Observations on Networked Congregations and Communities: The Present and The Future

Networked congregations have the ability to expand beyond the bricks and mortar of the synagogue and the old idea that a single synagogue entity can meet the plural needs of multiple generations.

by Barry Camson and Debra Brosan

Some say we are at a social and religious crisis point because the traditional synagogue cannot meet the multi-faceted needs of contemporary people. We say that this is a great time of opportunity. Hence, we became curious about the new and creative ways that synagogues and Jewish spiritual entities are embracing the changes in our world in order to better engage with contemporary Jews. One of the trends we observed is that of networked congregations and communities. We see many congregations as being on a developmental path to having more network characteristics and that it is useful to explore how congregations are moving along this trajectory.

In our search for congregations or communities that could be considered networked, we identified what we have seen in the field. There are networked communities and also congregations that are in many ways acting with a network mindset. These groups, like many of you in your congregations, are utilizing approaches or network practices that are helping the congregation adapt to the 21st century world. Our hope in writing about them is to support and encourage ongoing development.

Let us start by creating common language to define what a network is. A network can be organizations, people or groups tied together by trust and relationships. It is the link to each other that holds the network together.

Members are connected by a common purpose, which could be the need for connection, to align around something important or to produce something. [1] A network is made up of members who agree to act as peers in pursuing one or more of these purposes. Though there might be a network governance function, it would not be something that relies on top-down authority. In fact, a network encourages self-responsibility and encourages many people to be leaders. People self-organize to create what they need and the appropriate use of new technology can facilitate connection in the network. Networks change and are fluid. Therefore, a year from now, the networked community may look different.

We have observed that congregations and communities fall across a continuum of how much they have adopted network practices. Certainly, our interest is with those few entities that are far along the path of being a network for they offer us a tangible view of what a networked community could be. The following are two examples of what we consider to be congregations on the way to becoming networked and one example of what we see as a networked community.

Rodef Shalom

We noticed that congregations were developing more and more partnerships with other organizations and were beginning the process to become networked. One prime example of this is Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, PA. The senior rabbi, Rabbi Aaron Bisno – mandated and inspired by the congregation’s strategic plan – has been developing relationships with community leaders in Pittsburgh in service of strengthening Rodef Shalom and ultimately the community in which Rodef Shalom exists.

Rabbi Bisno has forged relationships with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Bach Choir, museums, art organizations, the Agency for Jewish Education and the Catholic and Episcopal Bishops of Pittsburgh. Each contact created the potential for synergy and partnership. As a result of Rabbi Bisno’s efforts, the Bach Choir practices at Rodef Shalom, the Pittsburgh Symphony preformed a first-ever concert in a Jewish sanctuary, the Agency for Jewish Learning just moved into the building and on Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Bisno and Bishop McConnell will co-facilitate a Rodef Shalom “Communities in Conversation” on B’tzelem Elokim. Rabbi Bisno’s approach is an exemplary illustration of building an external network.

For Rodef Shalom, building networks internally and externally are a vision for 5774. Rabbi Bisno has said, “The relationships that we create and sustain within the congregation are enhanced by our ability to locate our community within a larger web of communal connections.”

The platform for doing this is “Communities in Conversations.” Rabbi Bisno states, “The conversation I envision is between friends and neighbors who’ve not yet met, between Rodef Shalom members and non-members, and Jews and non-Jews, and between Rodef Shalom and the whole of the rest of Pittsburgh. All engaged in caring conversations with one another.” These conversations are the genesis of building relationships and trust that can lead to becoming a network. Rodef Shalom is primed to leverage these relationships into a network where emergent synergies can be created on an ongoing basis.

Beacon Hebrew Alliance

Beacon Hebrew Alliance is a small, Conservative congregation seventy miles north of New York City. It arose quite organically and networking played a natural part in this genesis. This, in itself, does not drive the rabbi to say that it is a networked congregation. The story of Beacon Hebrew Alliance is to us a lovely account of a contemporary community. We see this congregation as possessing a network mindset or network elements that carry the seeds of this new way of operating.

