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Action: A Vision for Your Synagogue
by Jane E. Herman

Proverbs 29:18 teaches us that “When there is no vision, the people perish.” Life coach Anthony Robbins counsels that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” How can congregations steer clear of these pitfalls, moving forward in concert with their members’ needs and aspirations? One effective way is through strategic visioning.

What, you may ask, is visioning? Judith Erger, the Union for Reform Judaism’s former governance, leadership development, and architecture specialist, defines it as “a creative process of thinking large, defining whatis unique and beloved about the synagogue, and articulating core Jewish values and hopes. Visionary leaders think beyond the present realities to dream in color about a different or brighter future for the congregation.”

The visioning process itself can become a means of community building and bonding, form touchstones for congregational decision making, and offer individual members new entrees into active synagogue life.

Consider these examples:

  • In Westport, Connecticut, the entire membership of Temple Israel is being tapped to engage in a strategic planning process “to understand who we are as a congregation, who we want to be…and to transform ourselves into a visionary congregation that is better prepared to meet the needs of 21st century American Reform Jews,” says temple president Diana Muller. “Some 275 people are participating in focus groups and feeling a renewed energy for being part of our congregation—hearing about different facets of temple life that they might not have paid attention to before nor realized were important to other people: things like our Saturday morning service and Torah study group, our classes on understanding the prayer book, and our social events focused around one constituency like our Early Childhood Center families. They’re grateful that somebody asked them what they want from their synagogue, and they are learning from each others’ stories.” Socializing time has been built into every focus group, enabling members to catch up on one another’s lives. Muller says that the process is “translating into a renewed ‘investment’ in what it means to be a member of our congregation. Attendance is up at nearly every Shabbat service and event. We’ve reinforced this positive energy by making immediate, small, noncontroversial, but significant changes, such as including an educational piece at our worship services that will be mailed to the membership later on so people can learn on their own time; and adding a social component to every congregational program so that members and clergy can connect informally. Calls and letters thanking us are coming in! The real strategic plan will take longer to develop, but these changes symbolize how serious we are to build a new culture.”

  • At Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey, a 2004 mission statement, which grew out of the congregation’s visioning process, is often revisited when decisions need to be made, such as at budget time and with regard to leadership. Rabbi Joel Mosbacher calls it “a ‘litmus test’ of new initiatives when we ask, ‘Is this what we’re about?’” For example, he says, several years ago, a proposal to hold karate classes at the temple was brought to the board. “While it was a good idea in the abstract, it didn’t further the vision we had for ourselves.” It also informs the direction the congregation is going, “helping us,” he says, “to be a relational rather than a transactional place.” Now, he meets one-on-one with all prospective members, congregational leaders mentor new families, and board members contact all b’nai mitzvah families to follow up shortly after the simcha. In these ways, he says, “we build a culture where people connect
    with one another.”

  • At Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, a two-year visioning process began in 2003 out of the congregation’s 2002 rabbinical search process, during which 200+ temple members with different needs—parents of young children, empty nesters, 20- to 40-year-old singles, etc.—engaged in “a candid, transparent congregational needs assessment that led to the recognition that the congregation required change and revitalization following the 50-year combined tenure of the two previous senior rabbis,” say congregants and organizational development consultants Jane and Eric Herzog, who spearheaded the process. Once the new rabbi was on board, nearly 300 members took part in small group “Link and Learn” sessions in people’s homes to get to know one another and understand what about their community was important to each of them. These gatherings, among other things, also inspired new members to become active. For example, after new members Dodie and Roy Danchick experienced “Link and Learn,” they became involved with social action projects; Dodie now coordinates the team of temple volunteers working at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica.

  • King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Temple Brith Achim's 2008 visioning process resulted in a three-pronged mission statement centered on Torah (teaching), brit (community) and avodah (spirituality). It also uncovered an unrealized change in the congregation’s demographics. Identifying growth in the number of young families led to the opening of an Early Childhood Learning Center, which now meets needs of this demographic and also has brought new members—parents and grandparents—into the synagogue family. The thriving Center brings together all three pillars of the mission statement, educating children (and their parents), connecting families with one another, and providing opportunities for spiritual growth and exploration through worship.

  • At Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, conversations among 500 members in 2003 led to a vision statement that continues to help the congregation create new initiatives. For example, in response to the statement’s pillar to “promote in the Jewish state the values of democracy, justice, and pluralism,” the congregation recently spent 18 months focusing on Israel, “encouraging everyone to support Israel even as they wrestle with their relationship with the Jewish state and, when needed, articulate concern and critique,” says Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker. The year-long programming culminated with an Israel conference and fair called “(Re)Discover Israel” that featured 12 speakers; engaged 450 people from Mount Zion and the community; and was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Consulate of Israel, and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Jewish Studies.

How can your congregation best embark on a visioning initiative? Here are 10 tips from synagogue leaders and strategic planning professionals:

  1. Make sure that the congregation’s lay leaders, clergy, and staff “have a shared understanding of why the process is occurring, who will be involved, which core Jewish values ground the partnership, and what the desired outcomes are,” says Judith Erger “By modeling a team approach steeped in such Jewish values as commitment to community [“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” Isaiah 56:7], the foundation is laid and the message underscored that the visioning process transcends anyone’s ownership or administration and is foremost about the best interests of the congregation. To communicate that the leadership is ‘on the same page,’ the president and board members can talk about the visioning process in the temple bulletin, and the clergy can incorporate visioning vocabulary from the bimah. This combination will provide support for the effort and for each other.”

