Why Synagogues Need a Checklist Manifesto

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

I am always wary about statements regarding synagogue change that involve much too much grand theory and too little thought about actual synagogues. Yes, synagogues need to be “disrupted” and “transformed,” yet that language reflects a complexity that makes it difficult for any community to put that vision into reality. Moreover, when a dynamic, new spiritual community emerges, whether in the form of a transformed synagogue, an independent minyan, or a spiritually emergent community, the Jewish world races to understand the “secret sauce” of that community’s success. Yet most of the time, few, if any, synagogues are able to replicate the formula.

I would like us to pause and consider the possibility that by making the problems facing synagogues overly complex, we sacrifice meaningful opportunities to make synagogues better. The more we commit ourselves to seeing synagogue challenges as a series of discrete actions that can be taught, the more we able to make progress in the long-run. And it all begins with the power of a checklist.

1. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto

Dr. Atul Gawande is proof that God’s gifts are spread unevenly. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, a staff writer at The New Yorker, a founder of several public health organizations, and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” award winner. However, most people are familiar with Gawande because of his four bestselling books, where he captures how the challenges facing doctors in surgical or clinical settings reflect larger questions about the mind and human performance.

My favorite book by Gawande is The Checklist Manifesto, where he argues that we can increase our likelihood of success when we break down large problems to simple, component parts, create a checklist, and use the checklist to ensure that we “get the stupid stuff right” (The Checklist Manifesto, 51). Citing a paper on healthcare reform by Brenda Zimmerman and Sholom Glouberman, Gawande outlines three types of problems that people and organizations face: simple, complicated, and complex.

  • A simple problem is “baking a cake from a mix,” where learning a few basic techniques and following a recipe leads repeatedly to a successful result.
  • A complicated problem is like “sending a rocket to the moon” or developing a new surgical technique, where groups of people with specific expertise can develop a successful method for solving the problem that other teams with similar expertise can replicate.
  • Finally, a complex problem is like raising a child, where even successfully raising one child “does not guarantee success with the next child,” no matter how talented the parent (49).

The above distinction is anything but academic. For example, every bookstore contains hundreds of books about how to be a better parent, yet the majority of those books are a waste of money because they give the impression that a complex problem such as parenthood can be “solved.” In contrast, Gawande makes the case that surgery should be t reated as a complicated problem, where a discrete series of steps in a form of a checklist allows surgeons to balance following the critical protocols “central to doing the job well” while leaving room for “craft and judgment and the ability to respond to unexpected difficulties” (51).

In service of this goal, Gawande spreads the gospel of checklists to everything from helping the World Health Organization (WHO) reduce surgical infections by creating a “Safe Surgery Checklist” for public health systems to helping Rivers Cuomo of Weezer produce his best album in a decade. Accomplishing great things in any field is oftentimes more a matter of art than science, yet Gawande argues that checklists take “advantage of the knowledge that people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies” (13).

2. Synagogues Face Complicated and Complex Problems

Of course, saying that Jewish organizations need more checklists is hardly newsworthy. A number of Jewish organizations created excellent checklists that boil down aspects of synagogue life to critical steps, particularly the STAR Maps created by Rabbi Hayim Herring and the Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR) project. But Gawande’s gospel in the Checklist Manifesto is not about the micro-issues of which checklists are best, but rather the macro-issue of what focusing on checklists says about the ways that human beings can improve their organizations through incremental change.

A typical synagogue is staffed by a small number of full-time staff and a larger circle of volunteers. While we should never discount the role of mission, vision and strategy in cultivating thriving spiritual communities, the reality is that any lofty vision will be actualized by habitualizing behaviors that become ingrained in the community’s culture. As a result, the way to transform how a new generation of synagogue leaders address challenges is through developing a pathway towards thriving that is simpler, not harder, than much of the synagogue literature written today.

Today, synagogues face complex and complicated problems, and understanding that distinction may be the key to unlocking pathways of newfound vitality for synagogues of all shapes and sizes, and ensuring that we do not waste time and energy on complex conversations that do not help any congregations in this moment in time. For example, the question of whether or not Jews are not joining synagogues because more Jews identify as non-denominational or post-denominational is a perfect example of a complex problem. Synagogues have shrunk in membership size for any number of reasons, some of which are related to whether terms like “Conservative” or “Reform” have any meaningful utility in a person’s Jewish journey. However, the role of denominations in Jewish life is one of many societal forces affecting synagogues, and how that might translate into what any individual synagogue can do is ultimately limited, and spending too much time with professionals and lay leaders stressing over it is a sunk cost.

In contrast, Ron Wolfson’s outstanding book Relational Judaism, or the way that Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and the team at Big Tent Judaism forced Jewish institutions to think about “mystery shoppers,” are perfect examples of taking a problem every synagogue faces, namely how to welcome newcomers, and translating that into a complicated problem. We have examples in the Jewish, Christian and for-profit world that model what great engagement looks like, including Chabad, the Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, Illinois, and the Disney Institute run by the Walt Disney Corporation. While many lofty principles lie at the heart of why any institution does what it does, the reality is more institutions will be transformed when focus, first and foremost, is placed on teaching leaders to adopt certain key action steps. By extension, any number of synagogue issues can be broken down into simple, manageable steps that leaders can be taught to ingrain in the community’s culture.

3. Can Synagogues Keep Things Simple?

Synagogues need help on a number of fronts, yet we do a disservice to the professionals and lay leaders in congregations when we make iconoclastic and audacious statements that treat the problems synagogues face as ones too complex to be solved. Instead, synagogues will be transformed when we change the habits and mindset of synagogue leaders through painstaking work and step-by-step implementation. To put it another way, what synagogues need right now is not a Machismo Manifesto, but rather a Checklist Manifesto.

For example, four months ago my colleague Nadine Kochavi and I virtually convened a group of congregational professionals to discuss a single question: What are the 5-6 things that every congregation should do with a newcomer within the first 90 days of first contact? Many of the steps decided by the group were hardly revolutionary, such as assigning someone to escort a newcomer through the shul during his or her first visit, or having a Shabbat dinner invitation from a member of the senior staff or lay leadership. However, the exercise was less about the uniqueness of any one step and more about reducing all the literature around relational Judaism, outreach to the unaffiliated, and so on to the most important next actions synagogue leaders can perform. The checklist we created will not change the world, but it is a resource that any leader with limited time and resources can use without explanation, and in a Jewish world of numerous complicated problems, that deliverable can mean a great deal.

In his most recent The New Yorker article, “The Heroism of Incremental Care,” Atul Gawande argues that, “Success … is not about the episodic, momentary victories, though they do play a role. It is about the longer view of incremental steps that produce sustained progress. That … is what making a difference really looks like.” I would never discount the value of big hairy audacious goals in the Jewish community, but transformative change will not happen until we can teach the masses how to embrace this time of radical change inch-by-inch, step-by-step, checklist-by-checklist. All the rest is commentary.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.