Chapter Seven: Getting Started
If you have read this far and see all the work that synagogues need to do to turn themselves around, you may despair that your synagogue can be saved. Your board will never go for all of this, your membership is uninterested, and the atmosphere at meetings is toxic. Maybe you are one of those members of the leadership of your congregation, you don’t think that what has been proposed here has any merit, and you think that synagogues are fine just the way they are. The facts of synagogue life, however, are hard to ignore. Membership is declining, financial resources are declining, volunteering is declining, and the situation in your congregation seems to get worse every year.
You don’t have to believe all that I have said, but clearly the status quo must change. Can restoring synagogues be this easy? Can it be, at the same time, so hard? It is only a matter of time before all congregations that have not yet struggled with the issues I have outlined, will have to confront the serious challenges that the twenty-first century presents. When a synagogue is ready to change there will be many on the board, some new and some old timers, who will be asking, “what can we do to save our synagogue?” Here are some final thoughts on synagogues and change.
First of all, remember that synagogues did not get this way overnight and they will not change overnight either. Even corporate turnarounds can take three to five years. Be patient, plan carefully, get support from anyone who shares your goals, and be persistent. I think that it is only fair to warn you, however, that those who work hard to bring about synagogue change are often called upon to be a synagogue president. This can be very rewarding work but it is not for the faint of heart. My father used to say, “if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” First have a plan, a vision of what the end will look like (the more concrete the vision the better), and then go step by step to reach the goal.
Gather together those who want more from the congregation and share ideas and approaches. Synagogues can’t be changed by bullies who demand “my way or the highway”. We need to build bridges and make people feel that their input and work are welcome. Collaborate on the vision and on the changes needed to get there. Inspire others; don’t dictate. Build bridges to others instead of building a fiefdom of your own. I once had an accountant who would come to the congregational budget meeting and go over every single line of the budget, making the meeting long, tedious, and not as productive as it should have been. A budget meeting is where the congregation funds its priorities. I did not send this man out of the meeting. The synagogue actually invited him to be a part of the budget committee so he could have a say in each line of the budget as it was being written. At the next budget meeting the following year, he was the biggest supporter of the budget since he had a hand in creating it. Don’t drive away your gadflies; make them a part of the program.
To really change a synagogue you will need everyone’s help. Think about surveys, parlor meetings, and lunch discussions after services. Talk to the minyan attendees, the Shabbat regulars, the Sisterhood members, the Men’s Club members, the Gift Shop volunteers, the Religious School parents, whoever makes up a niche in the synagogue and give them a voice in shaping the future. Not every idea will be a good one, but there will still be many good ideas offered. Don’t let any good idea get away, and anyone who is willing to help should be given the opportunity to help. If everyone is not welcome, then you will soon be working against yourself.
There are some people who will stonewall any changes. Do all you can to bring them into the program. Sometimes, however, it is impossible. There are members who will leave the synagogue because it is “not the same shul I joined years ago”. This is a sad thing, but it happens. If it is someone who has done a lot of work for the shul, make sure that someone writes a thank you note for all their service. Tell them that you miss them. But eventually, they will have to let the change come. If not, there really isn’t much you can do. They are entitled to their opinions and if they feel the need to go elsewhere, there is nothing that can be done to stop them (unless you stop the synagogue renewal program).
There is no substitute for having a plan and being consistent in your changes. Sometimes changes happen rapidly, sometimes they take a long time. There will be bottlenecks that, when they clear, will open up a time of significant changes. There will be setbacks that could take some time to clear. In congregations where there is a set progression of officers or where each member of the executive board is moved up each election until he or she becomes president, it could take a number of years before reform minded officers become members of the executive board. Work on other aspects of synagogue life; for example, work on making your congregation more welcoming as you wait for a more accepting governing committee.
Most of all, never forget that you are doing holy work. If it all falls apart and you are the one who decides that it is time to leave your congregation and find a new spiritual home, do not despair. A failure is only when you can’t find any lessons to learn from what has happened. Somewhere there is a congregation that will meet your needs and will be a place where you can fulfill your potential as a Jew. Maybe, with your friends, you will start something new in your living room. Maybe you will find new friends in a different congregation where the leadership is not so entrenched in unproductive ways. Maybe you will discover a dying congregation that is willing to take a chance and do something radically different to save themselves. Only God knows the future. What is important is that you remain open to new ways to serve God. We learn from the Torah, the scroll that is central to our lives, that even though the people never enter the Promised Land, they traveled together and they supported each other and most of all, they trusted in God.
May God bless you in all that you do for our faith and for your community.