By Elana Rivel, Associate Director

This past Monday, Phil and I spend a day in NY at a meeting of SynaPros – a group of agency-based professionals who work on synagogue transformation in their home communities.  This network of professionals has met for over a dozen years, sharing strategies, program plans, challenges and successes.

Around the table with us were Adina Frydman and Kate Lauzar, SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of NY; David Trietsch, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston; and Lisa Glass and Stephanie Hauser, Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

We began by sharing each agency’s current initiatives to strengthen congregations and their leaders and then moved into identifying trends that we are seeing in synagogue life across our communities that have, and will continue to, inform our work. Some of the trends we identified include:

  • Increased talk and action around collaborations and mergers between and among congregations
  • Families are enrolling children in congregational education programs later (in some cases as late as 4th grade);
  • Professional staff roles and expectations are shifting:
    • The role of the rabbinic changing, including community organizing, looking outside of synagogue walls, pastoral, accessible
    • Rabbis are being asked to take cuts mid-contract or take on additional responsibilities
    • Senior staff positions are being combined (Rabbi/Educator, Cantor/Educator positions are on the rise)
    • The role of the Executive Director is becoming less clearly defined
  • We are seeing an increase in independent religious schools
  • There is a growing recognition that synagogues cannot take for granted that the various segments of their will continue to belong
    • There is a shift from a focus on outreach to one of retention and in-reach
    • The way people think about synagogues is more porous, congregants, and potential congregants are seeing beyond denominational labels
  • The physical structure of the Synagogue building is becoming a greater challenge– its maintenance, under-utilization of, congregant’s connection to (or perceived connection to) – is playing into decisions and strategic plans in new ways.

Our conversation also looked to the future, and the funding realities of these efforts. An increasing number of Federations across the country are recognizing the importance of cultivating strong relationships with their congregations through synagogue strengthening work, but often find it difficult to support these efforts financially,

The challenge for us as professionals working in the area of synagogue change is to measure our successes, to tell our stories of enabling congregations to meet the realities of the 21st century Jewish community, and to leverage communal and national dollars to continue this critical work. As we often say in this network, “just imagine what the community would be like if we weren’t doing this work!”

Phil and I both left the meeting energized with ideas to bring to our Philadelphia community.  We anticipate that these trends will lead to a number of Reshet workshops and communal conversations over the next year to support congregational leadership.

Join us in this work:

  1. Look over the trends above and let us know what you see that rings true and, especially, what you think we have omitted.
  2. Watch for upcoming Reshet workshops for congregational leadership.