According to Rabbi Brent Spodek of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, the existing congregation expanded considerably when it essentially merged with a network of people and programming that began in his living room. The living room activities started out serving three children and soon expanded to meet the needs of others. Other programming was added: sing-alongs, meditation, and Talmud study. It kept growing in response to peoples’ interests. Rabbi Spodek commented, “I have been deliberately building this community so that it is responsive from the bottom up, not the top down.” This quick responsiveness to community needs is a network characteristic made possible by the non-hierarchical and fluid manner by which people work together. As a result, people often join into clusters to meet similar needs.

Beacon Hebrew Alliance grew as a result of old fashioned networking on the part of Rabbi Spodek. He held about a hundred conversations, one on one or in house parties. This became the network. This network was accessible. According to Rabbi Spodek, “If they were Jewish or married to a Jew, we were interested in speaking with them.” In this regard, the rabbi was acting as a facilitator or weaver of this larger fabric of connections. In spite of his strong role in weaving this community, Rabbi Spodek comments, “I don’t want all the Jewish relationships flowing through me.” In addition to making connections within the congregation, the congregational network also intersects with other networks such as with the strong arts community in town. There are a lot of informal connections that lead to shared programs.

Meaning, purpose and relationships while important in many organizations are particularly vital in networks because this is the glue that holds people together and provides direction. In relation to this, Rabbi Spodek mentions Emmanuel Levinas who talked about finding the face of the Divine in the face of the other. Rabbi Spodek then adds, “I think it’s a key thing for me to help people connect to others in a deep, potentially even religious way.”

Although Rodef Shalom and Beacon Hebrew Alliance are not yet fully networked communities, they are developmentally setting the foundation to become one.

A Way In and Mishkan Shalom

A Way In, a Jewish Meditation start-up out of Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA, is a networked community. It focuses on Jewish mindfulness and spirituality. This network organically arose from people in Mishkan Shalom who wanted to deepen their spiritual connection to Judaism. Their mission is for Jewish mindfulness to be accessible to all people. A Way In desires to be the leading community for Jewish mindfulness practices inspiring awareness, compassion and respect.

Both A Way In and Mishkan Shalom are distinctly different and yet are connected by people, love of Judaism and physical and virtual space. A Way In is not a substitute for a traditional synagogue because it does not provide the usual synagogue functions. A Way In is additive for Mishkan Shalom, any other synagogue or individual that wants to add Jewish mindfulness to their programming. Moreover, A Way In’s network is both local and national. Even the name “A Way In” elicits feelings of access and welcome, no matter how you choose to connect. This quality of accessibility and open practices around joining are important network characteristics.

In addition to A Way In’s physical presence, over one thousand people are networked through social media. Local events include Shabbat morning services at Mishkan Shalom, mindfulness sits, Pop-Up Shabbats and retreats. The online network includes weekly emails with personal teaching like “Tending The Fire” and online text study, Chanukah psalms, blog posts and Facebook updates. The greatest attractor is the Omer Guide, Journey Through The Wilderness: A Guide To The Ancient Practice Of Counting The Omer that engages these thousand people on a daily journey through counting the Omer. The culmination of counting the Omer is an opportunity to go on a retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, for an Away In Shavuot.

Conclusion

In all three cases, networks were fostered by relationship, both internally and externally. Networked congregations have the ability to expand beyond the bricks and mortar of the synagogue and the old idea that a single synagogue entity can meet the plural needs of multiple generations. They do have the ability to cast out into the world a motivating purpose around being Jewish and bringing Jews together. Doing this is often not a simple endeavor. However, we take comfort in recognizing that the seeds of new ways of being a Jewish community of worship exist in every congregation. The first developmental step is simply in recognizing this.

[1] “Net Gains,” Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, 2006.

Debra Brosan, C.E.O. of gestaltworks.net is a well known consultant specializing in Synagogue and institutional change and strategy. Debra can be reached at Debra@Gestaltworks.net

Barry Camson is a consultant and trainer who helps organizations and people utilize network approaches as a means of building relationships, collaboration and innovation. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com