Jewish Vitality Requires Vital Congregations

-1By Dru Greenwood and David Trietsch

The “Statement on Jewish Vitality: A Call for Action” and the vigorous conversation among policy-makers, funders and practitioners that it has spawned demonstrates a wide range of approaches to action in the present context of American Jewish life. However, a central element virtually missing from the discussion, one that we fail to recognize and cultivate at our peril, is the latent power in synagogues.

As long-time participants in the field of synagogue leadership development and change, we are dedicated to robust congregations. With whatever name (synagogue, temple, minyan, havurah, congregation) and whatever form they take (edifice-based, living room-based, on-line), we see these communities as the keystone of vibrant Jewish life, the place where those committed to the Jewish project actively engage the key question articulated in the Lippmann Kanfer response to the Call to Action: “How can Jewish ideas, values, experiences, and institutions help people live better lives and shape a better world?”

“Israel lives in its congregations.”

Isaac Mayer Wise’s words, although often underappreciated, ring as true today as they did when first articulated in 1887. Jewish life is concentrated and thrives in congregations – local communities dedicated to prayer, learning, and deeds of caring and justice.

Congregations are where Jews gather as Jews, and invite in others who wish to partake. The roughly 2000 non-Orthodox synagogues in the United States involve many more people than any other Jewish institution, literally meeting us where we are. And more Jewish children are educated in congregation-based part time religious schools than in any other institution. Researchers at the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis University have shown that, despite a persistent story of decline, the number of Jews and households affiliated with congregations has in fact grown over the past three decades.

What’s more, the congregation ecosystem as a whole encompasses enormous community assets of real estate and, even more essential, of professional and lay talent, commitment and creativity.

Congregations are living organisms, and promising innovations are on the horizon or in play. Several high-profile experiments have emerged to rethink the basics of membership, financial support, and activity design. These are often catalyzed by start-up congregations or generated within established congregations imbued with the ethos and skills promoted by such earlier change efforts as the Experiment in Congregational Education, STAR Synaplex, and Synagogue 2000.

That’s good news. Let’s savor it. For a moment.

A Challenge and an Aspiration

In this time of disruptive change, Wise’s words also reflect a challenge and an aspiration. What needs to change now for Israel to continue to “live” in its congregations? The Jewish congregation landscape, reflecting its wider American religious, cultural and institutional context, is in flux. From a systems perspective, there is both trouble and immense opportunity.

First, trouble. Stressors of demographic and cultural shifts, many of them cited in the Call to Action, and the aftermath of the economic downturn of 2008 are playing out in congregations everywhere. The population has moved, is more diverse in every way, and is not institutionally committed. At the most stressed end of the spectrum are synagogues built for thousands that now serve hundreds or scores; some close. Buildings are run down and design, infrastructure and leadership models do not meet contemporary needs for intimacy, congregant ownership and authentic engagement with questions of meaning and purpose. Resources are hard to come by. The leadership pipeline goes into recycle mode; hope and energy for new ideas dwindle. Even where a vision of what might be glimmers, it’s hard to see how to move from here to there. Particularly when neighboring synagogues are on a similar trajectory, a common narrative of decline can take hold. To borrow a phrase, “All congregations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting.”

“If we want different results, we must change the way we do things.” Inspired by the urgency and potential of the present moment, some synagogue leaders have arrived at a common understanding of the need to maximize the use of community resources of real estate, energy and creativity. They see opportunity and are leading significant change.

Here’s what we are beginning to see: Synagogue lay and professional leaders are coming together with local institutions, most often federations, to learn from each other’s experience and from expertise in the wider community, to strategize new approaches that will maximize resources, to build relationships of trust and to take action. Such local institutions often collaborate with the denominational movements, seminaries and rabbinic and educational organizations to bring resources to bear and to disseminate promising initiatives. This joining of national skills and perspectives, local expertise, funding and planning platforms, and local congregations offers a new and promising model to initiate and sustain change in the synagogue landscape.

Within participating congregations, leaders are gaining a wider perspective that eases the load of responsibility for individual congregations (and the resultant internal blame and guilt cycle) and engenders energy for renewed vision and sense of purpose. Together with neighboring congregations they are pursuing ideas for best use of Jewish resources for the common good, resulting in resource-sharing consortia and innovative collaborations, for example for high school programs or adult learning. Where a sense of urgency and creativity are high, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are creating new models of cohabitation and even consolidation. The most promising of these initiatives are taking advantage of the moment to release resources, for example by selling a building or retaining the best teachers in a consolidated school, and thereby giving themselves a new lease on life. But even more, they are reimagining new congregational or school models with design, infrastructure and leadership all aligned with a renewed vision of vital congregational life informed by a wider lens. This too is good news.

If Israel is to continue to live in its congregations of all shapes and sizes, bringing Jewish ideas, values, and experiences to help people live better lives and shape a better world, then they cannot go it alone. Local institutions, primarily federations, as well as funders and the various arms of denominational movements working with a local focus, must be partners. Such a consortium can muster planning platforms, expertise and resources to inspire a renewed vision, catalyze restructuring, and boldly bring to fruition the rich congregational landscape we all need.

Dru Greenwood, having served for many years first as director of URJ’s William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach and then as initiating executive director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together, an effort to strengthen synagogues in New York, currently consults with the Leadership Development Institute of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.

David Trietsch is founding director of the Leadership Development Institute of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.