Rabbi Gideon Shloush, the spiritual leader for a dozen years of Congregation Adereth El in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, said an all-day conference he attended this week inspired him to change his reading habits.
He’ll read a printout of his synagogue’s membership list today.
The rabbi was among 170 people – rabbis, synagogue executive directors and lay leaders, representatives of Judaism’s major denominations and representatives of Jewish think tanks — who attended a seminar, “Leading Successful Synagogue Change: Lessons From Current Research,” sponsored by UJA-Federation’s Synergy: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together initiative at the philanthropy’s headquarters. Several of the speakers urged the participants to take a closer look at the demographic profile of their congregations and tailor programs for the members’ specific needs.
Hence Rabbi Shloush’s erev Shabbat reading, after a few days away at a rabbinical conference.
“One thing I took home was the importance of developing different circles under the umbrella of your synagogue,” said Rabbi Shloush, whose synagogue has some 200 membership units. Depending on what his examination of his membership reveals, the rabbi may consider earmarked activities for such groups as the elderly or the bereaved, he said.
“That’s something that can often be overlooked,” the rabbi said. The seminar “was a reminder to pull back … take a stronger look at your constituency. I found it to be an invigorating experience. There are people out there transforming synagogues.”
The Synergy conference is the latest example of the growing “partnership,” as described by Sarene Shanus, chair of the Synagogue Task Force of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, between the religious world of the synagogue and the once-secular world of the Jewish federations.
The two worlds for decades maintained separate orbits.
“Federations didn’t get all that involved in synagogues,” said keynote speaker Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
The findings of the 1990 and 2001 National Jewish Population Surveys, which confirmed anecdotal fears of a growing assimilation and intermarriage rate in American Jewry, prompted UJA-Federation to increase its financial and moral support of synagogue work, said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, UJA-Federation senior vice president for Strategic Planning and Organizational Resources.
The surveys were “a wakeup call to the Jewish community,” Kurshan said. “We understood that in order to build a strong Jewish community and a strong Jewish identity, we need stronger synagogues.”
In addition to the Synergy conference, UJA-Federation publishes a quarterly Synergy newsletter and provides financial support for innovative synagogue programming.
“It’s not ‘either-or,’” the synagogue or the federation, Kurshan said.
“The Jews are people who need to be in both places,” said Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who delivered an opening D’var Torah at this week’s conference.
Cohen, who has conducted extensive research on what makes effective synagogues, outlined the differences between congregations that are merely “functioning,” which serve members’ logistic needs, and those he defined as “visionary,” which anticipate and fill members’ transcendent needs.
Visionary congregations, and their leaders, proactively address their congregants’ needs, Cohen said. “Now you have congregants who are demanding meaning” in their synagogues’ services and educational programs.
“It’s a national trend,” Kurshan said.
She said a growing number of representatives from Orthodox synagogues attended the Synergy conference. Fewer, she said, came to the first seminar two and a half years ago hosted by JTS.
“I think it’s pretty remarkable that the federation [system] is taking such a strong interest in synagogues,” said Rabbi Shloush, whose congregation is Modern Orthodox.
Members of Adereth El supported his participation in the conference, he said.
The first programmatic results of the seminar should be evident soon, the rabbi said. “Within a few weeks we can create a plan of action.”