This article by Rabbi Elliott Tepperman originally appeared in The Rainbow, the monthly newsletter of JRF affiliate Bnai Keshet in Montclair, NJ.
Also see: www.jrf.org/PEARL-resources
At the recent convention of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, I was asked to participate in one of the Opening Forum discussions. The topic was “Strengthening and Transforming Congregational Life.” Hayim Herring, Executive Director, STAR and Amy Sales, Director of the Fisher-Bernstein Institute for Jewish Philanthropy and Leadership at Brandeis University, also spoke. I want to share the thoughts I presented to the convention with you who have been my teachers and fellow explorers in the work of congregational transformation.
During my six years at Bnai Keshet, we have participated in about as many synagogue transformation programs as possible. We were part of the first three-year cohort of Synaplex, we were one of three synagogues to participate in a year of long range planning sponsored by STAR and we are in our third year of funding for a Legacy Heritage and Innovation Project. I am enormously grateful to have been included in each of these projects. Together these programs have provided ongoing and meaningful leadership development for our congregation. They have encouraged us to experiment and expand our programming and vision. They have opened up our Shabbat practice and helped us to launch our Values-In-Action Program and our Shabbat Bet Midrash.
However, my experience with these programs has also left me concerned about some weaknesses in these programs. In particular, synagogue transformation programs are often so focused on the type of programming being developed, and the business of marketing that programming effectively or the business aspects of the synagogue (all of which are important), that they neglect paying close attention to what I believe are the core elements of synagogue life: building relational/covenantal community, building a spiritually meaningful Jewish practice and making Judaism relevant outside the walls of the synagogue.
As an example, one of the most transformational moments in synagogue life is when its members show up to shiva minyanim even when they don’t know the mourners. Being in each other’s homes almost always deepens relationships, but showing up at a shiva minyan helps concretize a covenantal commitment that transcends our particular personal relationships. It helps to clarify that the synagogue, unlike many other membership organizations, comes with an expectation of community and mutual inter-dependence.
During the same time that Bnai Keshet has been participating in the official synagogue transformation programs mentioned above, we have also been engaging in Congregation Based Community Organizing (CBCO). We initially got involved in CBCO as a way of strengthening our commitment to social justice work. I
believe that CBCO has been at least as transformational as any of these programs primarily because of its focus on building relationships and taking action rooted in self-interest. More than 200 members have participated in face-to-face relational meetings and house meetings to determine what kinds of issues might most be in our congregation’s interest to take action on. In these meetings we asked questions like, “What keeps you up at night?” or “What is a pressure or challenge in your life that most affects you or people you care about?” It is remarkable how often Bnai Keshet members have left those discussions feeling profoundly connected to one another, often in a way that they had never experienced before. These conversations have helped fuel our work around ending the genocide in Darfur, caring for the environment and strengthening our relationship to Israel. At the same time they have been an engine for helping to shape our congregations understanding of itself. Our Shabbat in which members of our congregation’s shared stories about
their struggles with healthcare and health insurance transformed our understanding of how these issues effect people in our own community. Over and over again this process has built new lines of connection and community amongst our membership. I think we are still uncovering the impact of telling each other these stories and finding ways to take action in response to them.
I wish there were more programs focused on energizing synagogue services. Services are our most frequent and consistent program. We do them every week. Everyone, even those who rarely attend, understands services to be part of the core mission of a synagogue. Still, there are remarkably few programs or grants centered on vitalizing this core aspect of synagogue life. Programs come and go but services remain. Sadly they often remain unchanged for years on end.
I believe that the core of every congregation should include spiritually energizing and engaging services. Our Ritual Committee (which I hope will officially be renamed the “Spiritual Life Committee”) has recently committed to spending at least 80% of its time focused on deepening the spiritual experience of our members and broadening participation in and leadership of services. One of its projects that we are just starting is a series of experimental Shabbat services. We are planning services that speak to different spiritual edges of our community including: Jewish Renewal, Humanist and energetic traditional. These services are happening in our main sanctuary and are for the entire community. Our hope is that we will all be stretched by these services and expand the spiritual palette of the synagogue. But ultimately we anticipate that these experimental services will help to bring new energy and vitalizing ideas into all of our services.
Too often we settle for stale services rather than demanding exceptional services. Though many people join synagogues for reasons other than services, it is worth noting that many of the most dynamic synagogues in the country have very dynamic services. A vital service brings vitality and new membership to the synagogue.
The best thing that Synaplex and the Legacy Heritage programs have taught us is to experiment. Both grants have pushed us to try new things. Many have failed or proved unsustainable. I think a big part of my job as Rabbi is to support the congregational leadership in trying new things. This includes reminding everyone that
it is all right, even good, to fail. Or that something new we try might be great even if there are some complaints that might change how we do it next time. It also means remembering that change is not always comfortable but that it is o.k. to sometimes be uncomfortable.
This year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our congregation experimented with CART, a system that provides real time captioning for the hearing impaired. Our hope was that CART would make our services more accessible to our members and to the Jewish community as a whole. Though this service would cost some money and might not work perfectly, we felt it was so clearly in line with our community’s core values that we should try it. Ultimately it wasn’t perfect. Some people found it distracting and it was not without technological challenges. We had to remind ourselves not to let these legitimate complaints cause unnecessary anxiety. This was an experiment that grew out of our congregation’s vision of itself as a truly welcoming community. Along with some complaints there were comments from members saying, “I never knew how much I was missing because of my hearing aids.” A first time attendee whose mother is deaf shared how meaningful it was to be at a synagogue with CART after growing up in a synagogue which refused a similar service for her mother. Members of the broader New Jersey Jewish Deaf community have showed up to Friday night services just to see what we are all about.
Was CART perfect? No. But was it an important and transformative experiment? Yes! Most importantly we can learn from its faliures and successes, and get it better next year.
Though every congregational transformation program stresses the importance of evaluating your efforts, it has really again been through our training in organizing (CBCO) that has helped us institutionalize the practice of evaluation. We now end every board meeting and many committee meetings with some time for evaluation.
I hope this practice will expand to many more areas of our synagogue life. It is important because it helps us to appreciate what is working and to recognize what is failing. Sometimes the most important aspects of transformation require disorganizing what isn’t working or what is only average. Ending a program that is struggling or a practice that is not very functional is liberating. It often creates space and energy for something new and energizing. But the most important part of the practice of evaluation is that it creates the expectation that all of our time together matters! Evaluation helps us to remember that our time which we give with great generosity to the community should not be squandered. It reminds us that everything we do together should reinforce our core values and help to build a relational community that is spiritually energizing and relevant to our lives in and outside of the synagogue.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman
|Amy Sales on Transforming Congregations .doc||1.21 MB|
|Strengthening and Transforming Congregational Life.doc||36.5 KB|