Reinventing the Synagogue
a conversation with Allison Fine




Allison Fine is president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York; author of
Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age (2006); and co-author, with Beth Kanter, of The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (2010). She was interviewed by the Reform Judaism magazine editors.

You have said that congregations must operate differently than they do today. Why shouldn’t synagogues continue to function as they do now?

The downside of the status quo is easy to see—the downsizing of Reform synagogues throughout North America. Today, congregations are losing members at an alarming rate. The rate of attrition is more pronounced in areas with large Jewish populations because people have so many choices of ways to explore or express their Judaism. In my area, Westchester, New York, for example, there are five synagogues, a JCC, and Chabad in just a few square miles. But whatever the location, fewer Jews are simply choosing to affiliate.

Is this flight from congregational community specifically a Jewish problem?

It is a much larger problem. Social scientists are lamenting the loss of social capital in communities. With so many of us living largely alone inside our homes, member rates in local clubs, political parties, and congregations across denominations have fallen precipitously.

Why are congregations losing members at an alarming rate?

For a long time Reform synagogues lost members after b’nai mitzvah, but the pipeline of incoming families with young children was robust, so we were in good shape. Regardless of how people felt about synagogues as b’nai mitzvah factories, it was a sustainable business model.

A new trend fundamentally changes this model. Instead of joining a synagogue solely for the purpose of seeing their children become bar or bat mitzvah, families are finding less expensive and less time-consuming routes, such as hiring bar/bat mitzvah tutors and hiring a rabbi to officiate at a service held in their home, at a catering hall, or another venue.

But perhaps without realizing it, families are losing something very important—the community that comes with synagogue life. Jews cannot be Jewish alone, by themselves. The most powerful part of our religion is the communal experience of being together to worship, learn, serve, and take care of one another. Doing so takes a community, and a community needs a place. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but there has to be a gathering place, on the ground.

What do you believe synagogues need to do differently to retain and attract members?

Congregations need to rethink the decades-old model of synagogues as top-down hierarchies churning out life cycle events and programs for their membership. Synagogues are overflowing with wonderful people, but the structure—and, therefore, by definition, the processes and systems—demand caution and control. In this risk averse environment, congregations suffocate creativity and lose opportunities to experiment with new ways to engage their communities. Synagogues tend to be very busy places, with people rushing to get out the newsletter, organize that next event, and send donation thank-you letters. But in all this busyness, congregants become little more than dues-paying, High Holy Day-going, b’nai mitzvah-getting consumers. In this model, leaders lose sight of each individual congregant: his/her passions and fears, struggles and gifts.

I call this the loss of “matter-ness.” When people feel like they are just one more of anything in a system, it is personally devastating. This is why the Dilbert cartoon exists, to make fun of the cog-ness felt by so many employees. But at least those workers are getting paid! In the synagogue model, congregants too often feel that they are being asked to pay to be a cog. That isn’t a sustainable model.

Beneath any complaint I’ve ever received as temple president (e.g. “no one called when I was sick,” “my bill is wrong,” “the event I organized wasn’t listed in the announcements”) was the individual’s sense that he or she didn’t matter to the synagogue—that if s/he disappeared from the temple today, no one would care. We began calling all of our congregants right before the High Holy Days two years ago just to say thank you for being members of our community. At first, people thought we were just warming up to ask them for a donation. But that was it; thank you. We have heard from dozens of congregants how appreciated we made them feel.

If synagogues lose the battle of “matter-ness,” they cannot survive.

They need to move to a networked model to create a more authentic and fulfilling engagement between leaders and congregants—as well as between congregants.

What do you mean by a networked model?

Networks are flat and open. Information flows freely, and people do what they do best, which is talk, share, and connect with like-minded people. In this environment, individuals self-organize, shape their situations, and give generously of time and money. In short, networks are the opposite of top-down hierarchical institutions.

When an organization envisions itself as part of a network, just one node in a larger network of people and institutions, all sorts of wonderful things are possible. Rather than staff rolling the boulder uphill alone, people on the outside can offer their ingenuity in problem solving. When they believe they matter, they will be openhearted in contributing their artistry.

In a networked model, communities are “in conversation.” If you think about it, all social networks are powered by conversations—and all social media tools are vehicles for conversations. That’s how we have always connected, shared, and built relationships. Videos that go viral are stories that strike us as particularly funny or sad or moving. Facebook and Twitter messages are parts of larger, ongoing conversations about what matters to us. Sometimes they’re poignant, such as a friend’s announcement on Facebook that she just completed her last chemotherapy treatment. Sometimes they are controversial, such as a blog post from the parent of a camper with special needs who was sent home because the child required more care than the camp was prepared to provide. And, yes, sometimes these conversations are inane—but, then, sometimes life is inane, too.

Congregants are our best problem solvers. They know far better than staff, clergy, or lay leadership what they want and why. The job of leadership is to be “in conversation” with as many congregants as possible, engaging them in discussions about “where we want and need to go as a community.” Once leaders are listening to what really matters to people, then they can create new programs together as experiments, and provide a running commentary about how things are going.

Being “in conversation” with your community does take practice. My synagogue is still a work in progress in this regard. As temple president I often asked a question online and didn’t receive any answers or comments. I didn’t make a mistake by asking it; I learned that the language I was using, or the timing, didn’t make it sticky for anyone. If it’s an important question, I’ll try it again another way.

This conversational way of working should be a natural transition for synagogues—we like talking a lot! However, it requires organizational leaders to give up control of the message and get over the assumption that they are supposed to have answers in order to appear “smart.”

How would synagogues need to relinquish control?

