Freedom From the Status Quo

Of the many inspiring Passover messages that I read this year, the one that most caught my eye was by Rabbi Jill Jacobs,"Where Slavery Ends and Freedom Starts.", March 30, 2015. Rabbi Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, shares "it's not always so clear where slavery ends and freedom starts. Did the Israelites become Pharaoh’s slaves only after he set taskmasters over them? Or did we lose our freedom when we became dependent on Egypt’s largesse? Did we become free when we crossed the sea, or only when we established a homeland of our own? … The line between slavery and freedom is not always clearly marked by a parting sea."  Rabbi Jacobs applies this to the context of oppressed workers in the modern economy, people who are bound not by shackles and chains but by poverty, fear, emotional abuse, or lack of education.

Freedom is not only about our physical reality, but also our mindset.  Even while the Israelites were physically free, they reminisced that “in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!” (Exodus 16:3).  It’s hard to let go of what we know, what’s our “normal” even if it’s not ideal, or even serving our interests.

People (and collectively, organizations) who think they are “free” can also be “enslaved” by old ideas and ingrained patterns of behavior. Whenever we keep doing things in a certain way because that is the only way we’ve know to do them, we run the risk of self-enslavement. This is especially true when the old ways aren't working anymore, and the need for change is increasingly clear. Let’s look at this in three areas of American Jewish congregational life.

Financial Models
For a hundred years or so, most American synagogues have been organized with a dues-based membership model. This model has been nearly universally adopted, and the norm for multiple generations — such that, just like in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine any other way.  But today there is abundant evidence that this model isn't working as well or reliably as it used to for many congregations. There are, however variations, changes, and new and different models that some are successfully utilizing. While different synagogues may need different approaches designing how their communities support them, across the field we are starting to feel the questioning and active pushback that are hallmarks of a new kind of freedom to explore different kinds of synagogue funding models.

Most American synagogues have also shared the idea that if we build the biggest building, create the best programs, boast the most creative religious school, and hire the right rabbi, then the Jews will come running to become members. But for Americans today (and especially for younger generations), the whole notion of membership (to any organization) doesn't seem quite so certain or resonant.  Those of us who do care about our synagogues, who do find meaning, purpose, and connection in this kind of social and religious organization have to find new ways to make other people see that value and spark, and to care too. That means seeking out, creating, and experimenting with variations, changes, and new and different models of engagement.  Too often our mindset is that “engagement” equals “membership” and “attendance”, but engagement is as much about a mindset and relationships as it is about attendance. Here too, let’s free ourselves of assumptions about our engagement models, and explore a new normal.

Most American synagogues rely on boards and committees, volunteers, lay leaders, and professional staff who spend hours and hours in meetings and parking lots making important and not-so important decisions, and then making them again on phone calls and in more meetings. We struggle to find new leaders and new volunteers in part because our current leaders are feeling over-burdened, and in part because the structures of our leadership (multi-hour meetings on weeknights that conflict with kids’ activities, sports games, and other interests) are out of synch with the ways prospective leaders organize their time and attention.  What if, just what if, we ask ourselves to consider variations, changes and new and different models of leadership?  Remember when Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, pushes him to think differently?  “'The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Exodus 18:17). Let’s free ourselves of these structures, and instead look afresh at what makes the most sense for our needs today.

As we count the omer and move from a celebration of the exodus to the receiving of the Torah, may be take the opportunity to recognize, with 20/20 vision, the places where we may be limiting ourselves, even “enslaving” ourselves to old ideas and previous models that are no longer in our best interests.  As the Israelites wandered the desert, there were many questions, few clear answers, and plenty of “figuring it out as they went”.  So too are congregations today in a time of pioneering a new era.  Let us embrace the questions, explore possibilities, and be free to pioneer the future.

This blog post is cross posted on the Connected Congregations website.  Learn more about Connected Congregations here.

Debbie Joseph is president and founder of Debbie Joseph Consulting, Inc. She is a nationally recognized expert in working with synagogues on exploring alternative dues and membership models, strategic planning and leadership development.  She is a contributor to UJA-Federation of New York’s Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?” report and a contributor to “New Membership and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue” by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky.

This Shul Will School You on Facebook

Originally published on Clips and Phrases

Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, a Lubavitch synagogue in Crown Heights, “does Facebook” better than any congregation I’ve ever seen.* The numbers aren’t the real success story here, but for the record, they have nearly 2,000 likes, with a few hundred folks “talking about this” at any one time. Their posts get consistent engagement. And, to the best of my knowledge, their efforts online are paying off; it helps strengthen the community, raise dollars, and keep CAY at the top of their congregants’ minds as often as humanly possible.

