How do synagogues make change? How do they move from merely maintaining members to engaging them deeply?
Beth El Temple used to run a great Mitzvah Day. There were lots of people, lots of activity and lots of satisfied participants. The only problem was that Mitzvah Day didn’t lead to much during the rest of the year – just the same few people running the same few social-action projects.
“We started to realize that great things were happening when great individuals were making them happen, but other than that, people weren’t finding ways to be involved,” explained Ilana Garber, associate rabbi at Beth El Temple, a large Conservative congregation in West Hartford, Connecticut. What’s more, among Beth El leaders, there was a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that the congregation lacked a “sense of pride or holiness.” So a few years ago, the senior rabbi, Jim Rosen, along with Garber and their lay leaders, did some soul searching about what, as a synagogue, they wanted Beth El to be. They realized that the congregation was known as an intellectual place, not a bad thing in itself, but they wanted it to be known for more than intellect. They wanted it to become a “visionary caring community.”
Garber described this evolution last fall to a group of synagogue leaders from around the Northeast District of United Synagogue who had gathered in West Hartford for Sacred Strategies, a series of conferences taking place across North America run by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The moment Beth El’s leaders identified a problem and envisioned a new direction, they embarked on a pivotal journey, explained Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of Kehilla Enrichment at United Synagogue. It’s a journey that can take a synagogue from the realm of the merely functional – where the focus is on administration and discrete programs – into the realm of the visionary, where a congregation is infused with a sacred purpose. “Visionary congregations seek to engage, inspire and ultimately transform their members, not just maintain them,” Savenor says.