The Connected Congregations Blog

Organizational Transparency: An Introductory Guide for the Perplexed

Posted by on May 11, 2015 in Resources | 0 comments

Organizational Transparency: An Introductory Guide for the Perplexed

Guest post by Gina Schmleing

“Openness is the chief virtue of the digital age.”

- Virginia Heffernan, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet”

Transparency itself isn’t a new concept. In the US for example, nonprofits must publicly file 990s annually. This ensures accountability, and is a requisite for tax-exempt status. But transparency does not begin and end with financial information. There are new dimensions, new imperatives emerging from technology, and perhaps most profoundly, transparency is now a critical leadership skill. That feels pretty new to many of us.

But today’s leaders need to understand that transparency is no longer optional.  When the rules of the game have changed, leaders necessarily need to adapt their approaches. What roles does transparency play here? According to Charlene Li, author of Open Leadership, “transparency is not defined by you as a leader, but by the people you want to trust you and your organization. How much information do they need in order to follow you, trust you with their money or business?” (pg. 193).  It’s all about trust — and trust (and its corollary, attention) are the currency of our current attention economy.

Understanding that transparency is a critical value and essential element of effective leadership has powerful implications for organizational sustainability too. Previously, organizations literally served an ‘organizing’ function. Institutions held the data, finances and authority. Today, individuals are self-organizing and shifting the power center. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms decode this in their HBR article “Understanding ‘New Power’”. Simply, “the goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.” As society is increasingly skeptical and rejecting of old structures, transparency becomes even more important. It becomes a way to activate and channel new power.

Some people mistake transparency for cracking open your financials and letting it all hang out. But it isn’t just about opening up your books or making leaders function as if they are naked. Transparency (of any sort) is values-based, centered on respect (hakavod), virtues (middot), and, the big one, truth (emet). Think about your relationships with your spouse, business partners, and good friends.  Yes, there’s the planning — taking kids to soccer, paying the bills, making doctors appointments. But what if you didn’t trust your partner, and had little input in decisions? The logistics would be joyless. Strong relationships are built on respect, honesty and open communication (transparency). So too relationships with our donors, members, volunteers and advocates.

Jed Miller, who helps human rights organizations align mission and digital strategy, says that “Institutions may be afraid that by opening up about internal processes they give critics a map of their weak spots.” He warns that this kind of initial fear is inherently limiting. “The key,” he says, “is to think about your public—however you define them—as participants in your mission, not as targets or threats.”  What kind of insight — into processes, decision making, etc. — is needed for them to trust you as a champion of the cause?

When we, as leaders in the Jewish world, hold ourselves and our leadership apart from the community, how can we expect to engage our communities with full and sanguine spirit?  We cannot hide or disable conversations, or operate in a vacuum and expect the public to consistently trust us with their dollars. Those days are over. Today, we need to embrace these values of open leadership.

Organizational transparency is where Jewish wisdom nests with innovative thought. I’ve spoken to rabbis about salary transparency, and searched Jewish orgs with high ratings on charitable indices. Comparing synagogue websites, I’ve sought open plans, board minutes and budget spreadsheets.  While there are bright spots, the norm is much more closed and opaque. In the Jewish professional community, we tend to compare ourselves to each other to establish a norm, when in fact we need to be widening our gaze to understand the role and importance of transparency in today’s marketplace. My sense is that the Jewish world is not keeping up, or worse, we are not pushing ourselves forward. It is time that we recognize the shifting norms, acknowledge the benefit to our organizations and community as a whole, and take real steps to integrate transparency into our normative business practices.

In a time when many Jewish organizations are seeking to get more people to trust and follow them, we must heed Open Leadership author Charlene Li’s words of wisdom. Transparency is the information people need in order to follow and trust you as a leader, or as an organization. While leaders may be initially resistant to the idea of transparency, we must all take it seriously to build strong, sustainable and vibrant communities.

Stay tuned for future posts on specific examples of how various leaders are putting this ethos into action.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.37.41 AMGina Schmeling is a non-profit consultant based in Brooklyn. Find her at @nyginaschmeling or in the park with the runners.

Freedom From The Status Quo

Posted by on Apr 23, 2015 in Featured, Theory | 0 comments

Freedom From The Status Quo

By Debbie Joseph

Of the many inspiring Passover messages that I read this year, the one that most caught my eye was by Rabbi Jill Jacobs,”Where Slavery Ends and Freedom Starts.”, March 30, 2015. Rabbi Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, shares “it’s not always so clear where slavery ends and freedom starts. Did the Israelites become Pharaoh’s slaves only after he set taskmasters over them? Or did we lose our freedom when we became dependent on Egypt’s largesse? Did we become free when we crossed the sea, or only when we established a homeland of our own? … The line between slavery and freedom is not always clearly marked by a parting sea.”  Rabbi Jacobs applies this to the context of oppressed workers in the modern economy, people who are bound not by shackles and chains but by poverty, fear, emotional abuse, or lack of education.

Freedom is not only about our physical reality, but also our mindset.  Even while the Israelites were physically free, they reminisced that “in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!” (Exodus 16:3).  It’s hard to let go of what we know, what’s our “normal” even if it’s not ideal, or even serving our interests.

