Synagogue Engagement Strategies: Lessons Learned from Operation “Protective Edge”
By Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD and Guy Sapirstein, PhD
The recent round of fighting in Gaza was accompanied domestically and internationally by public rallies and demonstrations as well as online with a social media onslaught. While the public demonstrations of support were heartwarming, they nonetheless highlight a cause for concern. Attendance at these rallies was around 1% or less of the Jewish population of the respective metropolitan area (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago). Moreover, with the abundance of information, not all of which was accurate, many were looking for reliable sources as well as outlets for expressing their feelings and opinions about the “situation” – the “matsav” as it is referred to in Israel.
The “situation” came at a light traffic time for most synagogues (outside the Orthodox world). With religious school, parents, and even clergy on vacation, summer attendance is often lighter than during the school year. Communities under local JCRC and Federation leadership held rallies. National organizations like Jewish Federation of North America and Jewish National Fund had solidarity missions. Political lobbying organizations (AIPAC, J-Street) worked to lobby for resolutions supportive of their goals.
To be sure, synagogues co-sponsored community rallies and bused their people there, raised money for “Friends of” organizations (for example: Friend of the Israel Defense Forces or Magen David Adom), wrote letters to soldiers and sent care packages, and rabbis gave sermons about the “matsav.”
Beyond these activities, most synagogues did not fully engage their congregations. Historically, synagogues are the place where many American Jews turn during these uncertain times for information, insights, prayer and comfort. Besides the summer timing, there are probably several reasons for the relative quiet in synagogues during this latest round of hostilities. The first and foremost is that Israel has become a divisive issue among US Jews. It has become increasingly difficult to have conversations or dialogue when passions are so intense on all sides of the issue. Second, and possibly related, is that many synagogue communities have “outsourced” the Israel issue to other organizations:
- Youth engagement: YJ, USY, BBYO, Birthright, Jewish summer camps and day schools and others run programs for teens and young adults.
- Community organizing, advocacy, and information: Federations, JCRC’s and similar organizations have taken over the community wide organizing function as well as local advocacy work.
- Political lobbying: the lobbying organizations (AIPAC and J-Street) have taken over the political lobbying function.
Last but not least, many synagogues have not established an organizational and communal infrastructure for activating around Israel.
Faced with ever-present challenges in retaining, growing, and engaging membership, are synagogues reprioritizing or abdicating their roles and opportunity to engage people around Israel? Understandably, synagogues are concerned with their businesses. This comes at a dangerous time for Israel and with polls showing younger generations being disconnected from Israel.
Despite the challenges, synagogues should rededicate themselves to educating and connecting congregants about and to Israel and supporting Israel. We will be presenting an organizational model to support such engagement.
Our model has three main components: People, Processes, and ‘Places’ (technology and infrastructure). Each of these has an important part in the engagement strategy.
Most synagogues don’t have a staff position dedicated to Israel. Moreover, the clergy, educators, development staff, and lay leadership typically have contact with different parts of the community. Each of these people has a distinct role in the engagement around Israel.
- Provide spiritual guidance around our connection to the land of Israel and issues surrounding it.
- Present the synagogue’s “position” re: Israel. The goal should be articulating a position that would provide the most inclusivity (i.e. allows the greatest number of people to feel comfortable with the position).
- Refer to the issue in blogs, emails, and other communication to members (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
- Make themselves known to local media and try to publish articles in local newspapers.
- Reach out to local community organizing bodies (federation, JCRC, etc.).
- Go on solidarity missions and/or plan congregational Israel trip and regularly update the congregation via social media and email.
- Provide age appropriate information to students and their families about the “situation” as well as broader international ramifications.
- Provide support for families who have children or relatives in Israel.
- Adapt curriculum to include reference to current events.
- Help students (and families) engage in activities related to situation: e.g. writing letters, drawing, using social media to express support, collecting money for donations etc.
- Help students (and families) connect to families / children of sister communities in Israel using chatting, messaging (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp) and other technological platforms.
3. Development/Communication Staff:
- Identify charities that reflect the position of the synagogue.
- Engage donors in contributing to identified charities.
- Coordinate with wider emergency fund-raising initiatives in the community.
- Reach out to the community using existing social media platforms.
- Provide information about reliable sources of information about the situation.
- Establish a social media presence and provide ongoing updates to social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, website).
4. Lay Leaders:
- Together with the Rabbi, create a forum that will engage the members in discussion of the issues.
- Invite speakers, identified subject matter experts, and others to community events.
- Organize training in conjunction with “fact checking” or media monitoring organizations (such as CAMERA, Honest Reporting, or others) for the congregation to activate media monitors and responders.
- Cater to different demographics: Engage volunteers from the various demographic age groups: under 30’s; 30’s-40’s; 45+; 65+. Each of these groups has different interests and focus.
- Cater to different interest groups: If the synagogue has a strong interest in a particular area (e.g. high-tech, bio-tech, environment, social justice and culture) a special group (or groups) should be formed to explore the relationship with Israel on that topic(s).
Planning is best done before a crisis situation develops. With respect to the Israel situation, unfortunately, it is safe to assume there will be more crisis situations in the future. Therefore, synagogues would be well advised to energize or establish an “Israel Committee” comprised on all the people mentioned above and begin to develop and implement the processes needed to respond and engage effectively.
The following are issues that should be addressed:
1. Plan for activities and programs for all ages that connect congregants to Israel.
2. Liaise with the local Israeli consulate.
3. Establishing a social media presence. Defining the responsibilities of every public “face” of the synagogue and coordinating between them.
