Becoming a Visionary Congregation

How do synagogues make change? How do they move from merely maintaining members to engaging them deeply?

by Andrea Glick

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Rabbi Charles Savenor, Rabbi Ilana Garber and Judy Kulakofsky of Beth El Temple, West Hartford, Connecticut, and Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam, Swampscott, Massachusetts.

Rabbi Charles Savenor, Rabbi Ilana Garber and Judy Kulakofsky of Beth El Temple, West Hartford, Connecticut, and Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam, Swampscott, Massachusetts.

Beth El Temple used to run a great Mitzvah Day. There were lots of people, lots of activity and lots of satisfied participants. The only problem was that Mitzvah Day didn’t lead to much during the rest of the year – just the same few people running the same few social-action projects.

“We started to realize that great things were happening when great individuals were making them happen, but other than that, people weren’t finding ways to be involved,” explained Ilana Garber, associate rabbi at Beth El Temple, a large Conservative congregation in West Hartford, Connecticut. What’s more, among Beth El leaders, there was a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that the congregation lacked a “sense of pride or holiness.” So a few years ago, the senior rabbi, Jim Rosen, along with Garber and their lay leaders, did some soul searching about what, as a synagogue, they wanted Beth El to be. They realized that the congregation was known as an intellectual place, not a bad thing in itself, but they wanted it to be known for more than intellect. They wanted it to become a “visionary caring community.”

Garber described this evolution last fall to a group of synagogue leaders from around the Northeast District of United Synagogue who had gathered in West Hartford for Sacred Strategies, a series of conferences taking place across North America run by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The moment Beth El’s leaders identified a problem and envisioned a new direction, they embarked on a pivotal journey, explained Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of Kehilla Enrichment at United Synagogue. It’s a journey that can take a synagogue from the realm of the merely functional – where the focus is on administration and discrete programs – into the realm of the visionary, where a congregation is infused with a sacred purpose. “Visionary congregations seek to engage, inspire and ultimately transform their members, not just maintain them,” Savenor says.

The term “sacred strategies” comes from the book Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman. The book is the basis of a United Synagogue initiative, developed by Savenor and Bob Leventhal, USCJ’s leadership specialist. The pair use the book’s analysis of eight congregations that went from functional to visionary as a jumping off point for exploring concrete ways that Conservative kehillot can become vibrant, engaged, sacred communities. “We believe, as do the authors of Sacred Strategies, that congregations that promote an inspiring vision will engage their members in meaningful experiences and develop leaders who embrace this ethos,” Leventhal says.

Each Sacred Strategies conference features local examples of visionary kehillot, so that leaders can learn not only how to implement best practices but also how to become more transformational in their own way.

There are certain hallmarks of functional and visionary congregations, say the Sacred Strategies authors. In their eyes, functional congregations take a consumerist or fee-for-service approach. They’re also highly segmented, with little integration of areas like worship, learning, caring, and social action. Other characteristics include, not surprisingly, resistance to change; leaders who focus on programs and institutional arrangements rather than on purpose and vision; and worship, learning and other activities that people don’t find particularly very meaningful.

Beth El’s development involved a series of interviews with synagogue members that probed the type of social action that would motivate and inspire them. It turned out that social action meant different things to different people. “We learned that people want to do mitzvot when they want to do them, where and at their own comfort level,” Garber said.

So instead of a single Mitzvah Day, Beth El now overflows with year-round opportunities for chessed and tikkun olam. One group visits people who are home-bound or in the hospital, another meets the needs of those in mourning, and a third helps people caring for a family member who is ill. There are opportunities to prepare meals at a local soup kitchen or a center for lower-income children and families, and there’s an extraordinary community garden at Beth El that last year provided 800 pounds of produce to a local food pantry. (For details, go to and click
on “A Community of Caring.”)

The new approach at Beth El has many of the hallmarks of a visionary congregation. These include: a sense of sacred purpose, that is, a shared vision infusing everything it does; a holistic approach, where all areas of the kehilla relate to each other; a participatory culture; meaningful engagement; an innovative culture; and reflective leaders with a commitment to feedback and continuous improvement.

In fact, most kehillot are somewhere along the functional to visionary spectrum, asserts Savenor, and in many congregations different areas fall on different points on the continuum. “The truth is that any movement along a spectrum can have a big impact,” Savenor says. “If you’re at a 0 and you move to 1 or 2, you might actually notice.” To begin to change, congregations can start by considering an area they want to work on and asking simply, “What would this area look like if it were visionary?”

Another kehilla that made the journey toward becoming visionary is Shirat HaYam in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Its rabbi, Baruch HaLevi, told the group in West Hartford that his congregation decided to focus on one thing and do it exceptionally well. In this case, it was Shabbat morning, and the goal was to make it as inspirational and inclusive as possible.

Shirat HaYam uses a model for Shabbat services called Synaplex, an approach built on the notion that people need different access points to Judaism and prayer. Many congregations have experimented with Synaplex but Shirat HaYam has fully embraced it. So like a multiplex cinema, the kehilla has numerous Shabbat offerings: a yoga minyan, a meditation service, a renewal minyan with chanting and drumming, a traditional Conservative service, a nosh and drash with Jewish learning, and finally, a ruach rally where the whole congregation joins arms for spirited singing. Then there’s
lunch, to which everyone is invited, even if they haven’t come to services.

The new approach has been a success. Instead of 50 people at Shabbat services, mainly seniors, each week Shirat HaYam now attracts between 200 and 500 people of all ages. HaLevi’s guiding principle is “radical hospitality,” a phrase coined by Dr. Ron Wolfson, a leading thinker about synagogue life. “It’s not okay to be merely tolerant,” HaLevi says. “Radical hospitality means people are accepted whoever they are, however they’re dressed, and however long they stay.” (Rabbi HaLevi and Ellen Frankel, a congregant who is also a popular speaker on wellness and spirituality, have written a book about this approach to synagogue life called Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community.)

Just as Sacred Strategies posits, a key to the successful change at Shirat HaYam was that the synagogue’s lay leadership fully supported it, HaLevi said. The congregation is in fact unusual in that it resulted from the merger of two synagogues whose leaders decided that rather than a traditional merger of two established congregations, they wanted to create something completely different, exemplified by their adopting a new name. HaLevi said he’d also learned from previous failed attempts that change works best when it is additive, when you’re not taking something away – like a traditional service – but offering more options.

Savenor encourages synagogue leaders to view change as a journey – not something that happens overnight but that  requires taking a step in a new direction. He points to the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Torah – Abraham, Rebecca, Jacob – as models of people who, on hearing they could be part of something greater than themselves, were willing to venture somewhere new and unknown. In the same way, the leaders of visionary synagogues are “willing to go on a journey. They don’t always know where they’re going to end up but they’re willing to leave where they’re at for the sake of a brighter future.”