by Barry Camson

A business model approach can provide insight and identify solutions as congregations cope with meeting the varying needs of individuals, preventing the loss of members or break-off minyanim and being financially sustainable. Sha’ar Communities is an excellent example of how this approach can be of value. Sha’ar Communities is a network of small Jewish communities offering prayer, study, travel, youth programs, social action and lifecycle rituals.

A business model embodies the key components that can enable an entity to meet the needs of its constituents. The business model is the means by which the entity provides value in an effective manner. The model ensures that there is congruency and support among its key aspects. The business model can be modified to meet new challenges.

Key aspects of a business model reflect how elements are used to produce value:

  • Key activities
  • Delivery approach
  • Revenue streams
  • Costs
  • Key resources
  • The specific value proposition – a statement of the value that the customer expects.
  • People being served.
  • Key partners
  • Relationships among customers, staff, members.

The Innovative Approach of Sha’ar Communities

Sha’ar is a network comprised of a number of self-standing Gates (Sha’ar means gate in Hebrew). Significantly, each of these Gates has its own business model that relates to the specific needs of its members and which provides a compelling experience.

Sha’ar offers multiple modes of connection through the different Gates. Each Gate has its own model of Jewish engagement. Each meets a different set of needs through a different set of activities. According to Rabbi Adina Lewittes who is the rabbi at Sha’ar Communities, “The Gates provide a variety of ways of enabling people to find meaning in Judaism. These different Gates validate that there are many different ways of approaching Jewish life. They also validate a sense of sufficiency that the individual is sufficient in the way that they are approaching their heritage. Each Gate provides access to Jewish content and fellowship that is sufficient for the building of a meaningful, sustainable Jewish life.”

An individual can join and participate in a single Gate or multiple Gates. Each Gate has its own set of activities, membership, leadership, revenue structure, costs, ways by which the value of that Gate is delivered and relationships among members. Each Gate meets in different places.

In Sha’ar Communities, the rabbi supports people in constructing their Jewish identity through their initial choice of Gate, the passion they bring to their participation in this Gate and their reaching out to other Jewish experiences in other Gates. According to Rabbi Lewittes, “people have the opportunity to engage and grow Jewishly in a Gate that inspires and challenges them. They have interactions with like minded people.”

The rabbi is the common leader in each Gate and serves each of the six different communities. The rabbi is the connector of the Gates along with the Board which is made up of a representative from each Gate community. Part of the challenge for the Board is to think globally while also affirming the specificity of each Gate’s Jewish commitment. All of this leads to a larger dialogue across Sha’ar Communities about how to live Jewishly.

The Different Gates

  • Gate of Prayer. The Gate of Prayer offers music-filled and meaningful Shabbat and holiday services, which includes dinner and content to enhance the evening in an intimate environment. There is a charge for each Friday program.
  • Gate of Study. The Gate of Study has weekly and monthly classes combining Jewish sources with modern insights. People discuss why the learning matters beyond “me and the world around me.” There is a fee for the sessions.
  • Gate of Tomorrow. This Gate provides educational programming for youth. Teens have a community unto themselves and space to talk about things that matter to them. They meet with senior professionals from across the career spectrum to talk about Jewish identity in the larger world. They do this while creating a nice group of friends. There is a fee for the series.
  • Gate of Repair. This Gate is for those interested in hands-on, multigenerational social activism. This provides an opportunity to contribute based on the idea that “when we give, we walk away the richer, while addressing some of society’s most urgent problems.” There is no fee.
  • Gate of Discovery. This Gate lets participants have interactive Jewish learning experiences through travel. There is an opportunity to experience a whole new country, culture, people, while building community amongst themselves and reflecting on their own identities. There are fees for trip costs and overhead.
  • Gate of Wholeness and Healing. This Gate provides creative ritual and spiritual fellowship for moments of loss, change and transition. Participants gain a feeling that there is a community of compassionate fellow travelers who can make very lonely and destabilizing experiences of grief, loss that much less lonely. Some programs have fees while others do not.
  • Virtual Gate. This Gate provides web-based Jewish programming for those without access to communities. This Gate has enabled local members to log in wherever they are. There is a desire to make the services and music of Sha’ar available to those who can’t enjoy it live, such as hospital patients and homebound individuals.

Ongoing Innovation

Sha’ar Communities is continually exploring and developing new Gates. Sha’ar continues to look at new revenue models for each Gate and modifications in the overall revenue model for Sha’ar.

Sha’ar is looking at how to more closely connect different Gates without undermining the premise of the model which is based on choice not membership. Sha’ar Communities has recently implemented a fellowship fee across all of the Gates. The fellowship fee is a voluntary suggested fee to sustain the overall organization. The fellowship approach helps people be more aware that though they are exercising their choice to invest in one model, they are part of the larger Sha’ar network.

Sha’ar Communities is an experiment in differentiation and integration. Sha’ar Communities demonstrates it can be sustainable as an integrated network where all of its components are differentiated – differentiated in terms of unique membership, activities, types of competencies needed and above all revenue sources.

Barry Camson consults with Jewish institutions, businesses and networks. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com.

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