Community engagement: No easy solutions but some reflections

A few weeks ago my post of the ‘Banned List’ for synagogues was shared and commented upon by many people. A number of comments were sympathetic or felt my frustrations were echoing their frustrations. However, at the same time a number of comments pushed for solutions. It was all well and good leveling a critique but without anything tangible to offer I was verging on unfair cynicism and certainly failing to credit the work of so many people (especially volunteers) in bringing our synagogues to the point they are at today.

So I’m going to list the things that I think are important to how we work in communities. More plans to think about these issues are in the pipeline but this will have to do for now:

1 Self-authorship of Jewish life – CHANGING THE US AND THEM

I’m aware that there have been movements before and there are still some strong tendencies out there for DIY Judaism and grassroots, open Judaism. But this is not a plea necessarily for DIY Judaism or grassroots Judaism (though that may be a piece of it), but rather it’s about the way we have conversations about Jewish life. On the back of an engaging conversation with a Citizens UK community organiser about the Community Organising Iron Rule (never to do for people what they can do for themselves), this seems doubly important – I think we should be saying ‘We can’t do what you can do for yourself’. As a ‘hashkafah’ (perspective) there are at least three or four things that I have in mind:

a) Judaism is all of our inheritance and it is the right of each of us to be its interpreters, to shape and change it and to pass it on. There may be more or less obvious parameters to this, but centrally we as leaders (professional and lay) must not regard ourselves as the guardians/defenders of ‘their’ heritage.

b) There may be many choices and access points, with many routes to the same and different places in Jewìsh life. Theories of adult learning recognise that linear models of ‘input’ and ‘output’ don’t apply and we need to take Jewish life out of the linear ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ old model – whilst recognising that those pivotal moments in life are also core building blocks and opportunities.

c) Expertise does not reside in the old fashion places – such as rabbis, monied philanthropists and other lay and professional activists and learning does not occur (or rarely occurs) in the ‘classroom’. The expertise has potential in every person – it is our job to nurture it and sustain it. In other words we have to enable and empower Jews and their families to see themselves differently in relation to their Judaism and leaders. And we need to be less judgemental about the choices they make – we’re all idiosyncratic and ideological purity is not what it was.

d) Following on from point 3, we (as professional and lay leaders) must give up our power over skills, knowledge and values – otherwise ownership and self-authorship will never truly happen. In other words we have to enable and empower ourselves to see ourselves differently in relation to our Judaism and other Jews. And we have to relinquish control. Don’t think you know what ‘they need’, make yourself vulnerable to the possibility even you might not be needed – in fact make that your goal. At least the goal that what you’re currently doing will no longer be needed and your skills and interests could be invested differently.

Of course, all of this may have implications for our venerable communal ‘bodies’ and movements too.

2 It takes time

When it comes to the things that need to be changed quickly, synagogues are generally bad; they take forever to make decisions – often feeling like turning an oil tanker. However, on the question of building partnerships, leadership, and engagement, synagogues rarely plan in the long term and want results ‘yesterday’. We get it the wrong way around – make key changes and decisions quickly and allow the bits that take time, to take time. By which I mean don’t expect  your success to be measured in cold membership statistics within 6 months. Membership is a useful tool to measure some things but will not tell you about the deep changes happening to relationships, expressions of Judaism and communal confidence. A synagogue is about people – you don’t have a factory to produce your product at greater speeds and efficiencies. You have people – that’s where Judaism is. Allow things to take time (though don’t let that be an excuse for being meandering and unfocussed).

This is close to the top of my list – taking time. Creating sustainability and durability is not something that happens over night. And the development of trust must be gently cultivated to endure. If being genuine and honest is an important value – which I happen to think is key – then understanding one another and really knowing that someone shares those values can take time.

3 Leadership and volunteer development

As a general rule the Jewish community pays lip service to real leadership and volunteer development. Perhaps this is because of the hegemony of rabbis, professionals and a kind of ‘professional volunteer’. In fits and spurts we have invested in leadership programmes (and there are some excellent cross-communal offerings) but we hardly ever think properly about how we nurture and develop new leaders at a smaller scale of the synagogue. This is not just about succession planning – important as that may be. But we either thrust people on to committees and councils at the first whiff of interest (and are then surprised when they get put off or burnt out) or we don’t properly listen to expressions of interest and allow space for people to grow. Remember point (d) above – we have to relinquish control and we have to make space. That’s space for people to learn, make mistakes, learn more and feel supported. In a way, I have always felt there are ample opportunities for me to be in the ‘spot light’ as the rabbi, what I should do is seek ways for others to be in that position. And the mantra then becomes what can I do to support you in making it happen. To do that you must listen, reflect, frame and empower.

4 Get your rabbi out of the office and your lay leaders from committees meetings

If you have a rabbi, think about what they’ve spent all those years learning to do and why you’re really employing them. They may be a fabulous page turner of a prayerbook or brilliant at schlepping chairs, writing minutes or preparing fliers. But you should be asking your rabbis to rethink their roles and the way they do things (and they way they think they are expected to do them). They are the experts, or should be, in synergising life with the streams of Judaism. They are interpreters. They are people interested in people. They may be teachers, thinkers, pastors, preachers, prophets, enablers, empowerers, creators of sanctity and sacred moments. But please don’t let your rabbi become an administrator. Or to put it another way, give your rabbi a healthy expense account and demand to know why it hasn’t been spent on meeting congregants.

Send your rabbi away to seminars, conferences, nurture their passions. This will also create space in the synagogue without them. And go on – ban committees from expecting their attendance too!

Ok – I could go on and it would sound like a stitch up, but you get the idea on this (though I should say that since your rabbi will be expected to be eating out lots, offer gym membership as well (their physical well being will be important in the long run)!)

And since this is also about lay leadership, give your lay leaders that healthy expense account too. They have a ‘ministry’ (to coin a Christian approach) to the community too. Help them identify what it is that they feel strongly about and then engage them in a process of talking with others about the same thing. The worst thing that can happen to an enthusiastic lay leader is that their time and energy is absorbed by committee meetings. At their most positive, committees end up using resources of your leadership that may have been better used elsewhere (particularly time) and at the most negative, committees can be places where there is a lot of ‘talk’ and not a lot ‘do’ (or often the chair and the staff member come away with long lists of ‘to dos’ and committee members come away feeling gratified that they are doing something to help their community). Train and develop your lay leaders and protect them from falling into a trap of normative culture (the mantras of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ and ‘we tried that but it didn’t work’).

5 Be focussed and organised

Of course, being generally organised is useful but actually this is not a call for the visionary to be brought down from the clouds! Rather this is a communal issue of how you go about making decisions and have clarity about what you’re trying to achieve. Too often it has been my experience that councils seem like they have some kind of attention problem – flicking from one issue to another whilst never actually resolving root problems. Then when the surface problem is solved (often leadership succession or financial security) they breathe a collective sigh of relief and forget what may have been the underlying problem also needs dealing with.

But this is also about a longer term perspective. Synagogues are very good at strategising, visionising, missioning and all the other jargon. But very few are able to be practical and get SMART targets. Carried away with a vision of redemption they are consumed with all encompassing ideas, normally delivered in a verbose paper, and resort to a scatter gun effect that exacerbates the ‘attention’ problem I mention above.

6 Community organisational structures

I want to say something about this but what I’m going to say is with broad brush-strokes. The first thing I would say is that you must allow the bureaucracy of running a charity to be done by your board/executive/council but don’t allow them to be programmatic, insist they put good governance, accountability and thinking of the future first. When a council starts programming activities as a council, there is minimal hope of success. When they ensure accountability is a priority along with thinking about the future they are more exciting and feel like they are accomplishing something.

Connected to this, and in continuation of my comments above about committees, reduce your number of committees. Of course don’t lose sight of the accountability issue. If you have time for committee meetings then use that time to do something from the list above instead. Remember that the worst committee is one populated by people interested in talking, as if that were their ‘doing’.

7 Strategy and Vision

You will have already read above that I think sometimes the strategising and visioning can become an obstacle to progress. These processes, of strategising and visioning, are great but they are time consuming and hard to sustain. They can also be used by those unwilling to change as a vehicle for blocking new ideas. Instead just pick two or three things that you want to change together, out of your strategising and visioning process, and be focussed and methodical in making the change. As I’ve said, synagogues can have attention problems, so instead narrow the field slightly. Truth is, if you achieve your ‘three things’ it was probably less important that it was those three and not a different three. What was important was the above.

8 Enjoy and find meaning

Simple: If it is not enjoyable and meaningful for you why bother. And if this is important for you, how much more so for everyone else.

9 Partnership

Creating communities that work is often about the building of partnerships beyond the community itself. Partnerships are not unequal or unilateral. Of course you need to be honest about where the partners have strengths and weaknesses, but there should be equality too. Institutionally they can take time, like the interpersonal relationships take time. You also need to have clear boundaries about the partnerships you create, how long they’re intended to last and be honest with what you hope to get out of them. But synagogues can’t do everything and even if they could the cross pollination is valuable. If you are confident about your own value, then you will never feel threatened in a partnership. At the same time, a little competition can also be a valuable thing – merging and conglomeration does not always lead to greater efficiency or the possibility of articulating nuanced positions.

10 Experiment

So finally, experimentation. The tendency of religious communities is to be inherently conservative even whilst they try and bring salvation to the world. What they all need is an ability to measure risk effectively and then experiment. From my experience most proposed experiments are in reality low risk – they won’t make a synagogue insolvent but they might land on a new approach to something old or an old approach to something new. But you’ve got to try it and be willing to fail. Then you might be able to succeed too.