For decades, people running institutions have been taught that their job is to create, plan, strategize behind closed doors, and then announce their initiatives to an outside world breathlessly awaiting the new campaign. Maybe that worked at one time, but it certainly doesn’t today.

For instance, a Jewish day school announced a significant change in their schedule as a fait accompli by email. It would have been much more effective and actually built their community to have started the conversation on their blog about what they were thinking about doing and why. What evolved would automatically have more buy-in from their community at the end, even if everyone didn’t agree with it.

The goal isn’t to create a complete consensus on an issue (we are Jews, after all!); it is to make sure people feel the process was transparent and thoughtful.

Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey brings congregants into conversation by posting text and questions on Twitter, Facebook, and his blog and then inviting all community members to learn, discuss, and explore the text together. Towards the end of the week he uses the community comments “like a primary text,” he says, weaving the communal conversation into his sermon.

But this kind of transparency is very difficult for organizations accustomed to having high walls for protection.

Are Jewish institutions particularly reluctant to practice openness?

Jewish institutions have historic and legitimate reasons to shy away from transparency and exposure—people have been trying to kill us for a long time. Years ago it was much safer to hide behind high, opaque walls, and much wiser to become risk averse, as mistakes could lead to persecution. This is the DNA embedded not only in our institutions, but in our souls, and it’s very hard to undo.

But we need to do it. The walls are already down between people and institutions. Any information that used to be inside is now out by email, text message, photos, blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets. Trying to keep stuff in is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. And, thank goodness, our challenges are so different today in North America. Threats aren’t from the outside, but from the inside—from existing members who feel anonymous and overlooked, as well as from potential members who have so many ways they can express and practice their Judaism.

For our ultimate success, synagogues must become easier to enter from the outside and easier for congregants to understand and help shape on the inside.

What are some practical steps that synagogues can take to become easier to enter and to shape?

Here are three.

First, ask people who are not members of your congregation to look at your website, bulletin, and other materials. Are your values clear? Is it easy to find out when things are happening? Most importantly, are the people who make things happen clearly identified, to answer visitors’ questions? No one wants to talk to a logo; people want to talk to other, real people.

Second, be in conversation with your congregation online, through a blog on your website, or on Facebook. My congregation’s Facebook group has become a popular venue for people to share articles, ask questions (“Which caterer did you use?” “Where do I get the best challah?” “I just lost my job; anyone know a labor attorney?”). To be successful, it’s important that a staff person or congregant be trained as a network weaver—someone who can host conversations, post good content, make sure questions are answered, stir the pot every day.

Third, temple leaders need to talk more openly about money. For folks who ask congregants for money all the time, we ourselves are awfully reluctant to share where it goes. I’m not suggesting that salary information be posted online, but that synagogues create a financial narrative of how much money comes in from dues and contributions; how it is allocated using meta-categories, such as staffing and building; and, most importantly, what the outcomes are from all of this work. Synagogue outcomes aren’t measured simply by counting fannies in seats on Friday night. They include clergy and congregant hospital visits, the number of times the temple served meals to homeless people…in essence, the amount of goodness we are sending into the world. Tikkun olam, repair of our world, is what matters most.

You have advocated a new approach to Youth Engagement which you call “followship.” What does that mean?

In using the word “followship” I am describing the more nuanced realities of leadership. The truth is, people are and need to be both leaders and followers at the same time. Just as life is never going to be all online or on land but a combination of both, good leaders don’t just take charge and bull their way forward; they need to follow their communities as well.

With youth engagement, just like adult engagement, it all begins by leaders being great listeners. The good news is, we already have an amazing toolset—social media—that allows us, like never before, to listen carefully to what our kids are doing and saying. I’m not advocating lurking or stalking young people, but rather, asking them good questions and connecting with them online, where they already are.

A particularly important component of followship is leaving the specifics of the journey up to the participants. So, rather than setting the religious school curriculum for the year and giving young people a few choices of topics, perhaps during the summer synagogue leaders could engage teens in an online conversation about their interests. Leaders would be active participants in the conversations, but would refrain from dominating and steering the discussion to a particular outcome. If a number of teens express interest in sports, for example, leaders might propose a three-month discussion about Jewish ethics in sports: “Is it OK to use steroids if everyone else is?” “Would you let cheaters into the Hall of Fame?”

In this model, leadership means guiding others to a place of collective responsibility and meaning. It pushes the reset button on the very notion of teaching, which I think is a very exciting opportunity.

You are now completing your term as president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York. Have you implemented some of these ideas in your congregation, and how well have they worked?

My tenure as temple president was not a victory lap. A lot of work needed to be done internally to change our culture, rethink expectations of congregants, and take down our protective walls. The biggest challenge was reorienting the board to lean into an uncertain future rather than raise the walls higher. This meant unhooking from the micro-management of activities that so many boards fall into by accident or habit (e.g. board time spent reading through financial statements line by line.) We also had to trust that our congregants would love us if we did a better job of listening to and appreciating them. You can read my case study about this, “The Prequel to The Networked Nonprofit.”

However, I don’t know if we have deepened our relationship with individual congregants. I don’t know if we are doing a better job of keeping congregants longer. It will be years before we know whether we have really reversed the tide of members leaving after b’nai mitzvah.

In the meantime, we have at least begun a congregation-wide conversation about our dues structure and whether or how we could replace it with a voluntary system of contributions. You can read our initial thoughts about restructuring dues on the temple blog.

I sincerely hope our temple moves away from sending people a bill to pay and towards a system of donations that builds upon the generosity and good will of our wonderful community. It will take a great leap of faith for us to undo the financial certainty of dues, even though in the long run, I think, it does us more harm than good. But where better to take a leap of faith than at temple?

Union for Reform Judaism.