Monday, December 10, 2012

Congregational Achilles Heels

After a couple of years focused on the financial stability of the congregation, which is important, the poobah's decided it may be time to poll the congregants for their thoughts on arresting declining membership and participation.  It may sound grass roots but it's one more top-down transformation where people of an opinionated nature submit thoughts to a central authority without the invitation to comment themselves on the diversity of thoughts presented.  That will be done by AKSE's politbureau.  A giant trough will then be created to be filled with some form of slop into which members and I assume the non-paying public as well can immerse their snouts when they are hungry for Judaism, or at least need to be Embraced/Engaged/Enriched.  To be fair, much of the governance has been devoted to technique:  Bingo, branding, dinner dances.  Too little has been invested in the things that count more: the experience of sitting in the sanctuary, college level Jewish advancement, establishing a unique communal presence.  Maybe now it its time to recapture what has been neglected and pay real attention to the sources of attrition.  My comments unedited.  Submitted ones in orange, Kept to myself in green.

Irene brought home an announcement of a Congregational Meeting which will be taking place as we leave for vacation.  While the format that I read in the notice may not be the best one to accomplish what is intended, at least there is sensitivity to what a diverse constituency might think, something that has not often been conveyed well during my recent years at AKSE though was probably always there conceptually.  This being a forum for the opinionated analytical minds, I’ll take a rather large bite.

Being socialized into the world of medicine for a very long time, I tend to think in this context.  History and examination matter, then you choose solutions.  It always starts with background knowledge.  Yes, there is a background literature and publicly available resources on congregational growth, some very specific to orthodox synagogues, others more general to other synagogues and generic worship institutions.  While I am a long way from an expert on this, I’ve certainly encountered some of these assessments and real case success stories in The Forward and and even the Wall Street Journal.  The URJ and USCJ web sites have extensive offerings on congregational development and the USCJ even has its public announcements of Schechter Awards that go to member congregations for implementing these types of activities.  Given the importance of this, it would be my expectation that the Membership officials of AKSE not run their activities as an accounting exercise of who came and who went, but function in more professional way of exploring modes of membership enhancement, both in attracting people and keeping a better pulse on those already here to enhance satisfaction and retention.  And that means some effort to read, study and understand, ironically, the real underpinning of most things Jewish.

The indispensible theme of these, or at least those which I am familiar, is that the basic Orthodox congregational growth comes from attracting people who are not themselves Orthodox but appreciate things done well.  These are generally parents of young families, people who despised Hebrew school and got little out of it but took a liking to the Judaism of college.  They are indifferent to modes of worship but function at the upper tier of their professions and appreciate Judaism being presented to them at a level that stimulates thought and interactive study.  Aliyah Sound Bites don’t stand a chance in this population.  The development of loyalty amongst this population, which has an income capable of dues and a need to educate children either in day or congregational schools, seems to be entirely driven by the scholarly capacity and personable nature of the Rabbi.  And the growth can be quite dramatic, the place in Columbus being thoroughly revived and Rabbi Brander, who I often listen to expanding his Boca Congregation several fold over fourteen years before retuning to NY to become director of the Center for the Jewish Future.  Much of the effort requires meeting these people where they are, which is someplace other than the synagogue.  All these efforts and outcomes are publicly available for review with some basic computer and research skills.

With the recent election setting a new perspective, I am beginning to wonder if AKSE finds itself where it is for parallel reasons that Republicans find themselves where they are.  Republicans and AKSE have to divest a certain amount of baggage before a constituency not already in place will find the affiliation attractive.  AKSE has elephants in the room that either nobody talks about or that insiders rationalize while outsiders cast their votes elsewhere.  My last Board Term seemed like an endless array of A-List Beautiful people who were asked to do things and B-list people who were marginalized. The concept of the President thinking and expressing at a Board Meeting that the purpose of the Nominating Committee was to telephone the people the president appoints is a) offensive, b) not what my reading of the By-Laws infers, and c) creates the type of organizational incest that eventually expresses recessive genes.  It also perpetuates A-lists.  I have divested myself of all my committees because a recycle leadership caste checks boxes on agendas as a surrogate for innovation.  AKSE has created a recycling center for VP’s and Haftarah readers, much as the Republicans recycle their own platforms, incapable of understanding why a broader constituency rejects it.  Lying dormant is the ill-fated report of the original consultant whose comments and solutions were replete with suggestions for making governance and committees more responsive to a general public.  IMHO, AKSE did this to itself a while ago when it undid a bylaws provision that set term limits on officers.

