Why You Need to Embrace Relationship Based Engagement

Guest post from Rabbi Aaron Spiegel. This post is part of a series on networks and network weaving.

Synagogue 3000 just released a report entitled “Reform and Conservative Congregations: Different Strengths, Different Challenges.” The report could just as easily been entitled something like “Synagogues are Fading Into Obscurity,” but that would be a little too provocative. The data is clear; the institution best positioned to provide the full richness of Jewish life is becoming irrelevant for most American Jews. More disturbing is that our research shows some 70% of young Jewish adults, those between the ages of 23 and 39, have no connection to the established Jewish community (synagogues, Federation, JCC’s, etc.). While many in the Jewish world talk about Jewish continuity and protecting the future of American Judaism, most of the proposed solutions have had little effect. The good news is we’ve also learned that this majority of young Jews are very interested in Judaism, just not the way we’re offering it.

While most in the congregational world talk about outreach, Synagogue 3000 learned that this moniker has a negative connotation. Outreach says, albeit subtly, “I’m reaching out to you so you can come to me and have what I want to offer you.” The community, particularly those young, single Jews who are our potential future are saying, “no thanks.” Instead of outreach Synagogue 3000 changed the conversation to engagement. Learning from the church world and community organizing, Synagogue 3000 created Next Dor (dor is Hebrew for generation) – an engagement program. Participating synagogues agree to dedicate a staffer, most often a rabbi, whose primary job is to meet young Jews where they are – physically, spiritually, and emotionally. These engagement workers are charged with finding young Jews, be they in bars, coffee houses, local gyms, etc., and finding ways of engaging them in conversation to create relationships. Relationships create trust, which creates other relationships, which creates opportunity for real engaging conversations about life and what Judaism has to offer. One of the key points is that this engagement and these relationships are l’shma, for their own sake. Synagogue membership is not the goal – connecting Jews to Judaism is.

While the goal is engaging young Jews in Judaism, several of the Next Dor partner synagogues are discovering tangible benefits. Next Dor D.C., a project of Temple Micah was one of the first adopters. Rabbi Danny Zemel, a proponent of this engagement model before Next Dor existed, knew that Temple Micah needed to engage this unaffiliated and disaffected population. As a Next Dor pilot synagogue, Temple Micah hired Rabbi Esther Lederman as their engagement worker. A big part of Esther’s job is having one-on-one meetings with young Jews, usually in coffee shops. Now in its fourth year, Next Dor D.C. has gone from one-on-one meetings to regular Shabbat dinners at Esther’s home to annual free High Holy Day services for young adults, led by Esther and Michelle Citrin. The results – young Jewish adults are joining Temple Micah.

Some have dubbed this approach “relational Judaism” which seems something of an oxymoron. Judaism is at its essence (at least in my opinion) all about relationships. Unfortunately, congregations have focused on other things like supporting infrastructure, b’nai mitzvah training, and programming. More than the first two, the focus on programming is the irrelevance linchpin. Rather than engaging Jews in what’s important in their lives, synagogues program based on anecdotal information. When numbers fall the default synagogue response is to seek better programming rather than forming relationships with members, finding out what’s really important in their lives, and being responsive to their needs. Interestingly enough, while Synagogue 3000 envisioned the relational approach targeting young Jewish adults, the Next Dor communities are discovering it works with everyone.

Is your synagogue willing to form relationships with people who might not become members? Is your rabbi really willing to “be known” by synagogue members? What are your biggest obstacles to moving from a program-based community to relationship-based? Relationships, it’s all about the relationships!

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is the CEO of Synagogue 3000. The report was the result of Synagogue 3000’s participation in FACT (Faith Communities Today), the largest and most comprehensive surveyor of faith communities in the United States.

 This post is part of a series on networks and network weaving that Darim Online is curating to advance the communal conversation about relationship focused Jewish communities.  Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting our research and this blog series.  Click here to see other related posts in the series.

Being Thankful

Thanksgiving may be over and Chanukah is winding down, but it's ALWAYS a good time to show your organization’s supporters how grateful you are to have them onboard.

Just like receiving a handwritten note is a lot more special than a text message “thx,” getting personal with your supporters, and letting them know how each contribution is having an impact, is a great way to show them you really care.

There are so many creative directions to explore — but here are some fun ideas for going the extra nine yards in saying thanks to your biggest cheerleaders:

Personalized thank you video
Every year, charity: water staffers get in front of the camera to say thank you — dedicating videos to the class of 3rd graders who donate their lunch money and the bloggers who get the word out about their crowdfunding campaigns. It looks like they’re having a blast producing this series — and it’s a great way to retain supporters and keep them engaged.

Connect support to impact
A striking infographic is a great way to illustrate how the money you’ve raised this year is being put to use in the field. Connect the dots between clicking donate in your email inbox and tangible outcomes on the ground — and get ready to brainstorm some evocative analogies for your work.

A personal note
Bring your supporters together with the people who are seeing your impact firsthand. Maybe your organization works with refugees, or vulnerable children, or homeless families — let your constituents and staffers share, in their own words, how much the support of your donors means to them. You can forward their note in an email, or collect short video testimonials to share — like these messages from Nature Conservancy scientists around the world.

Saying thank you isn't just a nice thing to do — many organizations, like the International Rescue Committee, see a real return on investment when they share messages of gratitude with their donors.

We hope this gives you a jumping off point for putting together a heartfelt thank you campaign. And to all of our clients and friends of See3 and Darim Online, thank you, so much, for the work you do to make our world a better place.

What's the best thank-you you ever received from an organization? What made it so special for you?

Four Lessons for Maturing Your Social Media Practice: Evidence from the Jewish Day School Social Media Academy

Over the past nine months, 20 day schools from around the country have been immersed in an intensive Academy to catapult their social media work – and strategic goals of their schools – forward.  The Academy combines training, coaching, project-based learning and peer networks to help schools develop a social media strategy, put it into action, and measure their results.

The three projects throughout the year – a social media experiment, social fundraising project (with matching funds from The AVI CHAI Foundation) and the drafting of a social media policy are intended to help schools work in purposeful and reflective ways, and then to see real results, beyond just likes and follows.

The following 4 lessons emerged from the participating schools as important themes in advancing their work, and we offer them in the hopes they help you as well.  Links go to blog posts by each school with further detail about their Academy experience.

1.  Content Content Content.  Knowing your goals, and the interest of your target audiences is critical for developing a content strategy.  Schools that previously talked all about themselves experimented with different types of content to see what resonated, with home, and how.

Shulamith School for Girls and  The Westchester Day School focused on re-engaging alumni.  Posting photos of classes from the 1970’s got many people reminiscing. People tagged their friends which brought more alumni to the page.  Some photos had dozens of comments and several shares, leveraging networks and re-energizing and reconnecting the alumni community.

Solomon Schechter School of Queens realized that people organized, intentional and reflective was the key to their success.  By creating a content calendar they were able to plan thoughtful and relevant content, and then measure the cause and effect of various approaches.  This practice built momentum on their Facebook Page which they were able to leverage throughout the Academy.

Some schools found great value in decentralizing content creation.  Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy now has several faculty members tweeting, sharing student adventures inside the school walls and around the world.  Carmel Academy realized their teachers were a great source of content, and the faculty was eager to provide stories and photograph events.

2.  It’s About People, Not Technology.  While the myriad of tools and their (seemingly rapidly evolving) functionality can seem dizzying at first, schools learned that social media is really human. It’s about connections, relationships, emotions and listening more than talking.

At the Robert M Beren Hebrew Academy, they learned this lesson through their social fundraising project.  They recognized the social part of social fundraising, and instead of just using a “social” platform to take online donations, they set up a system of ambassadors to help amplify their campaign, and reinforce that it’s about supporting the community, not just an institution.  “Our school transformed into a community of PR ambassadors and fundraisers within a matter of hours,” they reported.

Many schools learned through trial and error that people love content that they identify with, not only information that they find interesting.  When they identify with it, they comment, and even better, share with their own networks.  At the Lander Grinspoon Academy, they found that “people want to share posts that say something about themselves: their children are highlighted; their values are reflected; they have a reason to be proud of the school and community.”

3.  Demonstrate, Don’t Pontificate. Often our instincts are to market market market our schools. But demonstrating the real and authentic manifestation of the things you do well speaks volumes more.

At the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, they featured current students and alumni in their social fundraising campaign. The stories conveyed the mission, vision, culture and impact of their school and emotionally touched the viewers.  Their ‘fan fundraisers’ had powerful human interest stories to tell to their own networks, which brought in many new donors from outside their usual community of donors.

At the Stanford Eisenberg Knoxville Jewish Day School, prospective families (even those who had decided not to enroll, but were still fans of the Facebook Page) felt the benefits of the school.  Several schools reported an increase in total applications this year (without intentionally shifting any other recruitment efforts) and a few new families who enrolled specifically because of what they were seeing on Facebook.

4.  Build a Culture. Not a Billboard.   Online spaces are like any other. They have a culture, values, and social norms.  As the host of your spaces, it’s your responsibility to help set the tone.  Sometimes doing so can catalyze more conversation once people have some cues about tone, length, humor, etc.

The Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School realized that many of their parents weren’t on Facebook, for a variety of reasons.  One of their challenges was to show parents that Facebook can have real value for their lives, and is in fact “kosher”.  They recruited ambassadors and offered articles and training for parents who were just learning, all of which not only helped their social media efforts, but was an educational and relationship building experience in and of itself.

At the Lander Grinspoon Academy they set a goal of increasing the likes on their page and making it more participatory, communal space. At a major Hanukkah, instead of the typical announcement asking everyone to silence their cell phones, they began the assembly by asking everyone to get their cell phones out and like them on Facebook, and invited them to take and share photos of the evening.  It increased their likes by 40% in one day, and they soon had many comments on and shares of their content.

The 20 participating schools have progressed in leaps and bounds this year, and they have worked hard for it.  They attended webinars, pursued projects, met with their coaches, shared their progress and learning, and integrated their work into their school culture and operations.

You can do it too.  The next cohort of the Jewish Day School Social Media Academy is now in formation.  Applications are being reviewed on a rolling basis now through the end of July.  Learn more at https://darimonline.org/jdsacademy201314.


11 Ways to Reach the Unengaged

All of us in Jewish life are wondering how to reach the unengaged–and particularly young adults. At NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, we work with both mainstream and grassroots organizations, including many synagogues, to help them find new ways to connect with Birthright Israel alumni and their friends. While I do this work professionally, I’m also part of the demographic we’re trying to reach. Here, I’m offering eleven ways that synagogues can connect to the unengaged:

