Imagine that it's Rosh ha-Shanah and you are about to give your sermon. For the past year, you and your board have been working hard on fundamentally rethinking what it means to be a congregational community in the 21st Century. And, the most natural time to disclose this new thinking is during this sacred moment, when you have the opportunity to speak to a significant number of congregants.
You look confidently at the congregation, take a breath, and in a tone that reflects your excitement (but masks your nervousness), speak from your heart and say:
"I don’t need to spend much time on outlining the issues confronting our society. They are many and serious. And one of the most frustrating challenges is that people on one side of an issue always seems more interested in proving that the other side is wrong than finding common ground. Maybe we can’t heal the world, but we can start with our congregational community and learn how to work together and make progress on some of these issue. And after much work, as professional staff and board members, here’s our vision for our congregational community:
Our community aspires to become a model of a perfected world. Drawing upon the Jewish tradition’s optimistic belief in the power of individuals and communities to change the world, every member of our congregation is invited to participate on his or her own terms with others who want to turn this aspiration into a reality. Our congregation is always open to ways to involve young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular, learned and just learning, committed and seeking to use their unique gifts to make our community and our world more perfect. By engaging in this work, always guided by our Jewish tradition, we create rewarding, purposeful relationships that remind us why the power of many is so much greater than the power of any one of us alone."
In order to work seriously on this mission, you and the board have concluded that the typical descriptions that apply to a congregation’s missions are inadequate. Worship, study, acts of kindness—tefilah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim—these are all essential functions that will happen. After all, you are a synagogue! It's just that they need to be reinterpreted and refocused in a way that aligns with what is both meaningful for people and still authentic to the Jewish tradition.
You lay out four centers around which your congregation will be reorganized:
- Healthy living, which includes issues like diet, exercise, sustainable food production, and cultivating a spiritual dimension to life;
- Rich Interpersonal Relationships, which includes teaching people to rediscover the difference between a Facebook connection and a face-to-face friendship, and engaging in learning and work that help deepen relationships with family, friends, and fellow congregants;
- My Relationship to My Local Community, which focuses on working together to ameliorate significant local issues through the congregation; and,
- My Relationship to My Global Community, which encourages a cross-fertilization of learning on how Jewish communities in Israel and across the globe deal with a range of issues like care for the elderly, social justice, and Jewish education. These are the kinds of issues that lend themselves to shared learning exchanges and potential joint action.
Without going into great detail, you also explain how, over time, board members, committee, and staff will be reorganizing the congregation around these four centers of life. But, you emphasize that everyone has a role and a stake in this new enterprise, because it takes everyone’s talents and time to create a just, compassionate, caring world.
The work that you and the board have done is a bold effort to create a model for re-conceptualizing the purpose of a congregation today. And you, as the rabbi, have shaped the vision from your own theology. God gave us a world that was inherently good and that goodness is now at risk. But you believe in your core self that we have the power and responsibility to act as a community to begin restoring and investing in positive action in the world. We are charged as a Jewish community to use our influence for good and it’s time to step up and act more intentionally on this commandment.
You go on to explain that we can all have different visions of a model of a more perfect world. But this is going to be one manifestation of it by one congregation. Being healthy, having healthy relationships, remembering that we're part of a local, national and global community, and that we can influence our world at all levels for good—hopefully people can find at least one aspect of this vision that inspires them to act.
You’ve concluded your sermon and one thing is clear—no one is napping during the sermon. You can almost visualize the thought bubbles above different congregant’s heads. One says, “What's Jewish about this?” Then there is another floating nearby that says, “Well, this makes me want to be Jewish so much!” Another one says, “Time to send the Rabbi on a permanent vacation,” while the one next to it says “Better extend the rabbis contract for a long time. We can’t afford to lose her!”
At this point, you’re unsure if you should discuss how this re-envisioning the community will affect how the work of the congregation is done. No more regularly scheduled committee meetings generally, but action-oriented work groups; no more acting in isolation from partners within and outside of the congregation, but working in collaboration; no more guessing about what the congregation needs on the part of a few, but leading with openness, transparency, and receptivity. Your congregation is no longer just a building. It’s a platform that supports the rapid mobilization of people to organize, explore, and express how to claim their Jewish selves within these four centers of Jewish life.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
A new conversation about the intersection of theology, organizational structure, mission and vision for the 21st Century congregation are some of the issues that Rabbi Hayim Herring explores in his recently published book, Tomorrow's Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life. You are invited to join Hayim in a webinar where you can explore these issues on August 29, 2012. For more information and to register, visit http://hayimherring.com/webinar. Register with the code 'Alban' to waive the $100 fee. Space is limited, so register early.
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Tomorrow's Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life
by Hayim Herring
Herring offers creative scenarios to stretch the imagination about how more synagogues could become vibrant centers of Jewish life and how congregational leaders can begin to chart a new course toward achieving that goal. Key to his vision are the ways synagogues can collaborate with other synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the local Jewish community and around the globe, as well as with organizations outside of the Jewish community.
Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary
by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman
Sacred Strategies is about eight synagogues that reached out and helped people connect to Jewish life in a new way—congregations that had gone from commonplace to extraordinary. Researchers Aron, Cohen, Hoffman, and Kelman write for synagogue leaders eager to transform their congregations, federations and foundations interested in encouraging and supporting this transformation, and researchers in congregational studies who will want to explore further.
Synagogues in a Time of Change: Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements
Zachary I. Heller, editor
Jewish religious communities today share a number of challenges, from the increase in secular or unaffiliated Jews to emerging Jewish spiritual communities forming outside the synagogue. Brought together by the late Zachary I. Heller of the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, twenty of the leading Jewish thinkers have contributed to this comprehensive collection of essays. Each writer brings unique expertise and perspective in describing the development of contemporary religious movements in American Judaism, their interrelationships and tensions, and their prospects for the future. Their combined voices create a timely discussion of the many urgent issues bearing down on American synagogues.
Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning
by Robert Leventhal
Drawing on his extensive and fruitful consulting work in diverse synagogue contexts, Alban senior consultant Robert Leventhal presents his Synagogue Visioning and Planning (SVP) model to a wider audience for the first time. Using this substantial yet accessible model, Leventhal has helped numerous congregations with visioning and planning, leadership development, and team building. Congregations that engage with SVP will uncover hidden depths of vision and vitality as they grow into a clearer understanding of their God-given ministries and gifts.
A strategic plan can help your congregation chart an effective course. This seminar is a great place to start.
Strategic Planning in Congregations
September 11-13, 2012, Holy Family Retreat Center
West Hartford, CT
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban senior consultant
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