Check out their Facebook Page here.

Ok, see what I mean?

Here are my thoughts on what they are doing really, really well – all of them replicable! So read, enjoy, and learn…

It’s About the Community

This is their fabulous header image – done by an artist in the community, OF the community. It literally and figuratively represents what (or rather who) they’re all about.





CAY says thank you. A lot. And genuinely. A good habit for anyone to develop.

Also, CAY members are regularly sharing life-cycle events, and each one of them is diligently posted to the Page. But, more than that, the Chevra Page adds a little something special to each one, pointing out the special qualities of the people involved.

CAY makes a special effort to regularly highlight members of the community and show how unique and valuable they are.

Personality, Baby!

Check back on the header image and look at the description of the shul. Read the posts I’ve included as screenshots here. Getting an idea of the personality of the shul? What the leadership might be like? What it might feel like to pray there? Yup. That’s the point. Go for that.

The posts regularly include a lot of goofy, fun, gentle humor. The shot below is so, so much better than the multitude of posts I see from congregations everywhere saying, “Come to this event! It’s going to be great.” Oy. Find your style and let it shine!

CAY’s posts are also super honest. They ask for help. They admit when they’re struggling with something. It’s a great example of authenticity breeding engagement and building community.

The Nitty-Gritty

  • CAY uses lots of images and video, both of which are great windows into the community, but are also very friendly to the Facebook Newsfeed algorithm, Edgerank. It helps keep them and everything they stand for at the top of their congregants’ minds as often as possible.
  • They post regularly, but not overwhelmingly so. There’s always meaningful activity happening on the Page.
  • They excel at responsiveness. The Page manager jumps in on conversations and offers genuine answers in a timely way. In addition, rebbetzin especially makes a point of chiming in on posts as herself, and sharing info from the Page to her personal profile. The Page is part of a broader communication ecosystem; it doesn’t stand alone.
  • CAY uses Facebook’s Promoted Posts and other ad services to remind folks about events and other important happenings in the community. Notably, they always is use paid promotion to accelerate good content, not to prop up content that’s flailing.

And most importantly…

They keep it real. Everything they are online is exactly who they are on-land. The Facebook Page gives you a small taste of what it’s like to be there in the “real world.”

Which of these points resonates most with you? Which does your Page do well, and which can you work on?

*Point of clarification – CAY is NOT a Chabad House. It is a shul by and for (almost entirely) Lubavitcher Hasidim, though it’s run much like a Chabad House.

Getting to Know You

It's the start of a new Religious School year and you want to do something to start the year with a bang. It would be good to find a way to help parents and children meet the teachers right away. And it's always nice to use new technology to show that the synagogue is moving with the times. These were some of the aims as we embarked on a new project at The Community Synagogue.

It was on the Darim Social Media Success Stories webinar series that I saw the way that Rabbi Rebecca Milder had used social media and QR codes for displaying the work of their students. It got me thinking about the ways that we could use QR codes in our own synagogue community.

The idea was to record videos of all of our teachers with a welcome message to the new students introducing themselves and sharing their excitement for the forthcoming school year. These videos would be available through our website. But the primary way in which we intended to share them was via posters in the lobby of the synagogue, with QR codes linking to all of the videos.

We registered with as I had seen them recommended by Rabbi David Gerber on another Darim webinar. For a small fee this service provided us with analytics for each code we created and also gave us the potential to subsequently change the web page to which the QR Code was linked.

Next came the videos. Teachers who were technologically able filmed their own and the rest we recorded using iPhones. While I am sure we could have made better quality recordings with a more sophisticated camera, for the short 20-30 second clips the iPhone was sufficient. All of the clips were uploaded to YouTube and filed as 'unlisted' so that there was some degree of privacy. We then embedded all of the videos onto individual pages on our website, so that the QR codes would direct people to our website rather than YouTube.

By the first day of Religious School we had 31 videos, all but one of our teachers was happy to be a part of the project. Each teacher had their own section on a poster which included their picture, the classes they were teaching and the QR code to watch their video. These were mounted together onto 6 poster boards and displayed in the synagogue lobby as people made their way into the sanctuary for the opening of school. We also printed out a few sheets with information on how to use QR codes and to download a QR scanner.


There was one line to register new students and there was another line to scan the codes and watch the welcome videos, with a real sense of excitement about the new display. It was great to watch as parents and children met their teachers 'virtually' before meeting in person later that morning.