  1. Lead with your “Why?” Most of us market what we do– the products or services we offer–  instead of why we do it– the worldview, or passion driving us.  It’s not enough to say what you offer, you must lead with your mission in all things. How does Judaism and Jewish community provide value for young adults, or for that matter, for the world?  How does your spiritual community offer access to these ideas and a platform for building these relationships?
  2. Relationships > Membership. Young adults get our positive social reinforcement through relationships, not through our membership.  Think about how people come to be in relationship to your congregants, staff, and content.  Where do those relationships form? Who is responsible for them? And how are you following up with people? A rabbi who takes meetings in a coffee shop will seem a lot more approachable than one stuck in her/his office. Do you have a welcoming team who can commit to setting up one coffee date a week with someone new to the community and do follow-up? 
  3. Content matters. You aren’t competing with other synagogues, you are competing against bars, restaurants, concerts, movies, and television. Your value-add is depth and meaning, so don’t shy away from it, don’t water it down, and don’t infantilize.
  4. Take your show on the road. Young adults are far more likely to be living in the dense urban core of your city. If your building isn’t where the young people live, bring your services (metaphorically and literally) to them.  Many emerging spiritual communities take advantage of galleries, living rooms, coffee shops, and other unconventional and yet, accessible venues. What they lack in grandeur or pomp, they more than make up for in warmth and intimacy. 
  5. You have two ears and one mouth. Listen more than you talk. Are there young adults who are children of congregants, who might be willing to come in for an evening? Hold a focus group and buy them dinner, or take someone who just moved to town out for coffee. Understand what needs they have that a synagogue/spiritual community might be able to deliver.  Then, help them create it. 
  6. Put your money where your mouth is. As in much of the Jewish nonprofit sector, synagogues talk about young adult engagement, but find it more challenging to actually invest in it. Designate a point person who has the bandwidth, resources, authority, and autonomy to actually engage. If you don’t invest in young adults, and give them real opportunities to learn, lead, and live Jewishly, they will find other things to do with their time.  Give young adults a chance to speak from the bima, to participate in discussion, and to organize events, but don’t force them onto a board or a committee.
  7. Be open, welcoming, inclusive, and genuine. We Jewish young adults are from more diverse backgrounds than ever. We are LGBTQ, we are from families with two, or one, or no Jewish parents, we don’t understand movements or denominations in the same way our parents did, and we might not know any Hebrew or melodies.
  8. Understand who is it you want to connect to. Do you really want to connect to young adults who are probably not making a lot of money? Or are you really looking for young families? Be honest about who you want to reach and why.  Young adult programming shouldn’t be targeting young families; the two are at different life stages and won’t relate as well to each other.  Have you thought about empty nesters, who used to be members but don’t come anymore now that their children are out of the house? Maybe you should reach out to them–they are a lot less fickle than young adults!
  9. Recognize your assets. Are you hiring a lot of part-time Sunday school, Hebrew school, or b’nei mitzvah teachers? Look to hire from the local student or young adult pool.  You probably pay more an hour than most of us are used to, we are more accessible role models for your students, and you can organize educational and social events for this cohort of young adults you’ve just recruited to come to your space.
  10. A rising tide floats all ships. Recognizing that you're not alone in your challenges is important, but more important is adopting a collaborative mindset. How are you working with the other organizations who also want to invest in young adults? Can you pool resources to multiply impact? Work with your local Moishe House, federation Young Leadership Division, or whoever is available to provide your rabbinic expertise towards their programmatic goals.
  11. Social media is a multiplier, not a savior. Social media can amplify the great things that you are already doing, but it only works if the people that believe you are doing great things share those things. 

Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. For ideas about how to implement some of these ideas in your community, you can reach Yoni at [email protected].


This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work.

Three Legs of the Connected Congregation Stool

Connected Congregations are synagogues that function as communities in the deepest sense of the word.  They are not about the building, the events, the rabbi.  At least not alone. They are about a group of individuals and families with shared values, practice and goals, who feel a sense of sacred obligation to one another.  It FEELS GOOD to be part of a community like this.

As we've been researching connected congregations, working in networks, being a network weaver, and organizational change, we've learned that becoming a connected congregation is more than a new way of developing programs.  It's more than helping people get to know each other better (and deeper) — though that's important too.

Becoming a connected congregation really means reprogramming your synagogue's DNA.  Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways.  We've boiled this down to three main categories. Within each category are several main levers of change that you'll need to examine:  staffing and communications.  More on that below.