People (and collectively, organizations) who think they are “free” can also be “enslaved” by old ideas and ingrained patterns of behavior. Whenever we keep doing things in a certain way because that is the only way we’ve know to do them, we run the risk of self-enslavement. This is especially true when the old ways aren’t working anymore, and the need for change is increasingly clear. Let’s look at this in three areas of American Jewish congregational life.

Financial Models
For a hundred years or so, most American synagogues have been organized with a dues-based membership model. This model has been nearly universally adopted, and the norm for multiple generations — such that, just like in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine any other way.  But today there is abundant evidence that this model isn’t working as well or reliably as it used to for many congregations. There are, however variations, changes, and new and different models that some are successfully utilizing. While different synagogues may need different approaches designing how their communities support them, across the field we are starting to feel the questioning and active pushback that are hallmarks of a new kind of freedom to explore different kinds of synagogue funding models.

Most American synagogues have also shared the idea that if we build the biggest building, create the best programs, boast the most creative religious school, and hire the right rabbi, then the Jews will come running to become members. But for Americans today (and especially for younger generations), the whole notion of membership (to any organization) doesn’t seem quite so certain or resonant.  Those of us who do care about our synagogues, who do find meaning, purpose, and connection in this kind of social and religious organization have to find new ways to make other people see that value and spark, and to care too. That means seeking out, creating, and experimenting with variations, changes, and new and different models of engagement.  Too often our mindset is that “engagement” equals “membership” and “attendance”, but engagement is as much about a mindset and relationships as it is about attendance. Here too, let’s free ourselves of assumptions about our engagement models, and explore a new normal.

Most American synagogues rely on boards and committees, volunteers, lay leaders, and professional staff who spend hours and hours in meetings and parking lots making important and not-so important decisions, and then making them again on phone calls and in more meetings. We struggle to find new leaders and new volunteers in part because our current leaders are feeling over-burdened, and in part because the structures of our leadership (multi-hour meetings on weeknights that conflict with kids’ activities, sports games, and other interests) are out of synch with the ways prospective leaders organize their time and attention.  What if, just what if, we ask ourselves to consider variations, changes and new and different models of leadership?  Remember when Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, pushes him to think differently?  “’The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:17). Let’s free ourselves of these structures, and instead look afresh at what makes the most sense for our needs today.

As we count the omer and move from a celebration of the exodus to the receiving of the Torah, may be take the opportunity to recognize, with 20/20 vision, the places where we may be limiting ourselves, even “enslaving” ourselves to old ideas and previous models that are no longer in our best interests.  As the Israelites wandered the desert, there were many questions, few clear answers, and plenty of “figuring it out as they went”.  So too are congregations today in a time of pioneering a new era.  Let us embrace the questions, explore possibilities, and be free to pioneer the future.

This blog post is cross posted on Darim Online blog.

Debbie Joseph is president and founder of Debbie Joseph Consulting, Inc. She is a nationally recognized expert in working with synagogues on exploring alternative dues and membership models, strategic planning and leadership development.  She is a contributor to UJA-Federation of New York’s Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?” report and a contributor to “New Membership and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue” by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky.

Agility Assessment

Posted by on Apr 16, 2015 in Resources | 0 comments

Agility Assessment

Designing for community requires being responsive, empowering, integrating, and constantly aligning institutional management in service of community.

Therefore: Agility

Agility is the ability of an organization to rapidly adapt to market and environmental changes in productive and cost-effective ways.

An agile organization strives to make change a routine part of organizational life to reduce or eliminate the organizational trauma that paralyzes many organizations which are trying to adapt to changes in the market.

Because change is ongoing, an agile organization can nimbly adjust to and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

We’ve developed a self-assessment for congregations to identify where they are agile, and where they can work to increase their organizational agility.

Download the Agility Assessment here


Adaptive Leadership and the Leadership Personality Quiz

Posted by on Feb 24, 2015 in Resources | 0 comments

Adaptive Leadership and the Leadership Personality Quiz

Leadership practices in connected congregations look and feel different than synagogue leadership of the past.  Today leaders are wrestling with questions about the future vision of synagogue life, and charting new territory in evolving models, programs and strategies.  Read on to learn more.  You can watch our webinar here, and download the Adaptive Leadership Personality Quiz here.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive leaders and leadership.  Many congregations have not consciously focused on cultivating adaptive leaders and leadership culture, but would benefit greatly from such focus.  Think about not only the people you need, but the culture, processes and ongoing leadership pipeline that will support you in your ongoing journey to become a connected congregation. Consider the following three categories:

PEOPLE:  What people, skills, talents and experience do you need on your board and committees, and playing other leadership roles in your community?  Strong adaptive teams will include:

  • The Community Builder.  Builds consensus and mobilizes around common causes.
  • The Risk Evaluator. Objectively assesses costs and benefits (re: financial, human and social capital)
  • The Connector. Influential “social node” with relationships with various subgroups and individuals.
  • The Entrepreneur.  Agile, startup generator
  • The Visionary Leader.  Big picture thinker who can envision possibilities.
  • The Implementer.  “Do-er” who can move from concept to implementation.
  • The Facilitator.  Meeting or process facilitator. Designs and/or leads/guides.
  • The Communicator.  Skilled at tailoring the message and using various channels to get it out, as well as listening inward.
  • The Mediator.  Intercessor who can bring about consensus and/or mobilize forward motion.
  • The Synthesizer.  Analyst who can consolidate views (“This is what I heard and…”)

PROCESS: What adaptive and collaborative practices and cultural adjustments are needed to help you work as an effective adaptive team? Strong adaptive teams will have the following characteristics:

  • Open.  Permeable boundaries to the leadership team.
  • Action Oriented.  Seizing the moment; prioritizing “doing”.
  • Iterative.  Willing to revisit and adapt previous decisions on the basis of data and experience.
  • Agile. Being nimble in order to take advantage of emergent opportunities.
  • Momentum Seeking.  Not stuck in status quo; constantly on a growth trajectory.
  • Transparent.  Culture of sharing information.
  • Positivist.  Culture of abundance (rather than scarcity); reframe challenges as opportunities.
  • Trusting & Mutually Respectful.  Stance of openness and listening to the perspectives of others.
  • Authentic Modeling of Relationship Building.  Know one another; personal connections.

PROCESS:  To what extent does your leadership team have ways to continually identify, cultivate, on-board, develop and nurture leaders?  What does this mean for your next nomination process?

  • Leadership identification mechanism. How to identify attributes you need, and who can bring those attributes.
  • Leadership cultivation practices. Gradual integration into leadership.
  • Leadership on-boarding processes. Orientation, culture setting and mentoring.
  • Leadership development activities.  Ongoing board development.
  • Leadership nurturing.  Recognition, support, reflection, celebration.

Take the Connected Congregations Adaptive Leadership Personality Quiz to identify which of these attributes you’ve already integrated, and which could use more intentionality in your congregation.   You might consider having your team each complete the quiz individually, and then compare your results.  What did you learn by taking the quiz?   Share your experience in the comments!

Why Giving Matters More Than Receiving

Posted by on Dec 9, 2014 in New York Cohort, Theory, Uncategorized | 0 comments

By Allison Fine

A few weeks ago Lisa Colton was facilitating a synagogue board retreat, and asked the participants to pair up and talk about when they felt that they really mattered. The room was abuzz as the participants shared their stories with one another.

When they reconvened she asked, “How many people heard stories about feeling like you matter when you received something?” One person raised their hand.

Then she asked the opposite question, “How many people heard a story about feeling like you mattered when you gave something?”  Forty-four hands went up. 44!

Of course, the old axiom, “It’s better to give than receive,” immediately comes to mind. People want to be of service to one another, and to organizations that they care about.   Moreover, they want to matter to the people and causes that they care about. These observations seem fairly obvious, and yet, so many organizations continue to struggle with the concept of making their people matter.

Here are some obstacles that Jewish institutions face when trying making people matter more:

1) Over professionalization and under-engagement. As organizations have become more professionalized over the last century, it seemed easier, faster, more efficient and less painstaking for staff people to do more and more, for organizations to hire staff people than engage volunteers. Just because volunteers may not be available on Tuesday afternoons anymore doesn’t mean that people don’t want to help in meaningful and creative ways. The job of organizations is to figure out how to reconfigure the work to enable more people to help in more meaningful ways. Are there ways to get more input from participants earlier in processes to shape events/programs/services? How can people leverage their own social networks to reach out to people and personally ask them to attend events? Or give feedback after events? What people can do is almost limitless if we move beyond thinking about volunteer activities as needing to be in person and menial to be controllable.  This is not to say that professionals and expertise aren’t valuable and important.  But when they detract from our goal of engagement and helping people feel that they matter, we have to reexamine the use of professionals to help better achieve our goals.

2) Too many organizations substitute fundraising for engagement. People have so much more to offer in addition to checks.  One of the greatest assets of the social web is that people can support efforts in a variety of ways. This “go-go juice” can be their social networks as mentioned above, their intelligence and ideas, their creativity and empathy.  Too often leaders measure success just by tushes in seats and dollars donated.  And while these are two strong and easily measurable indicators of interest and commitment to the organization, they are not the only ones.  There are so many additional ways to view engagement, and to design for whether or how people feel that they matter to organizations. Are unusual suspects coming to events? Do our members feel that they matter to the community and organization? Are we designing for meaningful connections?  Are we asking good questions rather than coming up with all the answers ourselves?

3) We need openings for giving. In the discussion at that board retreat that Lisa facilitated, people mentioned over and over again how much they wanted to give of themselves to other people. They shared how fulfilling it felt to support a friend with cancer, to nominate someone for an award, or just to give someone a hug in a moment of need. But in order to do these acts of loving kindness, congregants need to know who needs help or support.  Synagogues in particular need to find ways to help congregants in need ask for support, and connect them with those who have support to offer.  In this way, both parties will end up feeling that they matter more, and the synagogue has helped facilitate more matterness. Creating a culture of safety and openness creates opportunities for giving and receiving.  It creates a culture of matterness.

It takes a lot of effort to reverse the easy slide into anti-matterness, to quiet all of the internal noise saying that it is difficult and time consuming and dangerous to spend too much time interacting with people outside. But just because it is hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible or important. In the end, smart, generous, uncontrollable people matter the most, and they’re just waiting to be asked to help in meaningful ways.  How are you as a leader helping to create opportunities for more people to feel that they matter?


Allison Fine is among the pre-eminent guides to the social media revolution, as well as the past president of her synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY. Her gift is for converting uncertainty over rapid change into excitement over remaking organizations by the least expensive and most profitable means available: connecting with others. She is author of Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media, the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, and co-author of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit.  


The Need for Synagogues to Work With Not At Their Members

Posted by on Nov 19, 2014 in Featured, New York Cohort, Theory | 0 comments

The Need for Synagogues to Work With Not At Their Members

This post originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy and is reposted here with permission.

By Allison Fine

The email from the older congregant read, “I was in the hospital last week, and no one called — even though I didn’t tell anyone I was sick.” This was just one of the litany of complaints by email I received as the new president of my congregation. “Dear Madam President: My parking spot was taken.” “The doors were locked when I arrived for my meeting.” “I didn’t get a timely thank-you note.” “My name was misspelled on a letter.” But this message, the one that said we should have intuited that this woman was in the hospital, stopped me in my tracks. What was going on here?

It wasn’t just the number of complaints but the intensity of them that took me aback. People were furious about relatively minor problems. And then I realized that these were all fundamentally the same complaint: I want to believe that you care about me. But the things you are doing make me feel like I don’t matter.

Matterness is what I call the intersection of people and organizations when they come together in a positive and mutually beneficial way Matterness is:

  1. The willingness and ability of individuals to speak and be heard;
  2. The willingness of organizations to listen and work with – not at – people, and to engage people on the inside and outside as creative problem solvers and ambassadors;
  3. The smart use of social media to connect people online and on land in huge ecosystems of people and organizations that are filled with generosity and capital.

Too many organizations are failing to infuse their efforts with Matterness. Instead, organizations like synagogues continue to hide behind their fortress walls missing all of the good will, creativity and generosity available to them in their congregations. It takes fearless leadership to embrace Matterness.

Synagogues are failing to make their congregants matter for three reasons:

  1. Outsized and unnecessary fear of the world;
  2. Synagogue staff feeling unnecessary burdened to control conversations and generate all the new ideas;
  3. An untapped set of skills for facilitating conversations with congregants that keeps synagogues guessing rather than knowing what congregants want.

Although synagogue leaders are well aware that congregants have lots of choices of where and how to be Jewish today, they continue to double down on broadcasting messages about upcoming programs that are of interest to a small handful of people. This is not the way to remake the relationship between congregants and synagogues. This is particularly egregious with a generation of Millennials, the largest living generation, who will need to want to be synagogue members, which means they are going to have to feel that they matter to as an individuals not just as check writers.

Here are the things that synagogues need to do right now to increase Matterness:

  1. Stop Confusing The Possibility With The Probability Of Something Going Wrong. Far too much time and energy is spent talking and worrying about what could possibly go wrong. Anything could go wrong, but the probability of something going horribly wrong is very small. What is lost in the all the hand wringing is that the most likely thing to happen is that most people won’t care. Trying to do something new, trying to make people feel heard and appreciated, is much better than sitting back behind high walls afraid that something might go wrong.
  2. Find Ways to Show Congregants That They Matter. Synagogues need to stop talking about being warm and welcoming and start demonstrating it. What can we do differently right now to make congregants know that they matter to us more than High Holiday seat fillers? Can we host free Shabbat dinners once a month for anyone who wants to come? Can we call congregants we haven’t seen in a while and just check in with them? Can we ask individual congregants, unusual suspects, tell their own stories about what Judaism and our temple means to them in our weekly email?
  3. Getting In Conversation with Congregants. It doesn’t matter where conversations happen, they can be Sunday mornings at temple, on Facebook or LinkedIn, or on a blog, but they need to happen somewhere all the time. This means changing the dynamic from temple as the broadcaster of messages to a back-and-forth conversation about what it feels like to be a member and how it can be feel better. It means learning the essential skills of facilitating conversations on land and online and drawing more people into them.

Matterness means changing the synagogue’s default settings from closed to open. Three years ago, my synagogue took a chance three years ago by live streaming services. Opening our services this way has been joyously and enthusiastically received by our community.

Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel.” Understanding and incorporating Matterness into synagogue life will ensure that people and organizations bring out the best in each other.


Allison Fine’s book, Matterness.

Allison Fine is among the pre-eminent guides to the social media revolution. Her gift is for converting uncertainty over rapid change into excitement over remaking organizations by the least expensive and most profitable means available: connecting with others. Her new book, “Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media” can be purchased through her website or through Amazon.

Transparency: Taking It Home Worksheet

Posted by on Nov 10, 2014 in Resources | 0 comments

Transparency: Taking It Home Worksheet

A culture of transparency of built on regular, modest and purposeful efforts to offer information and insight that will help your community follow the leadership and trust the organization.