  2. Assemble a task force or committee to structure and guide the work of the congregation—but not to create the vision. The committee’s tasks, Erger says, are to gain insight into the congregation’s past and present, as well as its strengths and weaknesses; and to engage the congregation in “visioning” out loud in structured, meaningful ways. She recommends that the team consist of a chair or co-chairs who are available for the duration, about half a dozen people who represent a cross-section of the congregational community, plus the clergy and senior staff as ex-officio members—all of whom have a commitment to the process without bringing a personal agenda to it. Dale Glasser, the Union’s former senior congregational advisor, concurs: “If the conclusion or outcome is anticipated or expected before the process begins, it’s hard to have a process with integrity. The outcome shouldn’t be perceived as someone’s agenda.”

  3. Involve the entire congregation in the process, being careful not to resort to the cultural ethos of top-down problem-solving. Erger points out that “culturally we are programmed to view congregational leaders as problem-solvers, which implies that a) there is a problem; b) there is a solution; and c) it is the leadership’s responsibility to do the bulk of fact-finding and fixing, and present the congregation with a fully formed finished product. In contrast, effective visioning invites everyone on the journey and allows each member’s ‘vision’ to be heard.” Blue Wing Consulting founder Larry Dressler cautions against “having conversations with the usual suspects,” which, he says, “fails to involve people who represent the true diversity of the congregation in terms of age, family structure, history, and interests.”

  4. Pay attention to who’s talking and who’s listening. “The most significant mistake occurs when leadership—with good intentions—forgets to listen and only talks,” Erger says. A facilitator—a congregant with visioning expertise, a Union professional, or an outside consultant—can help. For example, at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts, a consultant “brought a framework to the table, emphasized the importance of listening and engagement, helped us sort through the data, and provided perspective on how the process was going,” says Harvey Cotton, the congregation’s president-elect during the visioning process. However, as Dressler points out, “When consultants are involved, it’s important not to spend too much time having congregants listen to the ‘experts’ and not enough time sharing their own experiences, insights, and dreams with one another.”

  5. Be prepared for resistance. “It is human nature to be adverse to change,” Erger says. “Visioning—which in and of itself suggests change—will inevitably be met with resistance. So figure out how to acknowledge and manage resistance as a natural part of the process. Be mindful that creative and innovative solutions are seldom discovered by like-thinking people. Lack of consensus can be constructive, where it encompasses the diversity of ideas.”

  6. Aim for low-hanging fruit. “The visioning process, from start to implementation of steps toward a new future, often takes 18–24 months,” Erger says. “To maintain energy and momentum [during this extended period], celebrate the victories, find renewal in new people sharing the ‘vision,’ and start with a small change likely to engage the congregation. When people see positive change in which they’ve had a voice, they become more open to larger changes that may follow.” For example, to reinforce the new vision of the temple as “green,” one synagogue’s Men of Reform Judaism asked attendees to start bringing their own (non-disposable) coffee cups from home to the temple’s Sunday bagel brunch. In addition, Dale Glasser says, “give the congregation-at-large a clear timeline for the visioning process—beginning, middle, and end.”

  7. Implement an open, transparent communications plan, making sure members always know what’s being done and why, Dressler says. “When communication about the visioning process is not timely and transparent, people can feel excluded and resentful.”

  8. Develop a vision statement that “evokes emotion and describes the deepest, most profound truth about the congregation,” says Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual at HUC-JIR and a co-founder of Synagogue 3000. Rabbi Hoffman calls this a “Sh’ma statement—an affirmation that can inspire the congregation to respond with a strong ‘amen.’”

  9. Pursue implementation skillfully. The visioning process usually leads to a report of recommendations approved by the board and congregation (at which point the original team is disbanded and the process has ended), but “the living document and new behaviors that the process has engendered sometimes fail to become part of the congregational culture and vocabulary,” Erger says, pointing out that implementation is “the most common area of weakness for visioning congregations. Reports can be written and data compiled, but if the suggested changes are too drastic, a new administration is not fully supportive, or the congregation is faced with ‘an issue,’ the next steps may be assigned a lower concern.” She recommends prioritizing action steps, establishing mutual goals and expectations within a set period of time, and maintaining ongoing communication to evaluate whether the goals are realistically achievable or need adjustment (such as recruiting new people to energize the process).

  10. Consult with the Union for Reform Judaism. On the URJ's Bylaws and Policies page, you’ll find Cultivating the Future: Long-Range Planning for Congregations, which guides synagogues through the long-range planning process, and Hear, O Israel: Creating Meaningful Congregational Mission Statements, which outlines a step-by-step process to create a mission statement that steers the congregation from the present into the future. If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.

Visioning is vital, Erger insists. “The worst mistake you can make is not visioning at all, out of complacency or risk aversion, or by assuming that the future will shape itself as long as the day-to-day operations are handled. We need to think large, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has taught us (in I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology): ‘A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.…”



—Jane E. Herman (JanetheWriter at rj.org), writer and assistant to Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie



 


Union for Reform Judaism.