What We’ve Learned about Congregations and Movements During the Pandemic

By Amy Asin

When it became clear that the COVID-19 crisis was going to have an impact on our congregations, the Union for Reform Judaism – like our partner organizations in the Reform Movement and like the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Reconstructing Judaism – began to pivot to provide them the support they need to be resilient and thrive in a difficult time.

We’ve been supporting congregations in ways that are both practical and aspirational, driven by their desire to respond to this moment and also to use it as a jumping-off point for deeper change.

The Positive Changes Weve Seen So Far

Amid the many undeniable challenges of this difficult time is the challenge of leading our congregations in a way that responds to a new set of needs. It is our obligation as leaders to reimagine our future and act for swift change to increase the likelihood of future success.

Most exciting are the number of leaders who are looking to act on the obligation to make this crisis a defining moment of change for their congregation. Three thousand unique individuals, representing 75 percent of our congregations, have participated in our discussions and learning opportunities designed to help them pivot; more than two thirds of these leaders have participated in multiple discussions.

The most popular learning session we’ve offered to date, “Reimagining What is Possible: The Next Phase in a COVID-19 World,” attracted more than 750 registrants and has since garnered hundreds of additional views. This session was built on ideas we’ve long been discussing with leaders, including the conversations we had at the URJ Biennial in December 2019 about transformational and disruptive change.

What’s clear, from this session and others, is that our congregations see this moment as an opportunity, and our leaders are looking for guidance on how to not go back to “the way things used to be.” Recognizing the wide berth for experimentation right now, they’re seeing that there are some activities and events they haven’t been able to do since mid-March that they don’t miss much and may not restart in a post-pandemic world – thus allowing them to reallocate precious resources.

We’re also seeing particular interest in innovation in the children’s education space. Popular demand has required us to open up multiple additional sections of our series on reimagining education, even training new facilitators to run the groups and adding options for early childhood educators. The URJ’s experience in running camps and other teen engagement opportunities has girded our collaboration between our congregational and youth arenas to bring online opportunities to our congregations and individual participants.

Congregational leaders have also turned to their movements to help them do their work better and in new ways. The pandemic first hit as congregational leaders were making decisions about Passover, so there was immediate interest in learning how to do Passover and Shabbat online. In addition to working with the Central Conference of American Rabbis and American Conference of Cantors on Passover resources, the URJ taught sessions on using online tools to engage congregants; managing a clergy transition from a distance; and other critical, time-sensitive topics When SBA loans were made available, we worked with the Jewish Federations of North America to train coaches who helped 174 congregations apply for loans totaling $17.2 million.

What Congregations are Asking Themselves (and Us) Right Now

During this seminal moment across the board of congregational life, here are some of the many questions that change leaders are asking today.

  1. How can we uncover and respond to the deep values and needs of our congregants, participants, and potential participants?” For Reform congregations, this largely means bringing the wisdom of our tradition to the questions of becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be and making the world the best version of itself that it can be.
  2. As we experience the success of online engagement, how can we capitalize on the changing geographic reach of our congregation, lowering the focus on our building – even for our congregants?” At the least, this will mean there will always be an online option for attending existing programming. It can also mean collaborations across North America, like the ones for Tikkun Leil Shavuot this year.
  3. What are the new leadership, skills, and resources our community needs?” Broadcasting from the sanctuary (and doing it well) requires new technology and skills; providing smaller group interactive sessions online requires a whole new set of resources. Fortunately, new leaders with new skills are stepping up to take ownership of tasks and decisions that were difficult to imagine in mid-March. From their homes, congregants have mobilized new armies of volunteers to make phone calls and do deliveries.
  4. Who should we be collaborating within our local communities and in our movement networks?” In addition to the collaboration opportunities made available by eliminating geography as a barrier, other collaborations now seem possible and necessary. For example, congregations in the Los Angeles area have created JewItatHome.com, and congregations are collaborating across geography, using the URJ Tent as a communications vehicle, to offer speakers that no individual congregation could afford.
  5. As we contemplate potentially creating a new operating model, how do we pair that with a sustainable alternate economic model?” Previous economic pressures drove congregations to look at new dues models, but now, congregations have an opportunity to take another look at the economic model as an outgrowth of a new business model. Aligning a review of a congregation’s model together with their purpose will make success more likely.

What Were Working on Now

Here are a few of the current priorities for our Reform Movement, driven by congregational need in the current climate:

Congregational leaders throughout North America have shared their appreciation for the value of these much-needed resources. In the words of Beth Young, RJE, Director of Education at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL, “Thank you for facilitating this incredibly valuable series of webinars. The time in these sessions allowed me to stop and be present to where we are right now. At the same time the tools provided formed the basis for starting to envision where we may be headed amidst all of the unknown. This was made even more impactful by doing it in conversation with lay and professional partners from around the country. The value of shared language for navigating these unprecedented times was truly a gift. There are many things I am bringing back to our congregation’s professional and lay leadership that will facilitate and enhance the difficult decisions we are facing.”

  • Preparing for the High Holidays: The URJ alone has engaged with more than 1,000 leaders from 450 congregations in discussion about High Holidays. Through the recently launched Reform Movement Marketplace, we’re identifying new technologies congregations can use to reach participants in Elul and through the chagim. And in partnership with the CCAR, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and other professional partners within the Reform Movement, we’re offering learning opportunities on everything from creating a High Holiday vision to using technology and developing music.
  • Making hard decisions about whether to re-open our buildings: Joining with the Secure Community Network and partners in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, we’ve created and distributed guidance for congregational considerations about building re-openings and other in-person events. We’re also offering access to and discounts on PPE and sanitizing supplies in the Reform Movement Marketplace.
  • Developing and mobilizing leaders for change: We continually bring new leaders and their congregations into our networks with the goal of accelerating change for congregations. We have hundreds of leaders in discussion about what they have lost, what assumptions need to change, what is emerging, and how can they bring other leaders into this conversation to support change. As an example on a topical level, nearly 100 leaders are engaging in learning about small group engagement, with the goal of implementing a pilot at their congregation this fall.
  • Supporting congregational presidents: Leading a congregation is challenging under normal circumstances; leading in COVID-19 times is even more difficult. With the generous support of the Scheidt family, we’re working to bring our congregational presidents into coaching networks so they can get the support they need to make critical decisions.

Amy Asin is the URJ’s Vice President and Director of Strengthening Congregations.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog.