Jewish American Heritage Month: A Time to Preserve Your Congregation’s Heritage



May is Jewish American Heritage Month, which is a great impetus to talk about congregational heritage preservation. These days, communities are rapidly changing and Jewish communities are no exceptions: Congregations that were once large and thriving now find themselves with dwindling membership rolls; meanwhile other congregations are experiencing unexpected growth and are faced with the positive challenge of growing their physical space along with their membership size. With all of these changes, it is more important than ever to implement an archiving plan to ensure the rich history and traditions of your synagogue endure after all the changes and for years to come.

There are many places to start the preservation effort but congregational leaders often find that starting the discussion about preservation is the hardest part. Whatever stage of life your congregation is in, though, we encourage leaders to start the congregational heritage preservation discussion. Whether you broach the subject by celebrating the wonderful programs your congregation runs, programs that you want to document as evidence of the vibrancy of your congregation, or by recognizing that the business of running a synagogue involves contracts and records of all sorts and deciding to get those in order, having the discussion is a very important first step.

Once you and your fellow board members have decided to begin (or continue) preserving you congregation’s heritage, you may be looking at each other wondering, “What do we do now?” While every congregation is different and therefore its preservation needs will vary from other synagogues, here are some guidelines to successful and effective congregational heritage preservation.

We’ve compiled the 10 commandments of congregational heritage preservation:

  1. Thou shall plan ahead.
  2. Thou shall retain all records. Now is the time to locate and maintain specific legal documents, such as bylaws and financial records.
  3. Thou shall document, catalog and preserve. Take inventory!
  4. Thou shall engage thy precious human resources. Your congregation can preserve its rich history by interviewing founding and other veteran members.
  5. Thou shall remember the past. Starting or adding to an archive or museum can be done independently or in conjunction with The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives or other area synagogues.
  6. Thou shall enjoy and celebrate the present.
  7. Thou shall look forward to thy legacy. Many congregations create living wills articulating the decisions made about the future of the synagogue, its assets and what happens to both should the synagogue merge or dissolve.
  8. Thou shall not be discouraged by the thought of dissolution or merger. Decide what to do with your synagogue’s records, ritual objects, property and the distribution of its assets now, rather than during a period of heightened emotions.
  9. Thou shall not neglect the cemetery.
  10. Thou shall ask for help. URJ staff members are available for consultations to help you and your congregation preserve your congregation’s heritage.

These “commandments,”  along with more detailed information are available for download in PDF format on the Union’s facilities page.

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Robin Riegelhaupt

About Robin Riegelhaupt

Robin Riegelhaupt is the Assistant Manager of the URJ Knowledge Network. Throughout her tenure at the URJ, she has served as a writer for the Congregational Consulting Group and the information resource specialist for the Department of Synagogue Management. Prior to joining the URJ, Robin was a web editor at the Washington Action Office of the Jewish Federations of North America and a grassroots organizer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Management from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Theatre from the University of Central Florida. A native New Yorker, Robin lives in Astoria, NY, and writes about the arts.

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