Synagogues and Federations: What we Need from and Give to One Another
by Dolores Wilkenfeld
On behalf of my Houston community, I want to express deep gratitude for the Shutafim/Partners recognition we received at the Biennial from the Union for Reform Judaism and its Synagogue-Federation Relations Committee for exemplary collaboration and cooperation between the Federation and the synagogue community. I also appreciate this opportunity to share with you some of my thinking about the institutional relationships in our communities.
First, I believe that the quality of our Synagogue- Federation relationship depends not just on the structures and mechanisms we establish, but on the culture we create within our community — a culture that encourages genuine mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of each others’ missions, opportunities for collaboration, communication, cooperation — all those other “C” words. And I think that such a culture is vital today if we are to respond to the challenges our Jewish communities are facing. We are all struggling with the future of our Jewish communities in view of new generations who view the community much differently than we do, who have very little institutional loyalty, and who are living with new economic realities. We are all searching for ways to engage these new generations now and for the future of our Jewish people. All of our organizations are busy visioning, re-visioning, re-thinking, restructuring, etc.
My own Federation just completed a major restructuring of its governance….streamlining the board to help it function more effectively and be more meaningful for its members. At the same time, we created a new entity, a Community Leadership Council – a big tent, if you will — which will bring together representatives of all of our synagogues, day schools, locally-governed Jewish institutions and organizations, and individuals from under-represented demographic constituencies. This group of about 75 individuals will meet approximately four times a year to identify, discuss and suggest action on issues more effectively addressed from a community-wide perspective. It is an ambitious concept which the Federation is approaching very carefully and seriously. It is being chaired by a Federation vice chair, Stephen Breslauer, an active leader in the Reform movement and past national Brotherhood president. We have great hopes for the future value of this process, including the possibility that it can serve as a model for other communities.
Two of our new Houston projects might serve as examples of things synagogues and federations can do together:
The Congregational School Initiative. This project was developed in response to a 2010 Community Needs Assessment Survey, which identified congregational school improvement as one of the top three priorities for the community. (We do quite a bit of surveying among our constituents.)
Israel Advocacy Training. This is a pilot program to prepare 11th and 12th graders in all of our community schools to serve as knowledgeable and confident advocates for Israel when they go onto college campuses.
And I just learned that my own Congregation Emanuel is among several in our community that will be participating in the Jewish School Assessment School Improvement Process, with major funding from our Federation.
We are moving in the right direction … but we are taking baby steps, when we need to take bolder strides. It cannot be “business as usual”. We don’t have the time. Look at the title of this article: Synagogues and Federations: What we Need from and Give to One Another. I’m not sure that synagogues and federations even know what they need from each other – or that their leaders know what they give to each other. I’m not sure they are really paying that much attention to each other or see the potential for productive partnership in each other or within themselves.
The institutional silos still exist, and sometimes, they don’t appear to even be on the same acreage. But our Jewish community is that acreage, and it is at stake. And those of us who are active in both our synagogues and federations have a right and a responsibility to speak out and act on behalf of what our community needs.
My friends at the Federation are frustrated by what they perceive as the lack of recognition and response on the part of synagogues to the tremendous challenges of engaging young people, families with young children, etc. — not just as consumers for programming, but in terms of long-term connections.
To what degree can we influence our synagogues to re-accept and re-examine their traditional role as potential door-ways to organized Jewish life – to create the religious, educational, and financial structures that will attract and maintain younger generations and introduce them to a life-time of Jewish communal experience?
And what about our Federations? Are they perceived to be truly interested in the viability of our synagogues? What are they doing to demonstrate their concern – to help create strategies that will contribute substantially and significantly to that viability? Can we influence this process?
At the risk of sounding trite – change is a difficult and often painstaking process. It requires, first and foremost, acknowledging that there is a problem. Most Jewish communal institutions – including Federations and synagogues – haven’t fully recognized the extent of the problem vis-à-vis the next generation; and, therefore, are not actively and seriously seeking solutions.
For synagogues – with potentially far-reaching implications for Federations desiring to engage – it means rethinking the economic models developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including the concept of memberships, dues, etc. which can be an anathema to many in the next generation.
Obviously, the nature of the synagogue- federation relationship depends most heavily on the attitude and leadership of the professionals – our rabbis and federation executives. But, I believe that those of us who are lay leaders – who support and contribute to both entities – and who, in many cases, bring a sense of continuity and perspective – can help our communities bridge the gap between synagogues and federations and create the kind of culture that is needed to ensure the future, not only of these two entities, but of our total Jewish community and the Jewish people.
Dolores Wilkenfeld is an active leader in the Houston Jewish Federation as well as an Honorary Life Vice Chair of the URJ, a past president of Women of Reform Judaism, and a past chair of the North American Board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.