We've continued to display the boards in the lobby to give people further opportunities to scan the codes and watch the videos. We have had well over 100 scans of the QR codes by parents and children of the synagogue, and it's been a great way for the community to get to know one another.

Blowing up the Bima: Reinventing the Rabbi Congregant Relationship

Part of the Connected Congregations series.

1983. The author was in Atlanta, GA serving in his first full time Rabbi / Jewish Educator position. As part of a synagogue renovation project, the synagogue’s school building (which once served as the state’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters!) was being restored after having been abandoned years earlier. The synagogue had been founded in the city of Atlanta. In 1946, it followed the move of Jews to suburbia. Consistent with the architecture of the time, the bima was an elevated stage several feet above congregant seating and positioned several yards forward from the front row of seating. The bima was illuminated by several spotlights, which easily raised the temperature to 10 degrees higher than that in the seats below.

During the renovation project, the senior rabbi and I questioned whether the bima could be moved closer to the congregants, or even to a location that would be nearer to the center of the seating, to be more consistent with an increasingly participatory approach. The answer given by the architect was that, to do so, “you would have to dynamite the bima, since it was built in solid concrete.”

Fast forward to 2007. I was no longer the Jewish educator embarking on a new career, but now sat with an energetic, bright Jewish educator embarking on her career. As I finished telling her the above story, she stopped me and said, “That’s it! To be successful in this work today, we have to blow up the bima!”

Today’s American synagogue model grew up in the post World War II era. The architecture of synagogues moved the attention from the center of the synagogue to the front, reflecting the idea that the “action” was going to take place on a stage, with paid lead actors (rabbi, cantor) performing from in front of and above the congregation, who would be participants, not leaders.

At the same time, the economic model of the synagogue was built on membership dues, which in turn relied on Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which in turn relied on synagogue “religious schools” to provide the financial means of keeping synagogues going (which also devalued both the educational program and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah).

Fast forward to 2012, and the (Jewish) world has changed, and the relationship of Rabbi to Community Member has changed with it. Today, only a fraction of Jews look to their rabbi as a sole authority on their spiritual or religious life and practice.

I propose that the model for the Rabbi / Community Member relationship must change to that of a Coach / Client relationship. In that relationship, the rabbi still is the scholar, but his/her role is not to try to impose one particular type of Jewish practice, as much as to set out options for people, and then empower them to set their Jewish life paths.

To make that happen, a few things need to occur:

  • Rabbinic training needs to continue a move that has already progressed away from growing rabbis as authority figures and towards growing rabbis as coaches or spiritual mentors. Conversations between rabbis and community members sound more like “here are some possibilities that Judaism provides for your life” rather than “this is what Judaism demands of you”.
  • Synagogue services must loosen up and move the “action” back to the Jews in the Pews rather than on the frontal bima. Among the ways to make that happen are interactive text studies during services, Storahtelling type theatre to supplement Torah reading, even Tweetups during services for those congregations that permit use of technology on Shabbat.
  • We need to worry less about the rules of the service and more about how services help people to move spiritually. Fundraisers talk about “move management” as donors are developed. We need “move management” for Jews on their spiritual journeys. Judaism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Rabbis need to have discussions (and not merely sermons) that say “you’ve added X to your life; How do you think Y would work as a next step towards deepening your spiritual journey?”
  • Congregations and their rabbis need to not be limited by physical walls or by the walls of membership. There is an economic challenge to opening the doors, and some very creative communities are already trying to figure out how to keep congregations viable as these changes occur. But as the Jewish world has seen from examples such as Sukkah City and Dawn. To use Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ expression, we must break down the synagogue’s walls.
  • Community members and rabbis need to talk to one another. It’s no longer good enough to have families on membership lists that rabbis only talk to on holidays or when there is a life cycle event. Rabbis need to have conversations with each family or individual during the year that say “How can I or Judaism be of service to you in your life?” And the meetings don’t have to be in the “rabbi’s study”. They can be at Starbucks or over a corned beef sandwich at a deli [that’s right, we like a good corned beef sandwich, too].

How will your rabbis and your community members join in leading change?

Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan, MSW, is Founder and Owner of Jewish Connectivity. Arnie is an innovative and creative Jewish educational leader and rabbi. His programs and teachings have powerfully impacted Jewish learners and professionals across the country. A native of Chicago, he now lives in Long Island, NY. Arnie blogs as The Notorious R.A.V., and has a Twitter feed with over 700 followers, @jewishconnectiv. You can learn more about him and read recommendations on LinkedIn.


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.