Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Small Groups, Connectivity and a Path Forward for Synagogues

Part 2 of 2

by Robert Evans and Bryan Schwartzman

Picture this: the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California boasts some 25,000 members. And you think your synagogue seems too big and impersonal?

Despite the numbers, the institution made famous by Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren has found a way to make the community seem much more intimate: Saddleback facilitates more than 7,000 small groups that meet weekly. Groups of families, couples, and singles gather, socialize, study scripture, follow a program, and grapple with how Christianity shapes each of their lives. Many of these small groups have existed for years, becoming both a community within a community and a kind of extended family. It is not meant to replace church services but instead to supplement worship. On a typical week though, more people attend a small group session than a church service.

Small groups, at their best, provide two of the primary things people are looking for in a congregation: meaning and friends. Could this model provide inspiration for synagogues? More and more people are starting to think that it can. For years, there was a reticence within Jewish circles to borrow ideas from the Evangelical community. But that has changed as congregations have begun to look outside Jewish circles for examples of welcoming and nurturing spiritual communities.

As we continue to digest the findings from the recent Pew study on American synagogue life and how Jews relate to their congregations, new thoughts appear daily. The Jewish application of the small group model is in its infancy. But the idea has tremendous potential in terms of membership retention, fundraising and, ultimately, providing a meaningful experience and sense of community. If it works and proves replicable on a large scale, the idea just may bring about a new paradigm in synagogue life – and in the process create generations of members who are committed to congregations and ready to invest in their futures.

“Developing meaningful connections and relationships are at the core of what Judaism is about,” says Rabbi Ari S. Lorge, assistant rabbi of Central Synagogue in Manhattan, which had begun a pilot program with eight small groups and next will expand the initiative to 30 groups. “Jewish life is meant to be lived with others. Congregations are some of the best places where those bonds can occur.”

Now, it is important to keep in mind that “connectivity” is one of the buzz words right now in the synagogue world. Many congregations are realizing, belatedly, that if their members don’t form meaningful relationships with other members, staff, and clergy, they won’t stick around. And they certainly won’t support campaigns or become committed leaders. Knowing that is one thing, figuring out what to do about it is something else.

Initially, we had planned to devote two posts on the topic. But we’ve been in touch with various Jewish leaders and synagogue representatives from across the country and many – including Temple Aaron in St. Paul – are trying innovative approaches. Relationship building is such an important issue in congregational life that we are sure to devote future posts to the topic. (Our previous post examined how synagogues might use software to build relationships among its members.)

In his 2013 book Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, Ron Wolfson argues for replacing a programmatic approach to Jewish life with a relational one. The professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, a Conservative institution, Wolfson envisions congregations that actively help congregants develop relationships with one another, with clergy and staff, and with Jewish texts, tradition and, yes, God. It’s not that the relational model doesn’t exist in Judaism – we did, after all, invent the chevruta study model – it’s just that some sectors of the Jewish world have gotten away from a relational focus and have become obsessed with programming.

Some groups really do get the relational approach, like Hillel and Chabad, writes Wolfson. And others, like the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and many Conservative congregations, are taking a substantive look at what it means to take a relational approach, he notes in a recent interview with us. He adds that he’s particularly intrigued by the Reform movement’s pilot small groups program, based upon the mega church model.

For nearly 20 years, he has looked to the mega church world for inspiration and has closely followed the Saddleback model.

“They are way ahead of us,” says Wolfson, in an interview with us, referring to Evangelical churches. The pastor of a church the size of Saddleback “knows he can’t connect to 25,000 members. He knows the most important task is to get a new member connected to a small group.”

One of Wolfson’s longtime friends is Pastor Steve Gladen, who is the author of Small Groups with a Purpose and architect of the small groups system at Saddleback. It’s clear from talking with Gladden that the model was developed within a Christian context and adapting it for Jewish use isn’t a simple affair. Rather than use words like engagement or connectivity, Gladden talks about how the small group approach has a strong New Testament basis. House to house proselytizing, Gladden explained, is how the gospel was spread in Christianity’s early days.

