Why Congregational Competition is a Good Thing

chessBy Larry Glickman

Congregational leaders work tirelessly to make their communities strong and allow them to flourish l’dor vador, from generation to generation. That includes bringing new families into the congregation, which strengthens the community both relationally and financially.

Of course, the inverse of a family choosing to join one congregation is that they don’t join the temple down the street or on the other side of town. As a result, our congregations often find themselves competing for every new member in the area.

This competitive spirit seems to extend to the online sphere. Responses to a recent survey of users in The Tent, the communication and collaboration platform for leaders in the Reform Movement, showed that congregational leaders are happy to use resources shared by other congregations, but they’re hesitant to share their own valuable intellectual property with neighboring congregations. They fear their ideas may be copied, that people may decide to join neighboring congregations instead, and that their congregational membership (and ultimately income) will decrease.

Rabbi Jay Moses, vice president of the Wexner Foundation, elaborates on why this is happening:

“Congregations don’t typically collaborate because our institutions are not built to collaborate. The structure and culture of synagogues promote competition: Potential members go ‘synagogue shopping’ and ultimately pay dues and contribute to the viability of one synagogue over all the others. Given that reality, rabbis and synagogue leaders understandably have their identities and egos (to say nothing of their budgets and salaries) tied up in the notion of being ‘better’ and more attractive than other synagogues.”

Collaboration may seem challenging and even in conflict with the sacred work we as synagogue leaders do to grow and strengthen our congregations. Lay and professional congregational leaders want to protect their valuable work so it will benefit their congregation.

But how far does this extend?

To what extent do we want all Jewish families in our area to join our congregation, even at the expense of neighboring congregations? Do we want other congregations to close? Do we want our vibrant Jewish community – with its varied voices and approaches to Reform Jewish life – to be of a single voice?

Perhaps that is an extreme eventuality, but healthy competition between congregations can, in fact, be a good thing. When organizations work in friendly competition with their neighbors, they stay sharp and focused, always moving forward. There are ways to be competitive and cooperative while still maintaining a strong sense of community and individuality – though it might entail a shift in mindset.

Here are three ways your congregation can start embracing other local Jewish institutions:

  1. Work with other congregations to advertise affiliation. “Your four area congregations look forward to celebrating the High Holidays and encourage you to affiliate with the congregation that best serves the needs of your family.” That is a powerful statement that will speak to both the affiliated and unaffiliated Jews of your community.
  2. If your congregation cannot offer potential members an early childhood program, recommend that they enroll their children in the early childhood program at the congregation down the street. Further, recommend they join that congregation, because your congregation recognizes the value of families formally belonging to the sacred community where their children are being educated.
  3. Work hard to create curriculum and programming… and then share it! That may feel like a scary proposition, but it can be incredibly rewarding and powerful. Sit down with leaders at other area congregations and discuss your plans for the upcoming year. Find areas of possible collaboration, including avoiding calendar conflicts. Learn from one another and find continued, shared inspiration.

If this seems daunting, that is understandable – but what if our organizations don’t collaborate? What will happen if we silo ourselves?

In 2001, The Telegraph reported on the Jewish population of Afghanistan, which numbered just two Jews in the whole country. Yitzhak and Zebolan lived across a courtyard from one another, yet each maintained a synagogue of his own – and an intense, years-long dislike of the other.

“He is an old fool whose brains do not work properly,” Zebolan said of Yitzhak.

“He is arrogant and ruthless,” Yitzhak said of Zebolan.

Two Jews, each barred from the synagogue of his neighbor due to a disagreement over ownership of a 500-year-old Torah (which, as a result of the disagreement, was hidden away in a Taliban storage facility). Since the article’s publication, Yitzhak has died and Zebolan continues to care for his synagogue alone. The synagogue across the street stands empty. There is no minyan.

Even if Yitzhak and Zebolan had found a way to utilize effective collaboration techniques, today Zebolan would still be the last Jew of Afghanistan. For a time, though – for a special and sacred time – they would have had community. They would have been able to pray with and learn from each other. They would have been able to celebrate.

Jewish families belong to a temple to be part of a larger community, just as synagogues belong to a movement to be part of a larger community. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, connected to a network with shared interests, passions, and goals – so collaborate with your neighbors and become stronger together.

Larry Glickman, FTA, is the director of Network Engagement and Collaboration for the Union for Reform Judaism. Prior to joining the URJ in April 2013, Larry worked as a synagogue executive director for 10 years, most recently at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL, and served as a board member and officer for the National Association for Temple Administration.

 Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog