Leadership in a Grassroots Era

A generation ago the futurist Alvin Toffler envisioned consumers who would participate in the production of what they consume. He called them “prosumers,” and foresaw that technology would empower individuals to help design the goods and services they use. Anyone who creates a music channel on Pandora or orders a customized computer is a “prosumer.”

The epitome of the “prosumer” approach in synagogue life is the independent-minyanim movement. It de-emphasizes an elite leadership group and encourages spreading decision-making throughout the minyan, an approach captured by the title of Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism. Like “prosumerism” generally it is a minority phenomenon, an emerging model that complements the dominant institutional structure.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism exemplifies the more established, centralized structure of religious life as an umbrella organization that serves its member congregations with resources and expertise. Its strategic plan, issued last March, sounds like a manifesto for an independent minyan; it speaks of “empowering Jews in North America to seek the presence of God, to seek meaning and purpose in Torah and mitzvot, to fully engage with Israel, and to be inspired by Judaism to improve the world and the Jewish people.” Unlike the emerging minyanim, however, it relies mostly on expertise, planning, management, and leadership as its mechanisms.

One of its flagship efforts is a revitalized Sulam (Hebrew for “ladder”) program, founded in 1993, whose Emerging Leaders Pilot Project is now offering intensive leadership training to 20 “kehillot” (communities) that each have at least 30 people who could grow into leadership roles. Another key initiative is the creation of Kehilla Relationship Managers who will be responsible for ongoing contact with every congregation, reflecting a shift to a more active role in keeping local synagogues aware of best practices and available resources.

Furnishing expertise and training is what professional associations do best, and in that sense United Synagogue is making the most of its specific role in the Conservative movement. That tacitly assumes, however, that the attrition in synagogue membership – and in the number of congregations affiliated with USCJ – can be remedied by making the institutions more professional and growing more leaders. That may strengthen organizations, but it’s very different from encouraging numbers of people who care about prayer and learning to come together to find meaning.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Director of United Synagogue, knows that the landscape has changed, and he sees engagement, not formal membership, as the goal. “People are shaping identities of meaning and purpose, not affiliation,” he says. Echoing the strategic plan he observes, “Americans by and large are religious people, including Jews, with high belief in God. They are seeking spirituality, purpose and meaning in the world, looking to connect with the Divine.”

Different consumers have different needs, however, and synagogue members have a variety of reasons for joining a congregation. Some are drawn to a charismatic rabbi; others go because their friends are there. Parents may sign up so that their children can attend Sunday school or Hebrew school, or for bar/bat mitzvah preparation. People may join because they like the music at Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights. For some families High Holiday services are the most valuable part of synagogue membership. Seeking spirituality and connecting with the Divine may figure as well, but any successful engagement campaign must take into account all these diverse motives for membership, and more.

Each individual synagogue has to figure out how to satisfy the needs and wishes of its own prospective members. It’s possible that better-prepared lay leaders and “best practices” will help. The growth of independent minyanim, however, suggests that professionalization of governance is not a high priority among people seeking engagement in a religious community today. The minyanim have found that the process begins with a group of people who have similar ideas about the kind of Jewish experience they want to have. It’s less about leadership than about community.

United Synagogue is doing its best to address the needs of the Conservative movement within its mandate of providing valued services to its member synagogues. In a world where prosumers are becoming more common, however, it’s likely that the lasting solutions will be found not among leaders, but at the grass roots; not at the national level, but in each locality. How well United Synagogue can succeed in this new environment as it approaches its centennial year is something only time will tell.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, writes regularly about Jewish issues for eJewish Philanthropy and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.