As Charlene Li says in her book, Open Leadership,“like authenticity, transparency is not defined by you as a leaders, but by the people you want to trust you and your organization.  How much information do they need in order to follow you, trust you with their money or business?

Thus, before you email your financial statements to everyone, or alternatively decide that such transparency is totally out of the question, consider a) what your values and goals are, and b) what bite sized “experiments” in transparency you can begin doing right away to explore this topic, exercise your transparency muscles, and begin to built a culture of greater transparency in your congregation.

Feel free to download this worksheet to help facilitate a conversation amongst your board or leadership team.  What are you already doing?  What are your values?  Where could you be doing a little bit more?  Share with us how it goes!


Transparency: Kavana Cooperative Shares Their Evaluation Report & Insights

Posted by on Nov 6, 2014 in Examples, Featured, Resources | 0 comments

Transparency: Kavana Cooperative Shares Their Evaluation Report & Insights

The Kavana Cooperative is a pluralistic, non-denominational, and cooperative Jewish community that started 8 years ago specifically designed to meet the needs of 21st century Jews.  Co-founders Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum and technology executive Suzi LeVine asked important questions about how it would serve the needs of the population, how it would be organized, and how it might differ (or be the same) from other traditional models of Jewish organizations.  They aimed to create an organization that was open and experimental, as well as thoughtful and strategic.  Kavana was envisioned as a cooperative in every essence of that word:  it would be a place that empowered its constituents to create a meaningful Jewish life for themselves and their fellow community members.

Kavana’s focus on building community, strengthening social ties, and create a cooperative culture is paying off.  Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum recently shared more about the model, their evolution, and their planning for the future in an important article in eJewishPhilanthropy, titled “Want to Build a Healthier Jewish Community? Nourish Informal Social Networks”.  Rabbi Nussbaum went even further to share insights about and a link to the full report from their recent evaluation conducted with the guidance of HUC-JIR sociologist, Dr. Steven M. Cohen.

Read the full EJP article, and see a link to the evaluation report below.

Transforming Jewish Congregations into Vibrant Networks: Lessons and tools from secular network builders

Posted by on Sep 17, 2014 in Featured, Theory, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Transforming Jewish Congregations into Vibrant Networks: Lessons and tools from secular network builders

by Lianna Levine Reisner, Partner for Change

There has been a significant amount of conversation in the Jewish community over the last few years on rethinking our institutions as networks. In networks, relationships gain centrality over programs, distributed leadership over hierarchy, and transparent ways of working over closed doors.


But the question of how to achieve such a paradigm, specifically in older and more established Jewish communal organizations, including synagogues, is still elusive. We are in the nascent stages of experimenting with strategies that can build networks and reinvent Jewish organizational life.


I had the pleasure of growing up professionally in a secular network-building organization, IMPACT Silver Spring. IMPACT was itself experimenting with how to embrace a more networked way of operating in the highly diverse community of Silver Spring, Maryland. Although some people have called it a “community organizing” outfit, IMPACT’s work was a different breed than traditional community organizing. Instead of drawing inspiration from Saul Alinsky and the labor movement—which organized society’s vulnerable to gain benefit from powerful and sometimes abusive establishments—we drew from principles of collaborative, network-based organizing that promote mutual benefit and trusting relationships as a launching point for communal success, action, and change.


My colleagues at IMPACT, and at similarly pioneering organizations around the country, like Lawrence CommunityWorks in Massachusetts, Neighborhood Connections in Cleveland, and Louisville’s Network Center for Community Change, set an example that we in the Jewish community can look to for insight. Granted, most of these organizations are seeking to bridge huge racial and socioeconomic divides, but the core concepts can still ring true in the Jewish community.


While there has been plenty written on what makes an environment networked, I have chosen to restate three core principles here, followed by specific, practical tools for making these principles come to life in Jewish congregational settings:


Principle One: Networks need trusting relationships for connectivity. Our organizations have traditionally put a premium on developing relationships between the key power holders in the organization and their constituents: between the rabbi and the laypeople, between the teachers and the parents, between board members and committee members. Without even thinking, we have done more to control relationships from a central point of contact in the organizational hierarchy than to foster relationships throughout the system. To be truly networked, relationships must be more distributed, functioning as the connective glue between and among people, regardless of their position.


Principle Two: Networks facilitate a marketplace-style exchange. Connecting with others in a network requires that, at some point, we give and we take from each other. This assumes that we all have something to give to the collective—skills, talents, resources, connections, ideas. In our congregations, we often work to deliver a certain product to our members. But when behaving as a network, congregations instead become managers of a marketplace that is unified by its mission and ultimately driven by the collaborative power of congregants working with staff and clergy in an environment of exchange.


Principle Three: Networks emphasize function over form. Traditional organizational forms and structures—dictated by legal requirements, by-laws, or habit—are less conducive to networked environments. Formal standing committees are less important in networks than are ad hoc groups working toward shared goals. This is because dynamic networks require that the form of our organizations and groups flows out of the particular needs of a networked community. When form follows function, we often have more fluid structures that are created and disbanded as needs ebb and flow. There is greater informality in how people come together and more creativity in “design.” First, networks ask, “What do we want to achieve?” and only then, “How do we appropriately organize ourselves—either through new forms or the adaptation of existing structures—to be most successful in our pursuits?” Working this way opens up the opportunity for many different people to take on leadership roles that best fit them, rather than trying to fill existing leadership gaps in a predetermined structure.


