Future is now

Synagogues must embrace data-driven strategies to help their congregants

In Short

Data shouldn't just be about performance metrics but offer an opportunity to better understand communal needs

In the constantly evolving landscape of the 21st century, maintaining relevance and resonance within institutions requires innovation. This especially applies to synagogues, which must strike a delicate balance between tradition and evolution to address the changing needs and preferences of their congregants. A fundamental shift is necessary, not merely to ensure survival but to foster flourishing communities. Central to this shift is the inclusion of a new role within the synagogue team: a chief data officer or manager of data analytics.

Synagogues, like any institution, rely on a variety of metrics to gauge their performance: attendance rates, financial contributions, program participation and so on. However, these data points, though necessary, are insufficient for the synagogue of the future. They reflect the status quo but fail to guide the strategic evolution necessary to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

In his renowned book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, management guru Jim Collins posits a “crawl, walk, run” approach to organizational change. The notion is straightforward: start small, gain confidence and then progress. This approach is apt for synagogues. They must ”crawl” by first recognizing the value of data beyond performance metrics. ”Walking” involves recruiting data specialists who can provide actionable insights from that data. The ”running” phase includes making data-driven decisions that will shape the future of the institution.

A chief data officer or manager of data analytics could provide a more nuanced understanding of the needs and preferences of the congregation. This isn’t about reducing individuals to mere numbers or statistics but about harnessing the power of data to illuminate patterns, trends and potential areas for growth. It is about shifting from using data as a rear-view mirror, only to measure what has passed, to using it as a compass, directing strategy and future actions.

Data analytics can inform not only which services or programs are most well-attended, but also uncover less obvious trends. They can indicate which activities are most valued by different demographic groups, track changing preferences over time and even predict future needs based on societal trends. This would enable synagogues to adapt their offerings and strategies to better engage their congregants and provide more meaningful, beneficial experiences.

Armed with a clear understanding of the power of data, synagogues can embark on innovative, targeted initiatives. For instance, a data analytics officer could design a sentiment analysis of sermons and events, providing valuable feedback on which topics resonate most with different demographics. Predictive analytics could anticipate changes in attendance during religious holidays or seasonal shifts, helping adjust schedules or resource allocation proactively. Machine learning algorithms could analyze engagement data to create personalized digital communications, increasing each member’s sense of connection and relevance. With a deep dive into donation data, synagogues might identify trends and patterns that inspire more effective fundraising strategies.

Data analysis can significantly transform a synagogue’s approach to membership dues and charitable giving. Traditional dues models may be perceived as rigid or inaccessible for some congregants, and data analytics could provide the insights necessary to develop flexible, personalized dues structures that meet members’ financial realities while maintaining necessary funding. By analyzing trends in member income, employment status or family size, for instance, synagogues could offer tiered or sliding-scale membership models. 

Similarly, data analytics can enhance charitable giving. A nuanced understanding of previous donation patterns, member capacities and preferred causes can inform targeted fundraising campaigns. It could even allow the development of predictive models that forecast charitable giving under various conditions, enabling the synagogue to plan effectively and ensure the sustained support of their activities. This data-informed approach is not only strategic but also more equitable and inclusive, embodying core values of community and mutual support.

Moreover, a data-driven approach aligns with the changing relationship between individuals and institutions. In today’s world, people are less likely to engage out of a sense of obligation or guilt, but rather because they value and benefit from what the institution provides. By leveraging data to understand what truly matters to their congregation, synagogues can ensure they remain not only relevant but vital to their communities.

The call for synagogues to incorporate data-driven strategies isn’t about commercializing spirituality; it’s about embracing an evolving world. It’s about ensuring that synagogues, like the ancient traditions they uphold, endure and continue to enrich the lives of their congregants. Now is the time to take the first step — to crawl, then walk, then run — towards a more data-informed, community-centered future.

Avi Olitzky, formerly a congregational rabbi, is president and principal consultant of Olitzky Consulting Group based in St. Louis Park, Minn.