Friday, January 11, 2013

Strategic Planning

My shul has a real problem.  It resembles my Bar Mitzvah shul which crested at about the time of my Bar Mitzvah, then suffered membership attrition for the next forty years until it closed.  The shul where I attended services as a resident closed.  Both suffered demographic reversals probably beyond their control.  AKSE's struggles may have been more self-inflicted.  There really are not many places like the JCC Spring Valley that are thriving but there are places that used to be like the JCC of Spring Valley that adapted successfully to changing views of what the Jewish experience should be like that do not have to reassess their future today.  Or maybe more accurately they are continually reassessing their future as part of their leadership process, which may be why they do not go from crisis to crisis.

Our President invited comments on what the options for the future might be, posted a slide summary of the 42 comments he received, then invited the Board to comment on the presentation.  my assessment (blue)of the minutes (orange)

o Review of ideas submitted:  Categories: Building, CBS/AKSE; do nothing; egalitarian, financial, liturgy, other, youth.  
Discussion: Sell or downsize building; increase role of women, share space with CBS.  Need to look at how problem 
solution will solve problem; e.g., if membership decline is problem, will solution increase membership.  Problems with 
borrowing from restricted money, fundraising.  Rabbi willing to work something out with another synagogue. Not 
enough children; not growing.  Suggestions are interrelated; must discuss together. 

This is much too diverse.  First the problem needs to be defined better.  Not enough members?  Not enough money?  If we had money would we care about members?  Are the birds-in-the-hand sufficiently satisfied?  What do the members want in return for their support?  How well do we deliver on that?  Is synagogue affiliation really a consumer purchase?

If the problem is money, do we prefer to acquire more money or are we content to spend less or compelled to spend less?

Stephen Covey in his 7 HABITS recommended "Begin with the End in Mind" as the title of one of his earlier chapters.  That will determine when and how to play the gender card, seek other affiliations, develop programming and plan for the future.  Reading the range of comments, many of which can be traced back to when I arrived in 1997 and were addressed by a consultant some time ago, the direction needs to be teased out first.

Now for specifics:  Building is paid for.  Dormant Rabbi house has market value and we need the money..  There is much to be said about merging Beth Shalom with AKSE to a single congregation once the gender card is shredded.  Our talent adds to what they can do.  Their stability and institutional affiliation benefits some of our people.  Do Nothing has been the path for a while, though not exactly.  There were projections of what bringing a young personable Rabbi aboard would do.  Much of the projection did not materialize but at least it wasn't entirely a Do Nothing approach.  Much of the rest of it has been with reasonably predictable outcome.  I think it better to call "egalitarian" the gender card, since that is more accurate and is an issue at all non-egalitarian congregations where there is a disconnect between the secular opportunities for women and their role while under their synagogue's roof.  The blue line of what is acceptable halachically is always in motion, mostly expanding from what was before.  Rather than say egalitarian, I think it better to think of it as making the affiliation with AKSE, orthodoxy and its traditions more appealing to women than it is now.  Remember, orthodoxy with women involved is thriving nationally.  Liturgy needs to be addressed desperately.  My own attrition speaks for itself.  For all intents and purposes, there are no youth.  It is much better for AKSE to accept that, and integrate the children that we do have with other opportunities for them to socialize in the community.  The School remains one of those elephants in the room.  Sharing space with another congregation will not alter the lagging experience of AKSE affiliation.

Discussion about how would work out details and maintenance of identity if partnership with CBS; if work with CBS, 
chance for both institutions to develop a new identity.  Rabbi AKSE has discussed partnership with Rabbi CBS; next 
step is to go to board level.  Could remain as congregation, but not in this building; perhaps smaller building in N. 
Wilmington. Concern about conversion status if Adas Kodesch identity changes. Need longer period to discuss 
changes than proposed.  Main focus needs to be on our own congregants and what they want, to serve our own 
members’ needs; easier to retain members than to find new members; if we can engage current members, they 
become best ambassadors, which provides best chance for survival.  If we are going to talk about partnership with BS, 
should do relatively soon; difficult to combine missions of CBS & Adas Kodesch.   JCC suggested as a possible location 
if we decide to sell the building.  

AKSE has an identifiable mission?  Before you work out details you have to understand what you want.  If you want AKSE of the 1960's to be immutable, you already have that.  If you were engaging current members adequately as a matter of course, this discussion would not be coming up during the tenure of every single recent President.

Possible loss of membership if move left or right.   Discussion about egalitarian changes. E.g., if make some egalitarian 
changes that are Halachic, people will perceive us as fully egalitarian.  If rejoin OU, would require Mechitzah.  If joined 
CBS, most people would not notice the difference.  Adas Kodesch and Chesed Shel Emeth merged, and both changed; 
there is a way to do things if needed.  It appears that people like the type of service we have, although want full 
participation of women.  Should look at Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood which incorporates elements we have 
discussed.  Going in either direction would result in a loss of members; we should combine ideas, make major cuts in 
expenses, and keep existing traditional Jewish practices to ensure our survival and identity for longest period.  
Problem to ensure traditional practices when difficult to get a morning minyan.  We have to manage unappealing 

My grandfather's orthodox shul in the Highbridge section of the Bronx does not exist anymore.  Few shuls remain in Manhattan's Lower East Side.  My Bar Mitzvah congregation is gone.  The place I really liked in Quincy has closed.  Synagogues go through life cycles.  Amid that, new ones form and grow.  Charismatic Rabbis sometimes assume the pulpit bringing an energy and perspective that attracts people.  This seems to be independent of form of worship, more related to personal connections that people make at the educational level.  AKSE certainly has its challenges.  It is hard to say what the optimal solution would be, looking at the diversity of end points that people have expressed.

How would Rich the Sage go about this?  First, there cannot be Sacred Cows.  Everything is subject to schechita.  Second, there has to be an examination of ways in which AKSE is unique.  There are many.  There has to be a literature search, both internal to analyze why projections from the past were so wrong or even delusional and to distinguish approaches with potential from sure losers.  I think there has to be a planning committee.  It needs to have ex officio the Rabbi, President and Membership VP.  It needs to have three experts experienced with different trends in American Judaism and in doing literature search and analysis. Then it needs to have five members, either chose at random or selected by the Rabbi.  However whoever the Rabbi chooses should not be seated.  The spouse of that person should be seated.  There is just too much in-breeding and A-lists at AKSE which have been highly detrimental.  Only then does a direction get worked out, sent to the board for vote and then a parallel assembly of officials, experts and random congregants named to make it happen.  Will it happen?  No guarantee.

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