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Connect, collaborate

Federation’s SynaCon gives synagogue leaders a chance to hear practical tips and build relationships

Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack and Steven Haber of Congregation Kol HaNeshamah in Englewood listen as Lisa Harris Glass, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s chief planning officer, talks about collaboration.
Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack and Steven Haber of Congregation Kol HaNeshamah in Englewood listen as Lisa Harris Glass, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s chief planning officer, talks about collaboration.

There might not be any better way to get across the idea that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel than to say, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

There are some things that people have to invent or create or imagine for themselves. But there also are things in this world that already have been invented or created or imagined that are so close to perfect that there is no reason to reinvent or recreate or reimagine them.

So why reinvent the wheel? Why not just teach wheel-making?

Why struggle for another metaphor? Why not just go with the one that works?

And yes, because this really is getting somewhere, why should each new cohort of synagogue leaders have to relearn how to run a synagogue? And why should synagogue leaders have to figure out what their synagogue needs, instead of learning from the leaders of other synagogues?

Why not collaborate? Why not learn from each other?

And why not let the local federation — that’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — kickstart that process?

So on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, lay and professional leaders met at the Crowne Plaza in Saddle Brook for a half-day conference called SynaCon; it, like the rest of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative, is funded by the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation. The SLI’s mission is to work with synagogue leaders, offering training — in the form of workshops, counseling, and other resources — to allow them to grow as leaders as their institutions flourish as a result of that training. It’s an unusually comprehensive program, thanks in large part to the Taub Foundation.

This was the second SynaCon, Lisa Harris Glass, the federation’s chief planning officer, said. This synagogue conference, like the first one, “is a direct response to feedback from users and potential users about making this type of learning more accessible to them.

“Last year, we tried this new format, on a Sunday morning, offering a lot of resources, so that people could choose the classes that were most interesting to them. So this year we decided to do it again.”

This year, “we had representatives from 29 synagogues, of every denomination as well as independent synagogues,” she said. “We estimated that those 29 synagogues represented about 8,200 member units, and that’s roughly 16,000 people — and that’s a conservative estimate. And then there’s the ripple effect.

“We can touch over 16,000 Jewish people in northern New Jersey. That’s incredible.”

The conference had a twofold goal, Ms. Glass said. One was essentially top-down — to teach information that the leaders could bring back home. The second was more lateral, more elusive, and perhaps more long-lasting — to give leaders the chance to meet each other and form the relationships that will allow them to work together.

Nanette Fridman, the keynote speaker, is a Boston-based consultant who specializes in Jewish organizations; here, she talked about what she called “cultivating collaboration”; later, she led workshops.

“I started by saying that I think that synagogues are here to stay, but that being said, synagogues are going to have to change the way they do business,” she said. “We have seen that over and over again.”

A key to positive change is to collaborate, Ms. Fridman said. “When we talk about collaboration, some people automatically think about joint programming, and other people automatically think about mergers. But collaboration is a continuum. It can mean so many things. So I try to highlight trends that we are seeing in synagogues across the country — things like programmatic collaboration; joint advocacy, mainly for state funding; sharing facilities intradenominationally, interdenominationally, and in an interfaith community; and building community campuses.

“We also are seeing very creative collaborative programming, like a synagogue partnering with senior housing. And then there’s sharing staff; we’re seeing a lot of that in the teen space, the religious school space, with rabbis in synagogues and day schools.”

Can Ms. Fridman provide some specifics? Well, yes, she can, because this was a conference that dealt in specifics and offered practical advice.

“There are projects like the ChaiVillageLA, a collaboration between two synagogues in LA that allows people to age in place,” she said. “There is a concept called the village movement; it’s about helping people to continue to live in their homes as they age, and improving their lives by providing them with services so they can live in a more healthy and happy way.

Lisa Harris Glass, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s chief planning officer

“This is the first synagogue-based village.