Practical Tools


Rituals: One of the lessons secular network-building organizations are learning is that strong networks use rituals to model and uphold a networked environment. Rituals, eh? This is the bread-and-butter of the Jewish people. In Jewish life, ritual serves as a means to elevate and give purpose to our activities, whether they are mundane (like saying brachot over food) or extraordinary (like welcoming a baby into the Jewish covenant). Many of our rituals open a channel of communication between an individual and the Divine, and some require that we work in relationship with others to perform them.


Here are two easy-to-adopt rituals we used with the IMPACT network:


Simple, recurring event formats that foster connectivity and exchange


IMPACT hosted a weekly “network night” that happened at the same time and place each week. These programs were simply designed and facilitated to elicit participation from everyone in attendance, and to help people to connect over a shared interest or need. Network members got support from each other and were pleasantly surprised to find that they often had some information or experience that was valuable to someone else. Many people showed up every week because they found the evening to be so enjoyable and helpful, but the format was set up with a low-commitment threshold to allow people to come and go as they pleased without feeling like they “missed” anything. This freedom of movement in and out of network events is particularly important in congregational settings, where feelings of guilt often emerge when congregants fail to attend services or make a regular appearance at the synagogue. That feeling can often keep people away more than it induces them to show up. Reducing the phenomenon of guilt in the Jewish community is a critical way of promoting a sense of peace and welcoming.


Imagine your congregation hosting a weekly event for its membership that focuses on the pure process of building connections. With targeted questions that help each person in the room share current concerns or questions, the marketplace becomes alive. Referrals that might have gone through the rabbi or staff are now being done on the spot with fewer resources. Some simpler aspects of pastoral care can now being distributed among congregants who have gone through similar experiences. New ideas are being developed among people with like-minded interests, whether a new focus for adult learning or an initiative to support the congregation’s school.


This style of event can take on many forms. At IMPACT, we periodically hosted themed network nights that focused on specific pressing issues that were bubbling up out of the membership, including topics like access to health care services, employment challenges, and positive youth engagement. The key is to maintain a flexible, simple format without a top-down agenda. In these settings, the environment begins to change because now congregants are no longer just “people we go to shul with,” but they are also people who share specific memories or experiences from being in relationship with one another. “I was there at his bar mitzvah!” is typical and nice, but it isn’t quite as powerful as, “She heard my story and supported me when I was struggling with infertility.”


Meeting openers and closers


So many of us attend and lead highly-formalized meetings that begin and end with business. Sometimes we have a moment for “good and welfare,” but this is often brief and does not invite full participation. At IMPACT, we knew that we couldn’t do good business together if we didn’t have even a basic understanding of what kind of baggage (positive or negative) we were each bringing into the room. We also knew that meetings could often leave participants with certain unspoken emotions and responses that were not given the floor, for better or for worse.


We mitigated these issues by having fixed rituals for conducting our meetings: All meetings began with a round-robin personal check-in, not related to work (“What’s something going on in your personal life that you’d like to share?”), and all meetings closed with participants sharing something they appreciated, something they learned, and/or something they would change for next time.


While there is a time investment associated with these rituals, it was worth it for us to walk the talk of building relationships. We brought these rituals to meetings we conducted with elected officials, other nonprofit or governmental agencies, school teachers and principals, and community members. It was refreshing to see how, with this simple practice, we could begin to break down some of the boundaries between people, or to understand why someone wasn’t engaging fully in the conversation. When we know more about each other, we judge each other less, we make fewer assumptions, and we are more capable of identifying and working on shared goals together.


Network connectors: Rituals are critical, but who makes them happen? Jewish ritual observance in congregations is often stewarded by the rabbi, gabba’im, a ritual committee, etc. Similarly, network rituals need people looking out for them, and that’s where connectors come into play. Ideally, all staff members and lay leaders—from the board president to the cantor to the administrative assistant—should have some aspect of network stewardship worked into their job description. But having dedicated people on staff and having a cadre of lay volunteers is also essential to success, especially when these individuals are embedded in the day-to-day operation of the congregation.


At IMPACT and Lawrence CommunityWorks, there were trained “network guides” who led a monthly orientation session, facilitated network nights, and knocked on doors to meet their neighbors and find new network members. They were all trained in the rituals agreed upon for their respective network. Moreover, our IMPACT staff had frequent moments of informal professional development that helped all of us, from the Administrative Director to the AmeriCorps member, to understand certain practices and behaviors that would help us act as good network stewards and connectors.


In this vein, what would it look like if our membership teams became reconstituted as network building teams? In-reach and out-reach would have similar expectations and rituals: Imagine monthly phone calls to members and prospects, one-on-one or small-group meetings over coffee, partnership inquiries and meetings with mission-aligned organizations, “network night” facilitation, and the constant work of connecting individual members to each other, to synagogue resources, or to resources available through other organizations in the community.


