Synagogues Need an Organizational Heshbon HaNefesh Before Adopting New Educational Paradigms

In our efforts to launch new programs at the synagogue level something is often missing: a comprehensive and aligned organizational mission and vision.

by Rabbi Jim Rogozen

In my new position at United Synagogue I have been learning about many innovative programs designed to make the experience of “religious school” more exciting and engaging. There are some very creative and bold people in the field, and I am inspired by their energy and commitment.

The lament/demand that “synagogue education must change!” is an ongoing phenomenon. So too is the reality that many initiatives and innovations fizzle, or fail outright. Some of these failures are due to the difficulty of sustaining innovation; some of them simply run out of funding. The call for yet another round of new programs has gone out, and Jewish publishers and organizations are answering that call. It seems to me, however, that in our efforts to launch new programs at the synagogue level something is often missing: a comprehensive and aligned organizational mission and vision.

The realities of synagogue life these days dictate a fast-tracked decision making process. It is very tempting, therefore, to latch onto the latest program or innovation and believe that the “new model” will transform student learning, if not the congregation as a whole. While there is pressure to “change” and “break the mold” there needs to be equal importance given to mission and vision. As the Japanese proverb states: “Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.”

As we read in the Lecha Dodi prayer on Friday night: Sof ma’aseh b’mach’shava t’chila – The right action depends on the correct (up front) thinking and planning.

Whether it’s a new blended learning platform, the desire to bring “camp” to religious school, or ways to involve parents, I believe that synagogue leaders need to take a step back and look at their education program within the larger organizational context of the kehilla before making changes. If this part of the planning process is ignored, the innovations being considered may never bear fruit.

One way to get started on the path toward successful educational transformation is to take the following “institutional readiness” questionnaire:

One, is our education program embedded in our congregation’s overall mission and vision? What is our kehilla all about? What do we care about? What are we trying to accomplish by being here? How do children and family journeys fit in here? What do children need to know, and what should they be able to do, in order to be part of this kehilla as they grow up?

Two, is our congregation’s mission and vision expressed in a strategic plan, and, just as important, a financial strategic plan? What are our goals? Are they realistic? Are they measureable? How will we go about accomplishing those goals? Does the budget for each department in the congregation reflect the mission, vision and strategic goals of our kehilla?

[Note: Conservative congregations who want to learn more about the first two topics can take part in USCJ’s highly successful Sulam programs.]

Three, are our programming, governance, planning and culture “aligned”? Does everything that happens in our shul serve our core documents and commitments? Does every key player have our vision in front of them and know how their area of function connects to that big picture? Are we able to say “no” to program ideas and expenditures that don’t fit into our plan? Are job descriptions (and evaluations) connected in measurable ways to our mission, vision, and goals?

Four, is our synagogue culture able to sustain change, experimentation, failure, reflective reappraisal? Can we have productive dialogues about what is and isn’t working? Are we able to measure our inputs and outcomes objectively? Is our budget supportive of educators who want to learn about and try new things? Do we communicate with, and involve, all of our stakeholders on a regular basis? Does the education program have investors/advocates/champions on the synagogue board, and among the clergy?

Five, do we see education as a transformative, future-oriented, core element in our kehilla? Does our budget encourage excellence in our education program? Is our curriculum connected to ongoing congregational life? Do children and teens feel “needed” by our kehilla (now and in the future)? Do children see adults engaged in Jewish learning?

The creative, disruptive innovators among us are busy cultivating new seeds for Jewish education. If they don’t have good soil in which to plant these seeds, we will see another crop of educational programs wither, further challenging the vitality and viability of our congregations. But if our kehillot embrace, and apply, the best practices of the nonprofit organizational world to their congregations, Jewish education will not only be successful; it will transform the Jewish community.

* Heshbon HaNefesh – Taking stock of one’s situation (literally: an accounting of one’s soul).

Rabbi Jim Rogozen is Chief Learning Officer, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.