There are certain words that get the blood pressure high at synagogue board meetings.
“Dues increase” is always a dangerous phrase to throw around. “Nominations” can be a charged term, depending on where that process is leading. The very word “process” can be a signpost toward tense conversations to come. And then there is always the highly charged phrase “rabbi’s contract.”
One word that synagogue trustees often keep at a greater distance than fried pork chops is the single word “merger.” Why is this word so feared by synagogue leadership?
When faced with declining membership rolls, declining contributions, increased burdens on the existing resources to provide the same services as in “the past” and, at best, a demographic forecast that is unclear, synagogue leaders tend still to avoid discussion of how we can work together to rebuild a Jewish future in our broader community. The chief reason for this reluctance is that no one wants to admit that his or her synagogue is the one with “The Problem.” Ah yes, other synagogues face many challenges, but our synagogue is the best, and if only we could communicate that to the soon-expected new exiles from the city, we will thrive. That bright future will confirm that our leadership was the most prudent, our clergy the most spiritual, our school the most innovative, and our community the most dynamic and welcoming.
I would like to propose here an alternative strategy for securing our Jewish future, based on the following four points:
1. We need to recognize the current market correction in the demographics of affiliation. While we may have been overwhelmed with various scientific surveys over the past several years, two things are clear: Our numbers are not what they used to be, and at the same time we have strong foundations of good people with solid commitment to a substantive authentic Jewish community. Like any other market, the demographics of affiliation fluctuate in trends, and just because the trend is lower than we would like does not in any way mean that the apocalypse is now. It simply means that we must understand the trends and make necessary adjustments.
The institutions that now serve the Jewish community were built for a different demographic than that which now exists. Strong leadership and clear vision is needed to adjust to our new market so we can focus on the teaching of Torah and providing warm and welcoming communities where we can celebrate and cry together. That would be a better use of our energies than the constant repair of an aged model. (I must add here that having just returned from a synagogue trip to Cuba, I still see the bizarre sight of all those 1950s American automobiles with the noisy engines on the road. One approach is to continue to tinker with the old cars. Another is to build and buy new models.)
2. We need to move beyond intracommunal competition and work together to offer a compelling belongingness. We need to stop putting our own synagogues on a pedestal and looking at everyone else as challenged. The challenges that exist face us all. Our competition is not each other. Our competition is nonaffiliation, the conception that individual Jews do not need to belong to or support Jewish institutions. We need to hold firm to the belief that the Jewish community is not something to which a Jew should opt out of. In former times, the worst punishment a Jew might face was ostracization from his or own community. Today, more and more Jews do not see the need to belong. This is the competition that must be confronted. We need to have compelling communities, learning, worship and social gatherings so that our people will recognize our buildings as places that offer meaning. The message should not be what distinguishes X Jewish Center from Y Jewish Center, but rather what distinguishes a Jewish center from other centers of meaning.
3. We need to conceive of merging and shared services as a mark of success rather than failure. The “usual view” on a synagogue board is that that dirty word “merger” should be kept aside until “all else has failed.” And because we are good enough leaders to know that things don’t develop passively, we know that “when all else has failed” really means “when we have failed,” and that is why we avoid that realization. But we should think of merging differently. Rather than a dirty word, we should see its possibility as a mark of success. In the for-profit world, a potential merger can exist only when each company has something wonderful to offer. You know you’ve made it as a start-up when you get that call from Big Business! You know you still have a good share of the market when a sister company wants to discuss consolidation even as you face challenges. You know your investors will be happy when a merger agreement goes through and your shares go up. No company wants to merge with or acquire a loser. I have always thought how strange it is that while in the for-profit world a merger is seen as a sign of success, in the synagogue world it is imagined as a failure. Rather than see a merger discussion as a last resort when the synagogue is about to close, we should conceive of it as an opportunity to take what we have built and transform it into something even better and even stronger.
4. We need to look back to the older European corporate community model and away from the American individualist congregation. Only in America did Jewish communal institutions develop so that each synagogue was its own individual corporation. In Europe, the model was that the wider Jewish community formed a corporate entity and administered the various synagogues, schools, cemeteries, and professionals that its members desired. That is still the model in Europe today. Israel is its own case, but even there we find far more services and resources shared among synagogues than we see here in the United State. American Jewry developed the way it did in parallel with the development of American Protestantism, where the individualist congregationalist model was preferred over the more centralized episcopal structure known from Europe. We in the Jewish community have to take a broader look at our institutional history and imagine other ways, well-tested models that we can adapt to our communities here.
The broader corporate model does not mean that synagogues need to close and that only mega-synagogues, where individuality is lost, will survive. Many campuses and many services within single campuses can strengthen the variety that already exists. Rather than devalue the individual, the broader communal model allows for a larger pool of people to come together and build a larger community, which can offer more, so that each person is more able to find the element of Judaism or Yiddishkeit that best appeals to him or her, and keeps him or her connected.
We should not be afraid of dirty words. Instead, let’s be more creative in exchanging ideas so that we can build a strong future.