Interactive spaces: Because networks actively work to reduce hierarchy, another key practice is the redesign of most meetings and events to promote interactivity. As a people, Jews have for centuries dedicated ourselves to serious learning and study. One of the most exciting aspects of this history is the kind of dynamic learning and exchange that we see among the sages of the Talmud, which has been perpetuated through chevruta-style text study in pairs. But today, beyond chevruta study, our congregations have primarily focused adult education on frontal styles of learning: speakers and lectures, divrei Torah and drashot. In our meetings we have highly formal styles of engagement that are often based on the strict rituals set by Robert’s Rules of Order, which are meant to control conversation and favor those with specific leadership positions.


To be networked, we must move beyond these forms—either by experimenting with supplemental spaces, or by creatively redesigning our existing spaces to be more interactive. Remember that it is in the exchange where networks come alive. I was a member of a congregation that had a serious, meaningful drash given by the rabbi or well-spoken members of the community as a part of every Shabbat morning service. What was most remarkable was that this bit of frontal learning was nearly always followed by about 15 minutes of Q&A with the congregation before resuming the service. If the drash was thought-provoking and insightful, a real discussion naturally followed. Shifting lecture-style moments toward interaction requires a willingness on the part of clergy and congregants to be together differently: divrei Torah must be designed with a sense of inquiry and questioning rather than providing answers, and congregants must come to see this time not as one of passivity (how many of us have tuned out, opened a book, or left the room during a drash?) but one of contribution. This is where meaning is made.


At IMPACT, we had a number of tactics for making spaces interactive. We very carefully designed the agendas of meetings and community events to ensure that we were asking people to contribute to the discourse. Even when we brought in some kind of local “resource partner” to talk about a subject, we asked them not to prepare a formal presentation with PowerPoint but to prepare some framing thoughts and be ready for a lot of back-and-forth with the people in the room—that is, to be someone who participates in, rather than dictates, the marketplace of exchange. Our staff played the role of facilitation in order to prevent these external partners from acting too strongly as the expert in the room, thereby intimidating others and quashing discussion. For any meeting, we made sure to come up with the 3-5 critical questions that we would pose to promote discussion and subsequent action steps. Again here, form followed function.


Other tactics are more environmental. My daughter attends a Montessori preschool, and those who know the Montessori method understand the concept of the “prepared environment”—that children learn how to learn, and that they behave best, in environments that have been intentionally prepared for them. Children are sufficiently challenged and set up for a certain amount of success that motivates them to keep inquiring. The same holds true for adults. If we want them to show up and contribute, to feel engaged, to find meaning, and to commit to giving of their time to the congregation, we must carefully prepare the moments we have with them.


IMPACT would take the time to set up meeting and event spaces where people could be themselves—a space that was comfortable, welcoming, interactive. We sat in circles. Always. We decorated meeting rooms the way we decorate our homes: soft things like blankets and pillows, a spread of food, interesting wall hangings or posters, and mood-changers like music, candles, and things from nature like stones or water. By making rooms feel good, we invite a different level of engagement among those who enter—and we help them feel that they can be themselves, so much so that they want to come back.


In congregations, this includes how we set up our lobbies, meeting spaces, and prayer spaces. Imagine a lobby as the sitting room, rather than the foyer, in your home. The synagogue lobby can be a comfortable place to sit and have a conversation, grab a snack or a cup of coffee, learn something about the community, or witness others working on a project together. Meeting spaces can lose board-style tables or panel set-ups (with “important” people in front and the participants in rows of chairs) in favor of round tables or none at all. Meeting rooms can also have dry-erase boards, or the walls can be painted with dry-erase paint, to encourage creativity and the engagement of visual learning styles. Prayer spaces have already been under much scrutiny lately, with many favoring prayer in-the-round. Synagogues are likely stuck with sanctuaries designed decades before, but there are adjustments that can be made to encourage prayer to transcend rows of pews. Even before we experiment with prayer content (which is where we tend to zero in when we sense that prayer has become uninspiring), changing the environment may be a huge step in a new and interactive direction. If your community shows up for Shabbat morning services but can’t seem to make a minyan on Friday night, why not bring Kabbalat Shabbat into your members’ homes? Or outdoors? Or into a different space in your building? Or elsewhere in the neighborhood?


Intentional activation of diversity: In many of our synagogues, we talk about how great it is that we are “intergenerational” or that we are “inclusive “of interfaith families or those with disabilities. But these are often empty statements: Merely being intergenerational doesn’t mean that there are lasting, meaningful relationships and exchange between older and younger generations. Having handicapped-accessible facilities doesn’t mean that the handicapped feel less judged in your congregation than they would in a less-familiar setting. Having interfaith families (or immigrant families or LGBTQ members) in your midst doesn’t necessarily mean that your environment actively welcomes them, learns from them, or seeks their deepened engagement in synagogue life.


