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How to Cultivate an Innovative Congregational Mindset

Today in so many contexts, the motto appears to be “innovate or die.” It would be almost impossible to count the number of articles and speeches that have advocated for this approach to business. Innovation success stories such as Apple, GE, and Lego are given as examples to follow; Kodak, Blockbuster, and Borders are the cautionary tales of what can happen when this advice is ignored.

Though they’re run differently, of course, where business goes, the Jewish community has followed – with many suggesting that Jewish organizations and institutions, too, face a choice to innovate or die.

In Jewish circles, those who advocate this mantra often reserve their harshest criticism for the synagogue, which they view as a stagnant, out-of-touch institution that will soon follow the way of the dinosaur. It’s true that synagogues can sometimes be set in their ways, but innovation is taking place, and synagogues can be a focus for this important work to nourish and inspire the Jewish community.

At The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., we try to create a culture that encourages and fosters innovation and an innovative spirit in the work that we do, a result of support and cooperation between both professionals and the lay leadership (hence this article coming from both of us). The UJA Federation of New York’s Synergy Salon series brought together synagogue lay and professional leaders to engage in conversations about cutting-edge issues in Jewish life, triggered by listening to the Judaism Unbound podcast. Through this program, we reflected on how we’ve brought innovation to our synagogue; now, we share the three primary areas that have allowed this culture to develop and succeed in our community.

1. Experimentation, acceptance of risk, and a willingness to fail

When a member of the synagogue executive board first advocated for a gift membership program to provide the first year of congregational membership for free, there was some initial hesitation. People were concerned about the financial implications; they worried that people would not retain membership after the year expired and that dues-paying members might object to a perception that they would be subsidizing new members.

Despite these real fears, there was a willingness to try something new, understanding that it might not work. Six years later, our gift membership program has been a tremendous success, contributing to synagogue’ membership growth of more than 15%. There was risk involved, and a potential for failure, but our professionals and lay leaders were willing to try – and it paid off.

2. Sacred partnerships between professionals and lay people

Upon proposal of a synagogue “happiness group,” many leaders were unclear what it would actually entail. The idea from a partnership between a rabbi and four committed and dynamic lay people who championed the idea, and fortunately, the variety of voices around the table allowed for something new to develop and encouraged us to challenge pre-existing models. Now in its second year, The Community Synagogue Happiness Group has also been a tremendous success, engaging new groups within the synagogue and spreading positivity across the community.

3. Positive energy from new ideas

Our synagogue leadership takes great pride in the new programming and ideas we’ve developed, and we think it’s important to share these success stories to foster excitement about all the innovation taking place.

We’ve collected data from the programs we’ve developed, providing feedback that allows us to present our success stories to the board – sharing not just the feel-good factor but also the measurable data of what we’ve achieved. We’ve also tried to ensure that our work receives coverage both in the wider Jewish world and in the local community, all of which creates positive energy around the work we’re doing. That, in turn, develops into a willingness to try more new things.

Success certainly breeds positive energy, but we’ve also found that when handled appropriately, even failure can ultimately have a positive impact. The aforementioned collection of data has not always guaranteed the continuation of a particular initiative at our synagogue. For example, in an attempt to learn whether an earlier start time might positively impact attendance of our Erev Rosh HaShanah services, the responses we received from a congregation-wide online survey after the fact revealed that, though a significant number of people liked the earlier worship time, the majority did not. Despite the fact that this particular experiment was not “a success” in terms of yielding ongoing innovation to our synagogue’s functionality, it demonstrates that by trying something new and owning its subsequent failure, those involved come away with a positive sense of engagement and an appreciation for the spirit of innovation.

Other factors have contributed to our success, but these three have helped drive the creation of an innovative mindset and spirit in the work of the synagogue – and it is an approach that has been embraced by the professional staff, the leadership, and the congregation as a whole.

The institution of the synagogue has survived for more than 2,000 years, and in that time it has been forced to adapt, innovate, and recreate itself over and over again. We would argue that the longevity of the synagogue is evidence of the fact that throughout history, it has always accepted the need to innovate or die. There’s no reason in today’s Jewish community to assume that this won’t be the case again.

Innovation is taking place in synagogues across the world (even if it might not be happening as fast as some people would like). Tomorrow’s synagogue won’t look the same as yesterday’s, but as an institution, it has ensured Jewish survival, and we have no reason to believe it won’t be at the forefront of Jewish flourishing in this new millennia.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., and the incoming senior rabbi of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA. He was a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders and is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Jeremiah Bosgang is The Community Synagogue's vice president for religious affairs and has been a member of the board for almost a decade. Outside of his synagogue involvement, Jeremiah keeps busy with work as a television producer and with his family on Long Island.

Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780