  • Programs. This may seem like the most obvious one, but it's really quite profound.  People come to programs as much (or more so) for the people than for the content of the program.  It's true.  Studies confirm it.  So, even if the content is a strong driver of our mission and goals as a congregation, let's design for the social value.  How can you maximize social connection before the event?  Facebook events allow folks to see who else might be going, for example.  Or social content that participants will want to share through their own networks. How can you maximize the social connections during the event?  And how do you share back with the community about the event afterwards?  What is the role of a "program director"?  How does this person incorporate network weaving into their job, or as a primary function of their job?  In the recent Vision and Data Report from UJA Federation of New York, one congregation reflected on how a small adjustment in programming made an important difference:

“We had tried social programming in the past but never got the turnout we hoped for, which led us to conclude (wrongly) that people did not want to make social connections through the Religious School. Measuring Success helped us develop a targeted follow-up survey to probe deeper about social connections. That led to an “aha moment” when we learned that people do want to make social connections, they just do not want us to add new events to their calendars. When we realized that, we took steps to build socializing and community-building into existing events.”  —Barri Waltcher, Vice President and Chair of Religious School Committee, Temple Shaaray Tefila

  • Finances.  If you've read The Networked Nonprofit or been on our Network Nonprofit webinars, you heard us use the metaphors of a fortress and a sea sponge.  They represent the poles of a continuum, where on the one end there are big, tall, exclusive fortress walls, and on the other end, the networked organization that needs a constant flow of nutrients, is open and porous, and live in symbiosis with other organisms.  Look at the financial model of your synagogue through that lens.  Dues and membership are one major component (see here and here for examples of synagogues that have done away with dues as we know it), but there are others.  Temple Beth Abraham questioned whether their offer of reduced dues stepped from a place of loving kindness, or as the local IRS (see case study here).  Too often our synagogues become places of "transactional Judaism", which ultimately doesn't benefit the individual, the synagogue or Jewish life.
  • Governance. Clearly governing policy and culture is critical as a connected congregation.  It's also a key part of how you become a connected congregation.  For example, a current synagogue president may be very interested and committed to this idea, but if the next 2-3 synagogue presidents are not also on board, the effort may lose momentum.  Measurement is also an important consideration.  How does the congregation understand its mission, and how does it measure its work to achieve those goals? Aligning mission and goals with metrics, data collection and analysis will help leaders clearly appreciate where they are making process towards being a connected congregation, and where further refinement or effort is needed.

Underlying all three of these areas are questions of staffing and communications.  Where do you need staff capacity and expertise?  Where are staff 'over-functioning' in a way that might in fact be disempowering members of your community?  Where is expertise highly valued or needed?  How might you adjust current job descriptions and/or titles to reflect the real need as culture, programs and the need for expertise shift?

And finally, recognize that in today's connected, fast paced world, communication is essential.  The right tools, applications, voice and regularity of communications will grease the gears of all the change and process in program, finance and governance.  Openness and transparency earns trust, and accessibility builds relationships that are the foundation of eveything else.

Where are you experimenting with change around programs, finance and governance? Are there other categories you'd like to add to the list?

Determining Your Communal DNA

What is a synagogue? A congregation? A community?

We are more than a nonprofit organization, or a local center, or a collection of people who share certain practices or get together for holidays. It feels significant to me that words like “congregation” and “community” are grammatically singular but inherently refer to a multiplicity. The duality of meaning here is so critical for how we lead, congregate, and self-identify.

A rhizome is an organism that shares DNA across what appears to be a big, diverse group of organisms. Bamboo is a great example of this: What appears to be a forest of bamboo is actually one organism, with a shared root system. The organism is resilient, strong, and sustainable because even if the majority of it was destroyed, the DNA lives on.

Our congregations should function in a similar way. Together, we establish the culture of a community (let’s call it the communal DNA) which infuses everything we do, from the design of the fliers, to the tone of the announcements made from the bimah, to the thoughtfulness with which we treat each other.

Oftentimes, we talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. We repeat (in announcements, on our websites, etc.) that we are “warm and welcoming,” but how does that really get coded in our DNA? How does this value express itself in every attribute of our community, inside the building and outside, from staff and members, through programs and relationships? Is our being welcoming our saying, “We’re glad you walked in the door”? Or is it actually saying, “We’d like to help you find your place here, so I want to know what’s important to you. And can I introduce you to some people who share your interests?”

Today we are living in a networked, connected world, where relationships trump programs, where participation trumps attendance, and where authenticity and trustworthiness trump everything. Our challenge, then, is not only to clarify our communal DNA but to have it expressed throughout every pore of our community, at all times.

One of the most effective ways that we can infuse our communities with this DNA is through effective communications. What does your website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel, or Pinterest board say about your community, your values, and your DNA? Do the people who manage these channels – as well as the people who manage your print newsletter, weekly emails, fliers, and in-person announcements – all operate from the same core DNA of the community? How about greeters and ushers and the person who answers the phone?

In the Social Media Policy Workbook published this fall (free download of the PDF is available here), we offer 10 worksheets to help you think through the various opportunities (and challenges) of effectively using communications to build, support and manage your communal DNA. The very first worksheet is about values because everything grows from there – the roots, the stalks, and the leaves.

What are the essential communal values at your synagogue? How are they expressed by every member of your community? Where could you be doing a better job?


This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work. 


This post is also cross posted on the URJ blog.

Tilling the Soil: An Interview with Allison Fine

I've been following Allison Fine's work for years, and have so enjoyed how our paths have crossed in the Jewish community in recent years.  Allison is the author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, and co-author (with Beth Kanter) of The Networked Nonprofit.  Recently, Allison has been serving as the president of the board at her synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York. This position has given Allison the opportunity to put her theory into practice, and to examine intimately the potential and challenges of synagogues as networked nonprofit.

As part of our blog carnival on Connected Congregations, Allison has written a very thoughtful case study of her work at Temple Beth Abrahram, exploring what it has taken to lay the groundwork for becoming a networked nonprofit. You can download it here. I had a chance to ask her some questions about it.

1)  Why did you write this case study?

The role of temple president is enormously time-consuming and difficult. It's a lot like being the president of a local school board with a lot of constituents, technical issues to wrestle with and a fast changing environment. Except that public schools aren't going out of business and synagogues are struggling to stay in business. I wanted to provide a snapshot of my experiences wrestling with the hard questions of what synagogues will look like ten and twenty years from now within the real and difficult demographic, generational and economic shifts that are threatening our survival. How do we stay relevant and meaningful in the lives of our congregants? How do we meet our financial commitments when the dues model is not sustainable? How do we do what we do best and network the rest?

As the case study outlines, just positioning ourselves to wrestle with these questions has taken up much of my tenure as president. The key lessons so far for me is that when we have the courage to look at our ecosystem through a lens of abundance (people want to support us even if it's not at what we now have as full dues) rather than scarcity (people want to game our dues system) good things can happen, like raising over a million dollars to renovate our sanctuary this past summer for the first time in over sixty years. In the future, we are likely to combine programs with other synagogues and our local JCC over the next few years, we are likely to come up with a more flexible donation system that allows people to stay connected to us after their kids are bar mitzvahed, and we are likely to continue to exist into our twelfth decade, but we will be put together differently. Capturing the beginning of that journey to share with others on the same road is why I wrote the case study.

2)  You co-authored the book, The Networked Nonprofit, and clearly have thought a lot about what that means.  What's your vision for how synagogues can and should be networked nonprofits?

The biggest challenge for synagogues in this century is undoing the membership model from the last century. There are too many choices for ways to be Jewish today for temples to say that there is only one right way to be a part of our community. Synagogues need to move away from transactions (how many tickets to high holidays have we sold?) and have an unrelenting focus on relationship and community building.  We need to strengthen the social ties between congregants, not just between members and the synagogue, and engage in meaningful conversations with them on land and online. Synagogues need to be a part of our lives, not an addition to our lives.

