Strengthening Congregations

By Amy Asin

A lot of attention is paid these days to innovative start-ups in the Jewish world. And much of this attention is well-deserved. The energy and creativity being unleashed are both extraordinary and critical to the present and future of Jewish life in North America, and, likely, worldwide. But too often, it is similarly assumed that because established institutions are, well, established, they are not innovating internally. Frankly, that’s not the case.

At the URJ, we spend our days engaging with congregational leaders representing the 900 congregations of the URJ, and I can tell you that there is significant innovation happening in synagogues across North America. The conventional wisdom has shifted. No longer are congregations waiting for the conveyor belt to deliver them new members. They realize that existing solely to sustain their institutions is not a long-term prospect for growth or even for survival.

Instead, they now see that they must innovate, by transforming the way that they create sacred community and meaningful Jewish experiences to have impact on the participants and the world around them. More and more URJ congregations are experimenting, some of them on their own and some in partnership with other congregations. And it’s happening in all sizes of congregations with different demographic profiles, all over North America.

The URJ is a network of congregations, large, small and medium-sized, small town, urban, suburban, spread all across North America. There is no one-size fits all for our partnership with URJ congregations. The strengthening congregations work that I direct is a combination of traditional problem-solving and experimentation with support for innovation and transformation.

On their own

Congregations large and small are experimenting with new ways of engaging families with young children. A congregation too small to employ a full time rabbi invites families in one at a time for learning and community. A large congregation across the continent tries moving its story time to the local coffee shop but then brings it back to their building when it grows so big that they need more space.

Shabbat dinner groups and Havdalah gatherings in homes are springing up where congregations are now experimenting with helping congregants find ways to experience Shabbat outside of their buildings. This is all happening even as synagogues also experiment with new approaches to Shabbat worship inside of the traditional synagogue building.

In partnership with others

A group of very large URJ congregations is experimenting with using small group models of engagement. They are bringing congregants together to explore Jewish text and the meaning that they have for their lives. In addition, the congregations are in conversation with each other so that they can learn from what each does and even collaborate on curriculum.

At the other end of the spectrum, leaders in small congregations are collaborating and sharing resources in new ways so that they can benefit from each other’s’ experiences and investments. For instance, small congregations in San Francisco are coming together across denominational lines to share resources and work on joint programming, learning that the conversation to find commonality can create opportunities they couldn’t have imagined on their own.

Congregations across North America are partnering with URJ camps and NFTY to provide deep and meaningful engagement experiences for teens. Some congregations are working with URJ camps to provide significant pieces of their children’s education programming.

The URJ is committed to supporting congregations looking to innovate because we believe it is necessary to achieve our ultimate goal of a world of wholeness, justice, and compassion. Our strategy includes helping congregations articulate their sacred purpose, and encouraging and supporting innovation and the development of cultures that embrace adaptive change. We are working with congregations to develop the next generation of leaders who are inspired by the existence and potential of sacred community and equipped to lead change in their communities.

Of course, we are there for congregations who need support managing the day to day work of running congregations and for those who are experiencing leadership transitions.

That’s something we have always done and will keep doing. But we are also looking at new ways to work with our congregations so they deepen their impact and relevance with current and future congregants.

Within our vast network, we hold great strength. The URJ weaves a network of leaders across North America to discuss and share innovations, lowering the fears and risks inherent in change.

URJ’s Youth work in NFTY, Camps, and Israel creates dynamic opportunities for our children and teens, and it also helps to strengthen congregations with new ideas and energy. Furthermore, our Religious Action Center and Just Congregations bring critical social action and social justice opportunities to congregations. Our emphasis on outreach to intermarried families and Jews from interfaith families, part of our, Audacious Hospitality imperative, will no doubt lead us in the coming years to even more experimentation. There is no limit to the ways we can engage our congregations and bring them into a deeper Jewish experience.

Indeed, we continuously look for new ways to strengthen congregations as the Reform Movement seeks to embolden a vibrant, lively Jewish spiritual and religious life now and for future generations.

Amy Asin is Vice President/Strengthening Congregations for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). The Reform Movement is the largest and fastest growing constituency of Jews in North America. Asin’s team has launched a new Leadership Institute, and she directs, among other initiatives, the URJ Communities of Practice and the URJ Communities.