement for synagogue-federation partnership

  • This is the most critical step as it sets the stage for the rest of the work. Being able to articulate the value for your Federation or partner agency, as well as for the synagogues, is foundational to the success of any effort. You will want to refer back to your case statement to ensure that your efforts advance your vision. Create the statement together; in doing so, you will begin to shape the culture of partnership immediately.

2. Convene key stakeholders in synagogue community to get input prior to starting the work

  • Convening is key to establishing that Federation is listening and cares about the input of its constituents. It will also make it more likely that the strategies developed are a reflection of the actual needs, as opposed to the perceived needs. It is critical that these gatherings reflect the agenda of the congregations and not of Federation or partner agency. Again, the agenda needs to be built together and not imposed.

3. Identify program providers/partners

  • A community scan will reveal a marketplace of practitioners and experts ready to work with you to deliver quality, excellent and timely resources. Some may come from existing partners; or, you may have an opportunity to expand beyond those you have already identified.

4. Experiment

  • Refer to the various methods mentioned in the section above and get started. It need not be something major; testing the waters will give you much needed input required to build larger initiatives. Also, don’t be afraid to say that you are trying something new to give you permission to fail and learn something in order to try again the next time. Each of us is ready to help you take your first steps.

5. Measure impact

  • Regardless of how you measure, it is important to have clear metrics as they relate back to outcomes you set forth.

6. Get constant feedback from key stakeholders to revise approach

  • Creating a pipeline for constant input and feedback is critical to the success of any initiative. If the stakeholders see you listening and that you are in it with them they will be more forgiving when you need to pivot mid-stream.

Each of us has approached this work in different ways based on our communities, the assets at our disposal, and our particular areas of expertise. But at the end of the day we are all committed to the mutual partnership and the benefit to the Federation, Partner Agencies, and the synagogues, one that will lead not only to thriving synagogues but more importantly to thriving communities.