3)  In your case study, you talk about how we need to confront congregational culture as a starting point. "… the default settings … had to change because they did not reflect the reality of the congregation or the spirit of a networked organization. And the change had to begin in the boardroom."  Why does the board need to own the responsibility for culture change, and what kind of leader is needed to make that happen?

Boards and clergy are the culture setters in synagogues. Together they determine the values that an organization lives by, which in turn drives the processes. In my case study, this manifested itself in how we treated people asking for financial relief from dues. Are they considered slackers or community members who need our love and care? That determination will create procedures, forms, approaches that make people feel a certain way. The hard work for organizations is identifying and challenging their own assumptions (often old ones that haven't been aired out in a while) about why and how we do what we do to make sure that the systems and procedures that emerge downstream reflect our values.

4) How do you define community in a networked congregation that is different from the traditional approach to synagogue life?

The dues structure itself is at the heart of a lot of the distance congregants feel from their synagogues. It is a bill that people are expected to pay, unless they're struggling and then they have to go through the humiliating process of asking for relief. Everyone should pay their fair share, but they should be treated as adults who can decide for themselves what that amount is, and if synagogues can't make the case that they provide value, that their continued existence is important and relevant to the lives of their congregants, well, then they won't survive. But I think we will, we just have to flex some communication and relationship muscles we've never had to exercise before.

5) What congregations (or other organizations) and/or leaders have you looked to for inspiration and support as you've been pioneering this new approach to congregational life?  What have you learned from them that's been applicable to your synagogue?

As we wrote in the Networked Nonprofit, I found the most exciting aspect of this moment in time is that traditional organizations across issues areas, service organizations and advocacy groups, are remaking themselves as social networks. They are taking down the walls and engaging with their communities, building relationships rather than turning the turnstiles of transactions. And synagogues and Jewish day schools are just beginning this process. The most important part of this journey for traditional organizations is for leadership to have the courage to make themselves uncomfortable by working different, more transparently, learning more about what their community wants from them, engaging them as full partners in problem solving, treating them as smart, generous people not names in a database. It's a very exciting time!

6)  You've clearly made a lot of progress during your tenure as board chair.  What does the congregation need next to continue this trajectory?

I'm not sure where we will be in a year much less three to five years, but I think we've made some progress in changing the relationship between the institution and our membership. The three most important things I see us doing in the future are:

  1. Providing training and support for new leaders to serve on the board and on our task forces.
  2. Unhooking ourselves from the assumption that the number of members is the most important measure of our success.
  3. And remembering to have fun together!

You can download and read Allison's full case study here.


This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work. 


Case Study: The Networked Nonprofit: A Prequel (Temple Beth Abraham)

Editor's note: Allison is the author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, and co-author (with Beth Kanter) of The Networked Nonprofit.  Recently, Allison has been serving as the president of the board at her synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York. This position has given Allison the opportunity to put her theory into practice, and to examine intimately the potential and challenges of synagogues as networked nonprofit.

As part of our blog carnival on Connected Congregations, Allison has written a very thoughtful case study of her work at Temple Beth Abrahram, exploring what it has taken to lay the groundwork for becoming a networked nonprofit.  The opening paragraphs are below.

Please download the 12 page case study here.

Two summers ago my worlds collided. A book I co-authored with Beth Kanter, The Networked Nonprofit, was published and at the same time I became president of my synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY.

I was more prepared for the book launch than the temple presidency. I’ve written books before and the process is pretty much the same each time. You spend months and months writing, then go out and talk to anyone who will listen to your brilliant ideas and phrases. Hopefully people say and write nice things about the book, three people buy it (including your mother) and then you go home.

I was fully unprepared to step into the role of president of a synagogue. While I had fifteen years experience in nonprofit management and more recently researching and writing about the power of social media to reshape organizations and communities, synagogue culture was a mystery to me. My presidency coincided with the Great Recession and significant decline in the number of Jews moving into our area. In the spirit of never wasting a good crisis, lay leadership, clergy and the congregation writ large have given me great latitude for experimentation for which I am enormously grateful. The following reflections as temple president are not intended as a victory lap, we are far from stabilizing, much less growing our membership. Rather it is an opportunity to share what I have learned in the hopes that others can build and improve on them and share their experiences as well.

