Why Does Synagogue Change Miss the Mark? Think Structuralist vs Experientialist

By Kathy Elias

Anne, Adam and Ariel belong to the same congregation. If you ask them what they want from their synagogue, they use exactly the same words:

“To feel embraced and supported … Grounded, a place that feels like “home”…Stability – to know the synagogue community will be there if they need it.”

If you ask them how to make all of that happen, they use exactly the same word: change.

If you ask them what to change, well, that’s where we get into problems. You’d have to know more about them to understand what they’re imagining.

Anne has been on the board of directors for eight years, and a member of the congregation for more than 20. It makes her sad to see how much the Shabbat morning crowd in the sanctuary has decreased. In her Conservative synagogue, it seems like they’re reading every word of the prayer book. They move back and forth from the Hebrew to English, in an attempt to keep people engaged. She’s pretty sure that shortening the service will make a difference and bring people back into the seats. To shave off 10 or 15 minutes, she’d like the clergy and ritual committee to start with a change in their policy that requires reading the full Torah portion of the week.

Adam drops off his toddler twins to the early childhood program at the shul every morning. He grew up in the community, (his grandparents were founding members), and, in his youth, he was the USY chapter president. He and his wife like the Tot Shabbat program on Saturday mornings for the sake of the kids, but they’re not interested in what’s going on in the sanctuary. They’d like babysitting and an alternative, lay-lead service with more Hebrew, music and participation. The change he’d like to see is more options on Shabbat.

Ariel is a single mom with two kids. She was one of the most active volunteers in the early childhood program, creating a “friendship circle” that rotates Shabbat dinner every week among four families who are now the key leaders of the Tot Shabbat service on Saturday mornings. They are talking about banding together to start their own family learning chavurah instead of sending their kids to the congregational school. She’d like the bar/bat mitzvah policy to change so that this is accepted as preparation, and wants the Education Director to give them the learning goals that they’d be expected to reach.

Put on your change management kippah and look closely at what will change if each person could get what they want. Which change tinkers with what exists already? Which calls for creating something new? What is dismantled with every change?

Anne’s solution to shorten Shabbat morning services might take time and might even cause some friction with the ritual committee, but Anne is not proposing to overhaul or do away with the service itself. Ariel, however, is opting out of the congregational school. She and her friends want to create something outside the traditional synagogue structure. Their invitation to the Education Director to provide the parameters is, in itself, a challenge to the synagogue structure. And everyone understands that the stakes are high – if the four families in Ariel’s group choose to go it alone, it would remove ten children from the community.

This tension is one of the core findings of United Synagogue’s research in the last year as we explored how to partner with kehilla leaders for our next convention in 2015. We came out of our Centennial celebration and convention in 2013, The Conversation of the Century, with the goal of moving from conversation to action. We surveyed kehilla leaders, reviewed data from thousands of members of the congregations in our strategic planning program, and looked for patterns in what they said they valued and how they spoke about change.

What we found can be summed up by two divergent perspectives. It’s what makes kehilla leaders feel like they’re chasing a moving target that never gets closer or clearer. We’re calling it the gap between structuralists and experientialists.

Structuralists understand and value synagogue communities. They want to strengthen them. Their approach is to make changes to the existing structure of their community – changing Shabbat service customs, hiring different clergy and staff, tweaking their membership dues models, consolidating their school or merging with another congregation. This is not for the faint of heart. Structuralist leaders are often willing to risk their personal and familial time, peace of mind, and faith in the structures themselves, year after year, trying to find the recipe for a vibrant kehilla.

Experientialists want to strengthen their Jewish lives. They understand and value the myriad of options they have in and out of synagogues to accomplish this. Their approach to get what they need is to create it themselves, find solutions that work, and/or move through experiences until they get the right fit. This is not for the faint of heart, but experientialists see the world built this way in real time all around them – a connected, crowd-sourced, DIY world where technology, the economy and social structures change almost as quickly as an Amazon app on Google Play.

Structuralist leaders say things like, “Why don’t they want to join us?” and “If we only had better … (pick one) … marketing materials, programs, music, participatory services, clergy, ways to explain Conservative Judaism, relational strategies… it would bring in new people.”

Experientialists say, “I value being Jewish, but I don’t need to pay to feel Jewish,” and “Why should I work on a committee and wait for a group to decide what I can or can’t have? It can be created now, and I can find it myself if I need to.”

If you think that this chasm falls along generational lines, you might be right. The generations of baby boomers and their parents built our synagogue structures, and, in many kehillot, still tend to be the majority in the leadership. Experientialists are probably younger, and may or may not be members of kehillot.

But if you only think only in generational terms, you’ll miss the big picture. Structuralists and experientialists can cut across generational lines. It’s possible for a person to be both, depending on what part of their lives we’re talking about. In the examples I gave, Ariel imagines the most experientialist change in educating her children, but she is still trying to work within the existing structure. Deeply dedicated to her Conservative congregation, Anne might go to High Holiday services at the Reform Temple so she can be with her grandchildren.

And, keep in mind,  I have not given a fourth profile – Avery – an experientialist who won’t come near the kehilla that Anne, Adam and Ariel are changing.

These divergent perspectives affect every aspect of our synagogues from our board tables to our kiddush lunch tables. But it’s not hopeless. When we look for where these perspectives converge, that place seems to be around shared values about feeling embraced, supported, connected and grounded in a living Jewish tradition.

If change is going to happen, structuralists will need to see possibilities beyond their perspective, and experientialists will need to be given the tools to build what they envision. For that reason, at United Synagogue, we’re incorporating this lens into our all of our kehilla strengthening and transformation programs, and, in November, creating the place where structuralists and experientialists can learn to work together.

We’re designing our next convention, from November 13-17, 2015, as the largest Jewish workshop in the world. Our call to action is to Shape the Center. We especially want people like Anne, Adam and Ariel to attend as a team from their kehilla, people who will dedicate themselves to shaping their communities with openness and shared intention. We want everyone at the convention to feel empowered to pursue an optimistic vision for the future, and feel connected to the thousands of others who will do the work of transformation in kehillot across the globe.

If I said, “Join us!” I would sound like a structuralist. So, instead, I’ll say, “In November, let’s get to work… together.”

Kathy Elias is Chief Kehilla and Strategy Office at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.