Congregational collaboration in the new year

Congregational collaboration in the new year

Here’s a thought to take to High Holiday services next month: Collaboration between congregations can be a good thing.

In an article in eJewish Philanthropy, Larry Glickman, the director of network engagement and collaboration for the Union for Reform Judaism, questioned the spirit of competition in the synagogue world. People go “shul shopping” and ultimately support just one synagogue above others, he observed.

“To what extent do we want all Jewish families in our area to join our congregation, even at the expense of neighboring congregations?” Glickman asked. “Do we want other congregations to close?”

A Reform movement survey found that congregations were happy to use others’ ideas and materials, “but they’re hesitant to share their own valuable intellectual property with neighboring congregations,” he wrote. “They fear their ideas may be copied, that people may decide to join neighboring congregations instead, and that their congregational membership (and ultimately income) will decrease.”

If there is a twinge of recognition in any of this, the holidays may be a good time to consider whether this is the proper mindset. Although Glickman’s article is titled “Why Congregational Competition is a Good Thing,” he actually argues that synagogues should be “competitive and cooperative while still maintaining a strong sense of community and individuality.” Organizations that reach out and work with each other “stay sharp and focused, always moving forward.”

Glickman, a former synagogue executive director, offered three ways that synagogues can reach out to their Jewish neighbors: Collaboratively advertise the benefits of affiliating with whatever synagogue serves the needs of a person’s family, send members with children to another synagogue’s early childhood program if your synagogue doesn’t have one, and “create curriculum and programming” together and “then share it.”

Do any of these ideas have a chance? Maybe. They’re certainly worth considering, especially since congregations nationwide, including many here in this community, are feeling the pinch. Every year comes the news of local synagogues merging or cutting back on staff and services, even as a handful of more successful ones in large cities report growing membership.

We need look no further than the response of three congregations here in Squirrel Hill. Rodef Shalom Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom have gone beyond Glickman’s recommendations by merging their religious schools into the successful Joint Jewish Educational Program (J-JEP) even though one congregation is Reform and the other Conservative. Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, finding itself in a very difficult situation due to declining membership and revenues, is likewise seeking community collaboration. As described in two Chronicle articles in the last two weeks, TOL*OLS is exploring a site collaboration with the Jewish Association on Aging, as well as broader potential alliances with other congregations.

There will always be struggling congregations, but the competition between those that are doing relatively well and those that are not does not have to be a zero-sum game. Everyone can work together to ensure a community with more affiliated Jews tomorrow than exist today.

Glickman explains the possible consequences of every congregation only looking out for itself, with a variation on the old Jewish joke about synagogues. He tells the story of the last two Jews in Afghanistan. Each belonged to his own synagogue and refused to step inside the other. We cannot let that happen here.