The focus of the lay-led groups, said Gladen, is for individuals to incorporate God into their lives. This is a point that might be most difficult from a liberal Jewish perspective, with its strong emphasis on personal choice and individuals seeking their own meaning. The church knows where it wants its members to go, how it would like individuals to behave, and the small group is the vehicle.

“One of the classic leadership principles is that the shepherd picks the next pasture, not the sheep,” Gladen says. “We are not so vague on what we want people to achieve.” For group leaders, the church “set up guard rails so your group leader doesn’t drive the group off the road.”

In December, Gladen attended the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in San Diego and met with representatives of five congregations spread across the country that were interested in the Saddleback model. (In addition to Central Synagogue, the congregations that took part were: Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, The Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, The Temple in Atlanta, and Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.) The congregations formed a “Community of Practice” and pledged to explore the small group model with URJ’s support and guidance. Some of the congregations had already been developing a pilot program and others were starting from scratch.

Lorge, the assistant rabbi of the 2,300 family Central Synagogue in Manhattan, says that while much of the small group language doesn’t work in a Jewish setting, there is nothing about the concept that is antithetical to Judaism.

The synagogue called its pilot program “Central Conversations.” The eight groups, that met in members apartments around Manhattan, revolved around discussion topics set by the clergy. Lorge says some of those groups will continue into year two, while others are disbanding. Next year, there will be 30 groups, but Lorge says he hopes there will be hundreds within a few years. The trick is to get volunteers to really take ownership since no congregation can micromanage hundreds of groups. “In an ideal world, every member of our congregation would be engaged in a small group,” he says.

At Temple Emanu-El, a 2,500 family-member Dallas congregation that is in the midst of a $32 million capital campaign, the small group pilot project was called Sh’ma Emanu-El. It had three kick-off events last fall, which included 450 members of the congregation. From January through March, temple members hosted 75 Havdalah parties, with 8-10 people attending each party. The congregation is planning to launch 25 small groups in the fall.

Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El calls Sh’ma Emanu-El “a simple, yet radical idea to bring temple members together in intimate settings to learn and laugh, to rest and rejuvenate, to deepen connections with one another, to temple, to God and to the rhythms of Jewish time and life.”

“All Sh’ma groups” he continues “will engage in Jewish learning and function on the principle that when we create meaningful relationships within the congregation, members can love and be loved, know and be known, serve others and be served, celebrate and be celebrated in both the large and small gatherings of congregational life.”

Diana Einstein, the synagogue’s director of community connections, says that the small group concept “is so different from anything I have experienced in Jewish community life, and I have worked for Jewish nonprofits basically my entire life. It is a huge cultural change for Reform Judaism, if that is the direction that it goes.”

This idea may take off like wildfire or just become another flash in the pan idea in the Jewish world. Most likely, it will end up somewhere in the middle. Whether or not congregations adopt this particular approach, synagogue leaders and volunteers need to make sure that members feel connected to at least a half a dozen people within the congregation. That will go a long way toward ensuring that someone will feel invested in the synagogue, and may want to give back.

Jews really do want to connect with others and explore aspects of Jewish civilization, tradition, heritage, and religion in a meaningful and safe space. Synagogues need to try all kinds of things to make that happen. Failure may be an option, but failure to try is not.

[In case you missed: Part 1, Like-Minded Jews: How Can Congregations Solve the Riddle of Relational Judaism and Impact Giving?]

Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofit organizations and conducting fundraising campaigns in major metropolitan areas nationwide. Regarded as an authority on campaign strategy, Mr. Evans is known for his inventive campaign plans that have enabled clients to reach development goals even in the most challenging circumstances. He sits on the Giving USA Editorial Review Board and serves on the National Steering Committee for Giving Tuesday. He writes a regular column for eJewishPhilanthropy.com and is quoted frequently in mainstream and professional media outlets.

Bryan Schwartzman is manager of marketing and communications at the Evans Consulting Group.