It takes a community to help our synagogues thrive

Throughout our history, the synagogue, a place for prayer, gathering and study, was the most important address in the Jewish community. It has been the primary institution that makes sure our communal needs are taken care of, as well as the needs of individual Jews.

While for some this still rings true, my personal opinion, as a rabbi who has worked in Northern California for more than 30 years, is that for many the synagogue is at best a memory of the way Jewish life “used to be” during the “good old days.” The reality is that by and large, the next generation of potential synagogue members is not beating a path to the doors of our synagogues. That’s not a good omen for the future.

Acknowledging this reality is a critical first step in determining how synagogues might change in order to become more relevant to future generations of Jews, and not just a fond memory. Some synagogues have not only recognized this reality, but have taken steps to transform into vital 21st-century institutions, and in the process they are seeing increased attendance and participation. Many other synagogues have realized it’s time to change but are not sure how. Still others are responding to the crisis by cutting back, trying to hold on and, in some cases, closing.

Figuring out how our synagogues must transform not just to survive but to thrive is a communal endeavor. And catalyzing the change that can help transform synagogues from what they are to what they can become is one of the goals of the Synagogue-Federation Partnership.

Five years ago, the SFP was initiated by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. In conjunction with the synagogues in San Francisco, Sonoma, Marin and the Peninsula, it was designed to strengthen the impact of synagogues and their connection to the JCEF. During the past five years, federation and synagogue leaders have engaged in an open and honest dialogue and fruitful collaborations; as a result, we

have developed a sense of trust, respect and appreciation for each other’s roles in our Jewish community.

In the last two years, 20 synagogues have engaged in capacity-building projects that have made them better at fundraising, creating planned giving campaigns and membership in-reach and outreach.

It’s important that our synagogues are now more skilled, but it’s unlikely that continuing to do what’s been done in the past, even if it’s done better, will facilitate the change needed so more synagogues become relevant for more of our Jewish community.

Charles Darwin, who focused much of his life on trying to understand evolution and change, captured this dynamic with the observation, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

I believe that it’s time for Jewish leaders to embrace the need for systemic change. It’s time for us to reimagine and actualize how synagogues partnering with other Jewish institutions in our community can be meaningful and vital today and in the future.

We’re not going to find a magic potion that will cure our problems. However, federation and synagogue leaders, working together, have the passion, expertise and commitment to transform our synagogues in particular and our Jewish community as a whole into a more dynamic, inclusive place to be Jewish.

Many organizations in our community, including startups and established organizations like the federation, have demonstrated new ways to engage and involve Jews in being Jewish — and synagogue leadership can learn from what these organizations have accomplished.

On Wednesday, Jan. 23, the SFP is holding a community gathering to challenge synagogue leadership to consider a move beyond “better.” At the gathering, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime and devoted change agent, will share how he and the membership at his synagogue in suburban New York reshaped communal worship, transformed the congregation into a community of lifelong learners and strengthened the synagogue’s commitment to vibrancy and inclusion. I know he will help inspire us to achieve the same here in our community.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman is the rabbi-in-residence at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. For information about the Synagogue-Federation Partnership, contact him at [email protected]