Guess the Magic Word




Q: What’s the best way to spend two days in January?
A: To be locked in a cold, air conditioned hotel in Dallas, TX!

Jeanne Adler, our Executive Director, and I just spent 2 days, meeting with three dozen of the largest Reform congregations in North America. Under the aegis of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), we were asked to come together and discuss how we might work more effectively as congregations (and collectively, as large congregations) in creating that vibrant Jewish future all of us strive towards achieving.

In the course of our time together, we discussed many issues: security (we are all concerned how to balance openness with safety); social media (what’s the best way to get “eyeballs” on our message…answer: everything); how to grow new leadership (provide opportunities to learn and lead); how to grow a spiritually meaning-filled prayer experience (lots of intentionality and experimentation).

However, the biggest topic of our time together was: ENGAGEMENT. Quite simply, how do we create community? For the working assumption for (almost) everyone thinking about the future of synagogues is that meaning, connection, and continuity (sound familiar?) will only happen when we engage with one another, creating a strong sense of interdependent community.

Makes sense, right?

Sometimes, though, we don’t always do what makes sense. And like the three dozen other congregations between 1,000 and 3,000 membership units we met with, it is hard for a 145 year old institution to shift towards new models of behavior. In other words, it’s tough to change.

However, if there is one lesson we learned from our 36 hours with Rabbi Rick Jacob (president of the URJ), Amy Asin (newly appointed vice-president of the URJ), and a number of the top professional leadership of the Reform movement, it was that change IS coming. The question posed before us? Do we want to lead the change or be forced to react to the change?

We all knew the right answer. And we spent our time together imagining how we make engagement/community (or as we call it: meaning, connection, continuity) central to all that we do. It was hard work. But, it was also revealing.   

Here are three truths we learned from our time in Dallas:

1. B’nai Jehudah is doing great! Things other congregations are just beginning to speak about, we have been working on for more than 8 years. We know our core purpose. We know our core values. We know our BHAG (Big Holy Awesome Goal). Many of the other large congregations don’t. They are scrambling to do the creative work we accomplished years ago.
2. Synagogue life is changing. We can no longer run the congregation the way our parents’ and grandparents’ generations did. People are seeking meaning in different ways…and many of them are found outside the walls of the synagogue. If we – and other congregations – are to remain relevant, we must be willing to change and respond in new and dramatic ways to what people want/need. 

3. Our community will help us change. To accomplish #2 above and to continue to be a leader in Jewish living (as demonstrated by #1 above), we must recommit to “design creativity,” a process by which we – staff, volunteer leadership, and congregants – dream what opportunities/challenges exist, brainstorm creative approaches to address them, prototype solutions, and be willing to commit to a new path.

Again, we have already made important additions to our staff in order to deepen our sense of community. Rabbi Beryl Padorr, our Shared Vision Coordinator, has the task of helping each/all of us to discover our Jewish journeys and how B’nai Jehudah can be a partner along that path. Cantor Sharon Kohn is growing our Chesed (caring) efforts, to permit B’nai Jehudah to be the loving and supportive family each of us needs at many times in our lives.

Over the next number of months, you will hear more about how we might grow in our “engagement” efforts. And we will invite you to dream with us, to imagine what B’nai Jehudah can be…even as we remain committed to our core purpose, core value, and BHAG.

Despite what some doomsayers might predict, it is an awesome time to be involved in synagogue life. Together, and with the help of the URJ, we will transform the most essential organization of American Jewish life into a deeper place of meaning, connection, and continuity…a place we call “community.”