If we assume that the mere presence of diversity is enough, then we’ll always see like-with-like mingling at our social functions and kiddush tables: the older folks sit together, the young families sit together, the singles sit together—and the potential for meaningful exchange is diminished. There is immense value to the support and resources we provide people who are just like us. These sub-cultures in our communities also draw new people in and help them feel comfortable. But part of what makes networks thrive is the cross-pollination across different subsets of our communities. Specific ideas to promote such exchange across sub-cultures are offered below.


Asset mapping


How can we activate diversity in congregations? At IMPACT, one of the key practices we taught was asset mapping. An asset is anything that we deem useful or valuable. The key to networks is the recognition that people bring diverse assets to the table, and within that diversity lies the potential for creativity, innovation, and better problem-solving. There are a number of articles and tools available on the web to those who are interested in formal asset mapping (like this one by Luther Snow, published by the Alban Institute), but the easiest way to start is to take an inventory of your community’s assets, not only of individual people but also of sub-groups and relationships. By analyzing a robust inventory, you will start to see how to draw new lines of connection and how to engage people in new ways amongst each other and for the benefit of the whole community.


Activities designed to cross differences


Another way to activate diversity is to kindle intentional conversation and activities across lines of difference, which was the foundation of IMPACT’s creative design work in fostering deeper relationships. Examples that could bridge gaps in social connectedness are myriad: A carefully-crafted new member buddy program, an “adopt-a-grandparent” initiative, an intergenerational seder, a series of parlor meetings devoted to learning about LGBTQ experiences and insights (led by LGBTQ members and friends), an interactive “walk” through the synagogue from the perspective of a disabled person….


Digging into diversity isn’t for wimps because it challenges our assumptions and makes us feel vulnerable. Designing these encounters demands tremendous creativity and care. I remember spending a week, plus some spontaneous moments of revision, working with my Ethiopian and Latina coworkers to design a series of dialogues on immigration issues. The common denominator in activities that promote diverse relationships and understanding is intentionality: Without actively designing programs and spaces to facilitate this level of exchange, they often won’t happen on their own, even in the best communities.


A byproduct of these activities is not only a stronger relationship, but also the breaking down of stereotypes. It is possible for “the elderly woman who negatively comments on how I dress my children” to be better understood as “the elderly woman who feels isolated after her husband’s death” or “who meticulously manages kiddush preparation” or “who cherishes time with her children and grandchildren.” To say more about the elderly, who we often generalize as being resistant to change, what many congregations are missing is a positive way of embracing them—and often their decades-long commitment to a community—so that when we ask them to make small changes with us, they will be more inclined to walk with us. And they may teach us something quite valuable along the way.


Ultimately, when we know our communities better and foster intentional interaction, we can start weaving disparate pieces together and creating greater value for each other. This is what it means to activate diversity.


While these lessons and tools may only brush the surface, there is a great opportunity for congregations to translate network-building practices from the civic sphere into a faith-based setting. If we are to emulate anything, it is these secular organizations’ zeal for experimentation in the name of bettering communities. When congregations can make a similar leap of faith, transcending old practices and patterns of behavior to forge new ways of being together, we may find tremendous engagement and meaning. By taking a few intentional, small steps in a networked direction, you may find greater interest and acceptance among your congregants for taking on even more substantial changes that can lead to greater communal sustainability. All told, refashioning our congregations as networks can deepen volunteerism, financial commitment, spiritual and ritual connection, comfort in hard times, personal growth and inquiry, and communal good will. What will you do to start down this path?
Lianna Levine Reisner is the founder of Partner for Change (, a collaborative consulting service that supports, organizations, teams, and individuals to bring about positive change and thriving. Her work blends best practices from the fields of positive psychology, organizational development, community building, and network organizing. Lianna currently serves as a coach to the Connected Congregations initiative, a project of UJA-Federation of New York and Darim Online. Contact Lianna at



What Will You Do This Year?

Posted by on Sep 3, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The High Holidays are right around the corner.  While rabbis are busy preparing sermons and executive directors are in full logistics mode, we also encourage ourselves and our congregations to reflect on the past year, and think about what we might do differently in the coming year.

In a recent article, Rabbi Jeremy Fine reflected on the past century of Conservative Judaism, and reiterated his description of this moment in history as a moment of “remodeling”.   What does it take to remodel?  It’s more than freshening up the paint or buying new furniture.  There’s attention not only to infrastructure and to decor, but also to changing needs and realities (babies are coming, that media room needs to be a nursery; our children are growing, or maybe have left the house; we entertain more now that we’re retired…).

In his article, Rabbi Fine pledges to celebrate this milestone by remodeling his rabbinate as well with the following three part pledge:

  1. I will have coffee/drinks/lunch with 100 people in my community. My only objective will be to help improve their Jewish lives, hear their stories, and show them the beauty of Conservative Judaism.

  2. I will make 100 phone calls to families in my community to say hello or wish them a Shabbat Shalom hopefully leaving them with a feeling of connection and warmth.

  3. I will invite 100 people into my home to celebrate Shabbat or a holiday. This will allow them to experience conversations with their rabbi outside of the synagogue.

What do you think of his 3 part pledge?  If you were to choose 3 things to do differently this year to become a connected congregation, what would they be?  Can you put a number of them to monitor your progress?

L’shana tova!