Federations and Synagogues: An Opportunity for Leadership

In a world where institutional Judaism is evolving, what role can and should Federations play in supporting synagogues to help them adapt and thrive? In this week’s collaborative post, leaders from four communities (three Federations, one Central Agency) invested in this work share their ideas of how Federations and synagogues can work together, their snapshots of success and ways to get started in our own communities. 


Cantor Adina Frydman is the executive director and Kate Lauzar is the planning director of SYNERGY at UJA-Federation of New York

Lisa Harris Glass is the chief planning officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and Joshua Keyak is the program associate at the Federation’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative

David Trietsch is the founding director of the Leadership Development Institute at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston

Rabbi Philip Warmflash is the chief executive officer of Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia


Each facilitate significant projects in synagogue investment and change and are willing to be teachers to our field.


Now is the time for Federations to step up and engage our local synagogues to ensure that they adapt and evolve in these rapidly changing times. 


Today’s institutional Jewish community is the wealthiest and most influential at any time in our history. Over the years, we have invested significant resources and time building and sustaining our core institutions. And yet, as it relates to synagogues, there is no coordinated effort that integrates an understanding of the changing needs of our people, the innovations and practices that foster learning, engagement and meaningful participation, and the training of professional change agents to bring this learning to bear. 


There is, of course, tremendous rhetoric and new data about declining rates of synagogue membership, the lean away from “joining”, and the increasing desire to curate one’s Jewish experience as opposed to paying full freight for “the works” membership package. Still, we continue to see that a strong desire for deep connection with others in order to make meaning through ritual, study, and action abides. If anything, this desire for connection should compel us with an even greater urgency to help these legacy institutions become the space for innovation in order to speak to both current and future generations. 


As professionals committed to this work, we wish to shine a spotlight on what we do, how and why we do it, why Federations are compelled to engage in this work, and some practical steps to get started.


In a Federation-synagogue partnership, synagogues gain by having access to high level, relevant resources to help them thrive. Federations gain when synagogues stand as viable and compelling partners in the Jewish ecosystem, ultimately engaging more Jews and Jewish families in Jewish life. In a partnership, Federations become valued by synagogue leadership in appreciation of Federation investment in their institutions. And, while this cannot be the primary motivation for engaging in this important work, it helps that those connected to synagogues give more philanthropically to Jewish causes. In total, healthy, thriving synagogues are vital for a healthy thriving Federation, and the collaboration is good for both.


Snapshots of Success


We have used a number of tools in our work: coaching and consulting, working with cohorts to advance change, bringing research about innovations to synagogue leaders, providing seed funding and grant incentives, offering training from leaders in the field, in and outside of synagogue life. How have our varied approaches helped synagogues thrive?


Leadership Development Institute (Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston)


The effectiveness of synagogue leadership is greatly dependent on the strategic partnership between the rabbi and temple president. CJP’s Leadership Development Institute (LDI), in collaboration with the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, supports and enhances this partnership with an annual Rabbi-Incoming Presidents workshop held before the new president’s term begins. Feedback from dozens of rabbi/president leadership teams has confirmed the enormous difference that clarity as to roles and responsibilities, shared priorities for the coming year, and recognition of unique communication styles can make if explored and agreed upon prior to the beginning of a new term of office. 


SYNERGY (UJA-Federation of New York)


Congregational Coaching is the latest initiative developed by SYNERGY at UJA-Federation of New York to help synagogues get unstuck and move into action. NY area synagogues can engage expert organizational change coaches, with a very modest participation fee, to identify goals, discover new methods of problem solving and create a customized plan to address the challenges they face in almost any area of synagogue life. Guided by SYNERGY coaches, synagogues take action to achieve congregational goals and implement lasting change.  Launched Fall 2016, six SYNERGY coaches are now working with 20 synagogues in the NYC area, with the expectation that the program will grow in the coming months.


Reshet/LeV (Jewish Learning Venture, Philadelphia)


The Reshet Network for Synagogue Change has demonstrated that a key element of successful change is partnership and networking across synagogues. By leveraging the shared challenges and knowledge of the network, participating synagogues are better able to build off of one another's ideas and share successes. Further, our LeV initiative has shown that making changes in any aspect of congregational life requires the engaged participation of multiple stakeholders from across the synagogue ecosystem. Recently three congregations, representing two movements, were challenged by declining demographics and needed to take action, particularly around their growingly meager education programs. With guidance from Jewish Learning Venture facilitators, they constructed a broad-based leadership team to create and implement an innovative educational program. The new collaboration balanced each congregation's desire to build relationships with its families while also meeting their students' needs by creating a large youth community.  


Synagogue Leadership Initiative (Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey)


The Synagogue Leadership Initiative/ATID (Addressing Transformative Innovative Design in Jewish Education), facilitates school improvement, system change, and capacity building. Federation provides exposure to best practices, research, facilitation to support change in synagogue schools, all designed in collaboration with Debra Brosan, CEO of Gestaltworks. Through ATID, SLI works with synagogue teams on their mission and vision, brainstorms alternative models, and develops metrics for success. Synagogues that complete the program are eligible for grants to pilot their change. Additionally, panel discussions sharing successful alternative models form suburban settings are held semi-annually. These panel discussions are open to the whole community and serve as both information resource and interest ignition for new synagogues to participate.


How to get started


  1. Articulate a case statement for the Synagogue-Federation Partnership
    This is the most critical step as it sets the stage for the rest of the work. Being able to articulate the value for your Federation or partner agency, as well as for the synagogues, is foundational to the success of any effort. You will want to refer back to your case statement to ensure that your efforts advance your vision. Create the statement together; in doing so, you will begin to shape the culture of partnership immediately.

  2. Convene key stakeholders in synagogue community to get input prior to starting the work
    Convening lets Federation leaders listen and develop  strategies as a reflection of actual need as opposed to perceived need. It is critical that these gatherings reflect the agenda of the congregations and not of Federation or partner agency. Again, the agenda needs to be built together and not imposed.

  3. Identify program providers/partners
    A community scan will reveal a marketplace of practitioners and experts ready to work with you to deliver quality, excellent and timely resources. Some may come from existing partners; or, you may have an opportunity to expand beyond those you have already identified.

  4. Experiment
    Refer to the various methods mentioned in the section above and get started.  It need not be something major; testing the waters will give you much needed input required to build larger initiatives. Also, don’t be afraid to say that you are trying something new to give you permission to fail and learn something in order to try again the next time. Each of us is ready to help you take your first steps.

  5. Measure impact
    Regardless of how you measure, it is important to have clear metrics as they relate back to outcomes you set forth.  

  6. Get constant feedback from key stakeholders to revise approach
    Creating a pipeline for constant input and feedback is critical to the success of any initiative. If the stakeholders see you listening and that you are in it with them they will be more forgiving when you need to pivot mid-stream.


Each of us has approached this work in different ways based on our communities, the assets at our disposal and our particular areas of expertise. But at the end of the day we are all committed to the mutual partnership and the benefit to the Federation, partner agencies, and synagogues, one that will lead not only to thriving synagogues but more importantly to thriving communities.


Additional Resources


From SYNERGY, UJA-Federation of New York


From eJewishPhilanthropy