4. Encourage members to join the synagogue Facebook page, Twitter feed, or other social media outlets and link to them when providing updates.
5. Craft policies for respectful dialogue and debate both in person and in word.
6. Create a list of local Israel “experts” and speakers from organizations, universities, the Israeli consulate, business leaders who can be called on to inform congregants.
7. Develop resources that can be deployed when necessary:
- Media training
- Talking points about Israel: Create working groups that offer training to volunteers about effective communication about Israel.
- Develop a list of online resources that people can easily access
8. Recruit a volunteer committee who can be responsible for creating signs, and assisting in demonstrations or other public events.
9. Establish a policy and process for issue-based fundraising (as opposed to regular fund-raising for the synagogue).
10. Having a regular schedule of meetings – those can be increased or decreased as necessary, but should meet at least twice a year.
Places (Technology and Infrastructure)
For everything to operate effectively, it is important to ensure that the technology infrastructure used by the synagogue can support the efforts. The following elements should be taken into account:
1. Communication: Synagogues need the ability to communicate quickly and effectively with their congregation (or subsets of it). Using mass notification services, which enable phone calls as well as emails and/or texts, can be effective in urgent situations.
- The website should have the capability of being easily updated (including remotely) by designated individuals among the staff.
- Enhance the synagogue’s website with a page about Israel which can be highlighted or made central when necessary.
- If feasible: Create a section where members (who have logged-in) can post comments, information and updates or create list-serves or Facebook page to facilitate discussion.
3. Social Media Sites
- Decide which sites are used by most congregants and who is going to update social media sites.
- In addition to providing news about Israel and temple activities on Facebook and Twitter, consider using Instagram, You Tube and/or Vine to reach out to the younger demographics.
Overcoming Internal Divisiveness
As we all know, Israel has become a divisive issue in many communities. This divisiveness weakens communities unless they can create a large enough “tent” to include as many different opinions and perspectives. Taking up this process is a critical component in building the synagogue’s engagement strategy around Israel. Not all synagogues will choose to go down this path, for fear of intensifying or highlighting existing divisions. For those who choose to proactively tackle this challenging issue, we offer a four step process:
- Inform by providing information: Providing information is a fairly neutral act as long as the information is balanced and allows people to develop an informed opinion about the situation. Providing information that is one sided, biased, or is primarily PR (or ‘propaganda’) does not actually help people effectively deal with misinformation, distortions, or difficult questions posed by the other side.
- Facilitate discussions, dialogues: Creating a forum where people can discuss and have constructive dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian issue can be daunting. At the level of facilitation it is best to adhere to the ground rule that while opinions can be shared, they should not be debated. The goal of facilitation is simply to allow the different opinions to be expressed.
- Engage (and debate) within the congregation with specific ground rules established: The goal of this complex exercise is to help the congregation articulate a position about Israel that would be acceptable to the greatest number of people. It is important to remember that the goal is NOT to determine who is “right” and who is “wrong”. Engaging and debating opinions about Israel requires experienced facilitators, a strong ability to tolerate and mediate conflict, and an ability to find common ground between opposing opinions. Since the goal is reaching consensus about the synagogue’s position, it is important to direct the debate in the direction of community cohesion and solidarity, rather than polarized opinions. Often people get frustrated by the “pareve” flavor of the position, hoping for it to be more emphatic one way or another. Reminding them about the goal of presenting a unified voice (appealing to a higher, or more collective good) can help provide the “compass” the community is seeking.
- Activate media, political and financial support for Israeli organizations and show solidarity and connections to Israel through missions and trips, rallies, communication with Israeli friends and contacts, letter-writing etc.: Once the community has articulated a common position it is easier to engage in communal activities that require broad collaboration. Completing the preceding stages of facilitation and engagement increases the likelihood of obtaining greater participation in these activities.
We are well aware that this process is easier said than done. One synagogue executive expressed strong concern that the process would be hijacked by people with more extreme views, and that the dialogue would break down. Conversely, one of the authors had an experience in their community where an Israel related issue (involving prayer no less), was dealt with in a pragmatic, respectful, and compromising way. From a communal perspective, our concern is that avoiding dialogue on this issue means accepting that synagogues will have a superficial relationship with Israel. While this might be an emerging trend, it is not one we are comfortable with. Leaders should consider whether their congregations are mature enough to conduct a discussion on this or, if not, intentionally restrict the focus of these conversations to more manageable groups such as teens.
Conclusion / Summary
Collectively, synagogues have the capability to reach more Jewish adults than other Jewish organizations. Many of the adult congregants would welcome opportunities to be more informed, engaged and active and as a people, we need younger adults and students to be knowledgeable and connected the Jewish state. Synagogues are uniquely placed to meet the needs of individuals in their respective communities, but to do so, synagogues have to be prepared to proactively engage congregants around Israel. Synagogues should do so both to support the notion of Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish state and to create shared learning and experiences that forge relationships and sense of purpose within their own congregations.
Striking was the power of the networked and organized synagogues. They were effective in providing information, facilitating dialogue, and providing community and comfort to congregants. In addition there was an actual physical space to share concerns and worry during a difficult time both in Israel and around the globe as anti-Semitic incidents become all to regular occurrences with increasing brashness. Helplessness can be translated into action but only if a plan is in place.
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development and governance for nonprofits. Nanette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guy Sapirstein, PhD, consults to synagogues and other organizations on strategy, leadership and organizational culture, implementing change processes, and internal communication processes. Guy can be reached at email@example.com.