My efforts at Temple Beth Abraham were based on the assumptions that form the basis of The Networked Nonprofit. Networked Nonprofits are:

“…easy for outsiders to get in and insiders to get out. They engage people to shape and share their work in order to raise awareness of social issues, organize communities to provide services or advocate for legislation. In the long run, they are helping to make the world a safer, fairer, healthier place to live.”

See link below to download the full case study.

Adventures in Learning: Matan and Darim Go Viral

Over the past six months Matan, founded 12 years ago, launched the inaugural Matan Institutes for Jewish Educators.  In March, 18 Education Directors came together for two days of intense learning related to Jewish special education; in August, 40 congregational school teachers spent one day with Matan learning how to make their classrooms accessible to all learners. 

What we love about special education is that in actuality, it is simply really good education.  Special educators pay close attention to the learning styles of each of their students – whether their preferences are visual, oral, tactile or kinesthetic.  These teachers plan their lessons making sure there are elements within that will reach every type of student.  In the 21st century classroom, technology is a remarkable tool that helps students access information in the ways that work best for them, often bridging the divide between different types of learners.

And so, when Matan was accepted into Darim’s Boot Camp for Jewish Educators, we saw a remarkable opportunity to combine the best of what special education and technology have to offer.  We made a conscious decision to focus our time with Darim on the educators that we train, with a particular eye towards the launch of The Matan Institutes.  In so doing, we have had the unique opportunity to model the use of technology with educators looking to increase their skill set for engaging children with special needs, thereby impacting over 8,000 congregational school students across the country.  In “social media speak”, Darim and Matan went viral.

Matan modeled various techniques we learned from Darim, and we will continue to do so with future cohorts of educators.  Among the most well-received: a thumb-drive for participants containing every presentation, every handout and lists of relevant resources (in addition to printed and screen-projected documents, because every adult also learns differently from one another); the use of Poll Everywhere (never before seen by Matan’s participants and a great way to engage tweens and teens in the classroom); and tweets that highlighted the messages of our nationally-renowned speakers with a much wider online audience.

Perhaps most importantly, we have the opportunity to continue working with these educators through webinars (a skillset learned from Darim), thereby making Matan the first Jewish Special Education organization that provides ongoing support and mentoring to the educators we train.  Having the ability to move beyond “one off” professional development sessions provides Matan with the opportunity to truly change the landscape of how children with special needs are included in Jewish education.  Thank you, Covenant Foundation! Thank you, Darim!

Meredith Englander Polsky is the Director of Training and Advocacy at Matan, and, along with Orlee Krass, Matan's Director of Education, participated in the Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, which is generously funded by The Covenant Foundation.

Your List is Not a Network

Part of the Connected Congregations series

Point of clarification: your list is not a network.

I sometimes hear organizations talking about the number of people they have involved with their work – their network – and then reference the people who have signed up to receive their email updates. That’s great! It’s wonderful that so many people are interested enough in your work and the difference that you’re making that they signed up to get your communications. That can be really important and powerful. It’s just not (necessarily) a network.

Below is a graphic outlining the qualities that make a list a list, and a network a network. Take a look, and think of it as a checklist. Where are you working with lists, and where with networks? What points could you focus on to make your efforts more networked?

Some definitions for the above chart:

Node: A node, or vertex, is any point in a network. It could be a person, place (like a city), or thing (like a computer).

Link: A link, or edge, is what connects two nodes. If the nodes are cities, the links may be something tangible like a highway system. If the nodes are people, the links may be more ethereal, like friendship, family, or professional relationships.

Prosume: This is a word that comes out of the software development world; it is a combination of “produce” and “consume.” For more on the Jewish prosumer, check out this post.