“These two synagogues have responded to a problem in a creative way. Neither one could have done it alone, but they were able to do it together.”

And then there is the far end of the collaboration scale, the thing that some synagogues hope will save them and others dread.

“That is the big M,” Ms. Fridman said. “Merging, or consolidation. We spent some time talking about when collaborations are successful, and we also talked about why partnerships fail. Sometimes they do fail, and it’s important to be honest about that.

“When we collaborate, we encourage people to use design thinking.” What’s that? “It’s when you try to solve a problem, and you are being creative and experimental. You go through iterations, maybe many iterations. It’s not perfect at first, so you fail and try again, using what you’ve learned from the last time.

“If we adapt that to partnerships —instead of saying that we tried that once and it didn’t work, so we won’t try it again — then we have a better chance.

“Collaboration is a good way for innovation to happen, because often when we’re doing it alone we don’t have the resources to be innovative, but we do when we do it together.”

There is no one rule for all communities; their economies, histories, geography, and overall demographics make each one unique.

“Housing prices are a big predictor of community growth,” Ms. Fridman said. On the one hand, rising prices mean that a community is desirable; on the other hand, it also easily can mean that young people are priced out, so it will age and wither. Communities often cycle through those phases of growth and decline; collaboration often is a way to handle all parts of that cycle.

Ms. Fridman also led two workshops, one about “building a culture of ambassadorship” and the other about fundraising. “We talked a lot about making the ask,” she said; about gathering up the moral conviction to be able to ask for money for the institution you love. “Synagogues cannot exist on earned income alone,” she said. “We know that we already are asking for dues and for money to support a Hebrew school. So how can we ask for more?

“People have to flex their muscles, and make the ask. They have to make the synagogue exciting. We know that people aren’t excited about giving money to keep the lights on. They are excited about giving money toward something that is aspirational. For something new.” And that, she said, is another place where collaborations, and the new ideas that spring from them, the new angles of vision that come from them, are useful.

Ms. Fridman thinks that there is something unusual about the Jewish community in northern New Jersey, and she thinks that the SynaCon displays it. “I work with a lot of federations,” she said. “They tend to help synagogues with resources or speakers or some consulting services.

“But this is wonderful, that the federation brings together the synagogue leaders, so they can form relationships with each other.

“That’s because if we are to collaborate, we have to be in relationships with one another, and we can’t be in relationships with one another if we don’t meet each other.”

Henry Ramer is an executive vice president at Shomrei Torah in Wayne, which means that he is in line to become its president. He went to the conference, and “I thought that it was very helpful,” he said.

Like most (if not all) of the participants, security was much on his mind. The murders of 11 Jews, killed at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh by a deranged white supremacist, was a specter that haunted the meeting. Security became the topic that almost everybody wanted to discuss; because the meeting was so practical in orientation, they went home with practical advice rather than philosophical takes.

“I went to the workshop on synagogue security, which probably was the best attended at the meeting,” Mr. Ramer said. “I thought that it was very helpful. Debbie Gottlieb,” a lawyer who manages the federation’s group purchasing initiative and has had a great deal of experience working with FEMA security grants and other security projects, “was very authoritative on what some other synagogues were doing and the effwicacy of some of the other measures that were undertaken.

“It was very practical,” Mr. Ramer added. “Where should a mailbox go? Where should packages be delivered? Where should the Saturday morning greeter be positioned? Inside the sanctuary? Outside the sanctuary?”

He also was able to hear an expert, “who was very much in tune with the practices of the Department of Homeland Security, talk about how to harden a building,” he said.

Not only did he have the chance to hear a discussion on these subjects, but “we have a board of trustees meeting soon, and I will present a summary of the discussion to the board,” he said.

He found the meeting very helpful. “I was able to talk in person to some of the people I’d already talked to on the phone,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to meet face to face.

“I was very happy I went,” Mr. Ramer concluded. “And I used the occasion to make my pledge to federation at the same time. I killed two birds with one stone!”

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