Five tips for achieving lasting change in congregations

Young people in a group hug

Engaging young adults in Jewish life was one of the goals of the Union for Reform Judaism's Communities of Practice, which sparked experiments in synagogues across North America.
Photo courtesy of the Union for Reform Judaism

Synagogues that participated in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Communities of Practice identified best principles to advance change.

In 2013, the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization of Reform Jewish congregations throughout North America, launched a movement-wide set of experiments with Communities of Practice.

In addition to a young adult initiative, it included one that examined 21st-century financing for synagogues, one that explored how best to meet the needs of young families, and one that looked at meeting those needs through an early childhood education center.

All were topics that had generated many questions from the URJ’s member congregations over the years, and the organization reached out first to synagogues that had already expressed an interest in them, later expanding its recruitment efforts through social media and newsletters.

The URJ wanted the congregations in each Community of Practice to start from the same point. So congregations that hadn’t yet addressed the problem or had been frustrated with the results of early efforts were chosen over those that had already experienced success and simply wanted to build on that.

The URJ insisted that each congregation make a long-term commitment to participate over the course of 18 to 24 months and that each involve both staff and lay leaders -- unless a synagogue was so small that it had only part-time staff or none at all.

The synagogues shared with each other the results of their efforts, what worked and what didn’t. And they continue to do so with each other and with other synagogues through the URJ’s social networking site, The Tent.

The URJ has recently launched six new Communities of Practice, exploring everything from how to make the bar and bat mitzvah experience deeper and richer for children and their families to how to engage congregants through small groups.

Each of the URJ’s Communities of Practice wrote a report on their experience and included a list of “best principles” for achieving lasting, meaningful change within a congregation.

Even congregations that share the same concerns are diverse in their membership, history, resources and personalities, and no one plug-in solution will work for everyone, says Amy Asin, the URJ’s vice president for strengthening congregations. But outcomes improve when congregations follow a deliberate, methodical approach to developing solutions.

Here are some of the principles developed by the URJ:

Empower lay leaders. Encourage your target audience, whether it be young adults, young families or both, to take ownership of the process. Establish a trusted, trained core of lay leaders who will be networking while creating the community they want to be part of. Staff can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all. “If you build a world that’s about maximal entry points, you can’t be every place,” says Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Play the long game. You may need to devote several years to an experiment before you see results, so be willing to invest time and patience, Thomas said. “My biggest take-away is you absolutely can’t back down. Nothing about this is ‘set it and forget it.’ You constantly have to stoke the fires. … With experiments, anytime you’re pushing the boundaries, you can’t just do it once. You have to do it consistently to create structure.”

Don’t get caught up in numbers. Traditionally, congregations have looked at quantitative measures of success: How many people showed up to an event? Was there enough food for everyone? Did we stay within budget? All of those are fine to track, but the URJ urges congregations to develop deeper measures: Did anyone make a new friend? Are participants hanging out together outside the synagogue? Are they learning meaningful ways to apply a Jewish lens to their broader lives?

Be authentic. Temples seeking to attract young adults often assume -- incorrectly -- that if events are “too Jewish,” young people won’t participate. “What we found was interesting and fascinating. In every congregation, they didn’t want anything purely social,” said Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, the director of the URJ’s Leadership Institute. “You shouldn’t be walking away from the Jewish piece -- that’s why they were going to you. If they wanted something purely social, they could go to a bar.”

Take programming beyond the walls of the institution. Engage your audience wherever they feel comfortable -- whether it’s in coffee shops, offices, pumpkin patches or people’s homes. And particularly when trying to reach young adults, make sure your online and social media presence is responsive, engaging and reflective of the type of environment you’re trying to create.

Sources: Young Adult Engagement Community of Practice report, Engaging Young Families Community of Practice report, 8 Principles That Drive Strong Congregations.