Five Lessons Learned: How the URJ’s Communities of Practice Strengthen Congregations

CoP-Group-Photo-1024x684By Amy Asin and Lisa Lieberman Barzilai

Two years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism launched its Communities of Practice (CoP) initiative. We began with five separate cohorts, comprising lay and professional leaders from congregations throughout North America:

  • Pursuing Excellence in Your Early Childhood Centers
  • Engaging Families with Young Children
  • Engaging Young Adults
  • Reimagining Financial Support
  • Revolutionizing B’nai Mitzvah Engagement

During the course of 18-24 months and with guidance from URJ staff, each cohort came together to learn from experts in the field and from each other, ask big questions, and share ideas and best practices. Leaders from nearly 90 congregations participated in the five inaugural CoPs, and more than 75% of them have since launched pilots to apply newfound knowledge in their own communities.

Throughout the process, we developed significant intellectual capital, and gained important insights about how CoPs strengthen and enrich congregations. Here are five important lessons learned.

  1. It’s easier to take risks together. It is vital to connect CoP congregations – especially those geographically isolated from one another – in ways that support their interactions, shared learning, and risk-taking, and that promote camaraderie and fellowship. Each cohort met face-to-face two to three times, in addition to meeting monthly by webinar or phone. This mix of in-person and virtual meetings empowers participants to experiment in their own congregations precisely because they know that their cohort colleagues are doing the same elsewhere. Although cohort members do not necessarily run similar projects in their congregations, they rely on their fellow CoP participants to support their work and help them think through obstacles and challenges.
  2. Flexibility is critical. Because the entire process is emergent, and we all learn as we go, it is important to stay attuned to the individual needs of each CoP cohort. When one cohort needed to learn more about social media, we added a second session on the topic. When participants in another cohort needed to bolster their relationships with each other, we incorporated a sharing and brainstorming session.
  3. Applied learning builds capacity. We worked hard to strike a balance between two types of content – topic-specific and material focused on managing change. It also is critical to support participants as they work to apply what they learn to initiatives in their own congregations. Encouraging participants to apply their newfound knowledge immediately gives the information more relevance and impact, and builds their capacity to continue to innovate within their congregations even after the CoP cohort ends.
  4. Innovations benefit congregations and the Movement. In addition to the transformations participants facilitate in their own congregations, their learning is positively affecting the Reform Movement at large. For example, in one cohort, four early childhood education directors will share what they’ve learned from the process by leading a session about experimenting with change at an upcoming conference for Reform Jewish early childhood educators. The URJ also is publishing resources for each CoP content area that will be available to congregations. The first such document is titled Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement.
  5. Strong relationships enhance the work. By creating a coalition of innovators, the CoP initiative allows participants to share stories and ideas, learn from each other, and offer advice and support that benefits all. These relationships among participants ensure that their work continues – individually and collectively – long after the cohorts disband. We’re already seeing participants in one of the young adult cohorts continue to share knowledge and information with each other, despite the end of their CoP participation. A high priority for facilitators in subsequent CoPs will be to help participants leverage assets and relationships within their own cohort network, both during the CoP process and beyond.

Now what? The URJ recently launched two new local CoPs – one in Denver and one in Chicago – that include participants from multi-denominational early childhood centers; plans for additional CoPs are in the works. Each of these groups will be enriched by what we’ve already learned from our CoP initiative, namely that promoting collaborative learning, experimentation, flexibility, relationship building, and, ultimately, transformation not only strengthens individual congregations, but also benefits the greater Reform Movement.

Amy Asin is a member of the URJ faculty and consultant for the URJ Communities of Practice.
Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, RJE, is the director of the URJ’s Expanding Our Reach team.