The other obvious elephants are the female ones.  As I go to orthodox and observant conservative congregations in my periodic escapes and correspond with others of my mindset, it is obvious that female participation in classic orthodox Judaism is thriving nationally, but the places in which it is thriving have a clergy and lay leadership that understand that the red line of what women, converts, and non-Jews can do in their congregations within the bounds of Halacha is changing, as it always has.  The bias has been to expand participation and then see to it that the permitted expansion is in fact implemented.  Next year marks the Centennial of the Bais Yaacov movement around the world.  Sarah Schenirer who conceived of this in Cracow had a mixture of support and opposition, but once the Gerer rebbe gave his approval, he also used his resources to drive its success.  In my own time, in my native Monsey, the Gaon Reb Yaakov ruled that his women could teach at the afternoon non-Orthodox congregational schools that were growing around Rockland County at the time.  He set some limits but made sure that what he found acceptable was in fact implemented as best he could.  Josh Strulowitz, an orthodox Rav from a congregation in the San Francisco area made a very telling observation on this.  He was participating in a multiRabbi forum sponsored by the local JCC or Federation which was recorded.  In the Q&A session at the end, he was challenged about the role of women in his congregation.  He responded that Halacha indeed limits what his women are permitted to do ritually.  It limits virtually nothing else.  Worship in his congregation comprises about an hour a day, a little more on shabbos.  The rest of the time there is equality.  The women of his congregation are the best educated in the SF Community.  There is no squaw work in his shul where women who function professionally at the upper tier most of their lives have to settle for setting up Kiddush.  They teach, they govern, they command respect when they represent his congregation to the greater community.  None of this is the case at AKSE, where even women’s participation that the Rabbi permits languishes in the second tier.  If you want a Women’s Tefilah Group that brings Kavod to the congregation, you have to insist that it have parity to other services in its quality and you have to divest of contrivances like banning talesim on men and having men seated as spectators while women stand and worship.  That is the changing Red Line.  If having women read the prayer for the Government or do Kiddush is acceptable to the Rabbi, which he already indicated it is, then you need to have a mixture of men and women doing those things.  To do less leaves you with squaw work which any outsider will judge to be inferior, as would a fair number of insiders, myself among them.  And then there are people for whom even this is not good enough.  Rabbi Brander had an interesting comment about how he handled this.  He acknowledged the validity of what those women or their families wanted, helped them move along to their next destination if that was the right thing to do, but delivered them there with the best Jewish background that he could provide for them so that some of the light of the Boca Raton congregation was exported to the other place.  To do less leaves AKSE with the same baggage that the Republicans have, not only unacceptable policies but the justifiable image of insensitivity to what is most important to the other people.

While there is no shortage of what to address, and I’m confident that if enough people respond, many more significant opportunities to address the current situation will emerge, I remark on one more that I will call Dropped Balls.  To the Leadership’s credit, Bingo was thoroughly researched, risks assessed, an implementation champion identified and the project brought to successful fruition.  Cantor Search had a little bit more of an A-list participant feel to it, but candidates were identified and pursued in a diligent and successful way.  All sorts of other projects languish.  The ideas of the first consultant are as valid today as when they were submitted.  There was an Implementation Committee.  A decision was made to mentor younger members.  Despite its importance and good intent, it never happened.  Our gabbaim have their own A-list that they neither expand nor provide novices the time they need to grow into bimah participants.  Despite the congregation’s attempt to expand committee participation, it is always the more visible of a couple that gets invited, never the spouse.  I try to put teens on the Education Committee and I am dismissed out of hand by chairman and VP’s with some kind of lame rationalization that their homework will deteriorate as the excuse for why not.  While there is a sincere desire to have a broadly participatory congregation, the kind that not only succeeds from within but surreptitiously carries the enthusiasm to others, there is no means of accountability.  Over time your talent that could read Haftarah or design a great evening program, make a morning with Women’s Tefilah sparkle or even connect to other families LinkedIn style remains on the sidelines for either never having been asked or feeling like a member of the B-list when they are.  There are a lot of those dropped balls bouncing around AKSE’s hardwood.  You could upgrade the individual AKSE experience immensely without changing a single internal policy just by recognizing this form of systemic error and putting somebody in charge to create the checklists that fix it.

That concludes the comments about AKSE.  Not for formal presentation but some suggestions on gathering information in a better way.  When we teach medical students physical diagnosis, we start by bringing them to the bedside where they are instructed to look, observe but not touch or talk.  The observation of AKSE, looking only, is that attendance is down from where it was in many respects.  I only come about half the Shabbat mornings and not at all any other times.  I’ve not been to a Mens Club program or a class in ages.  At 10:00 AM on a Shabbat morning, there are virtually no women in the sanctuary and many less men than there used to be.  The Board has a fixed population but committees do not.  I am part of committee attrition as are others, mostly driven by some type of adverse experience, or the tacit message that the purpose of a committee is not to create but to process through.  There are people who have changed their allegiance.  There are people who have begun to look at synagogue membership as a consumer purchase that is overvalued.  The issue of the meeting, as I read the proposal brought home from the Board Meeting really has to do more with attrition than with individual policies passed along from the governance.  It is the financial consequence that catches attention of the Executive Board, though I assume participatory attrition would catch the attention of the clergy.  A much better way of assessing the problem would be to target comments from people who have reduced their activity in some significant way, which is generally for cause.  There is no shortage of people who used to be a more significant presence in the congregation than they are now.  It is unlikely that the Leadership has forgotten who they are.  Those are the people whose private candor is needed most and whose perspectives offer a much better prospect for change in direction than a random broadcast with feedback from those most energetic or articulate to provide it.

Wishing you well with this difficult but vital congregational analysis.

Richard M. Plotzker, MD
Mercy Philadelphia Hospital

No comments: