The Connected Congregations Blog

The Case for Budget Transparency

Posted by on Aug 20, 2014 in Resources | 0 comments

The Case for Budget Transparency

In his article, Show Them What You’re Working With: How Transparency Leads to Sustainability, Measuring Success founder Sacha Litman argues that building trust — especially around finances — with members is essential to helping them understand their role in the financial health of the congregation.   But, he observes, many synagogues a) don’t price programs according to their cost (misleading) and b) don’t offer budget transparency to members so they can understand the full picture.  This leads to mistrust, reinforces the transactional nature of synagogue membership, and risks people feeling that they aren’t getting value for their dollar.

He writes, “Our surveys of 20,000 synagogue members have shown that the key driver of synagogue membership is the perceived value for the dollar of membership. What most strongly correlates to perceived value for the dollar? Budget transparency. When leadership doesn’t share the true cost of programs, and uses funds to subsidize programs as it sees fit, not only do recipients undervalue the program, but they also feel a disconnect with the synagogue that ultimately causes them to the congregation. Including members in the conversation about budg- et priorities and explaining the rationale behind expenses is a great step to retaining members and ensuring financial sustainability.”.

Download and read Show Them What You’re Working With: How Transparency Leads to Sustainability.


Designing for Social: High Holidays Challenge

Posted by on Jul 24, 2014 in Resources | 0 comments

Designing for Social: High Holidays Challenge

When congregations prioritize building relationships and developing a deep and nuanced sense of community, the criteria around which we design our programs and events shift.  No longer are we measuring our success by the number of tushes in seats, but rather the depth of connection and meaning we can facilitate for those involved.

The high holidays are a valuable opportunity for every congregation.  First, it is one of the few times per year (maybe the only time for many congregations) where essentially the entire community is together.  Second, it is a unique opportunity to speak to and connect with those who only ‘walk through the doors’ a few times a year – whether they are current or prospective members.  Clergy, staff and leadership put tremendous time and energy into planning and coordinating the services and events around the holidays.  This year, we encourage you to think not only about how to create a moving experience for each individual, and to connect them to the synagogue, but how to create connection between and among individuals to spark or deepen relationships, and develop a deeper feeling of community.   This could be something very small, or quite significant. Here are a few ideas to play with:

  1. Do a Social Sermon.  Social sermons invite input and discussion from the community in advance of the sermon, and represent the ideas of the community (not just the rabbi) in the sermon itself.  Rabbi David Levy asked questions in advance on Facebook, and used adult education classes in advance of his social sermon to collect commentary from congregants that he wove into a sermon.  Rabbi Paul Kipnes took the concept a step further and turned over his sermon to congregants, working with them in advance to connect their personal life experiences to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the opening lines of which read, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… Who shall live and who shall die.” Read more about his incredible experience here.
  2. A personal and active Al Chet.  The liturgy offers many sins for which we ask forgiveness, but our tradition also demands that we ask for forgiveness personally, and we forgive those who ask for our pardon.  How can we use these themes to enrich our community? Rabbi Amy Morrison asked her congregation to pull out their phones and text their personal messages (anonymously) to a screen in the front of the room. “Take those phones out,” she encouraged them. What do you need to let go of in order to be “fully present?  Others might consider inviting congregants to submit their al chet contributions in advance (avoids use of technology on the holiday), or putting them in a box at Rosh Hashanah and having them compiled by Yom Kippur. While this anonymous approach doesn’t connect individuals to one another, it can create a sense of intimacy and relevance within the community, and might inspire deeper conversation within the community.
  3. Ask a Connection Question. Perhaps most simple of all is having congregants turn to one another not only to introduce themselves, but to share someone personal that may create a longer term connection.  These questions should be meaningful enough to provoke an animated conversation that will be memorable for both parties, and accessible enough to make sharing with a stranger comfortable.  Sometimes asking about earliest memories gives permission for transparency and depth, without being too close to home, such as “what’s your earliest memory of asking for forgiveness?”  You might also consider questions that reinforce the interconnection of our community, such as “who is someone in our congregation you’ve really connected with this year, and why?”  This kind of social question helps uncover potential shared connections and areas of interest.

What have you done in the past to help people connect with one another or feel part of a larger community?  What will you try this year?  Share with us in the comments.

“It’s Not a Dues Committee”

Posted by on Jun 2, 2014 in Examples, Featured | 0 comments

“It’s Not a Dues Committee”

By Cantor Jamie Marx, Touro Synagogue

It started as a joke, but the name stuck: in early 2012, we created the “It’s Not a Dues Committee” (INADC). The odd name was intended to help explain the task force’s goals. Clearly, the work of a dues committee is to set dues, raise dues, or enforce dues. In contrast, we wanted to form a task force that would talk about our communal values. When we started, we didn’t even want to use the word “dues,” but we didn’t yet have a replacement for it. Hence, we formed the INADC.

What’s most important to know about the INADC and what we accomplished is the process we took. In the end, the INADC created a new plan for annual voluntary support. But we got there by gathering the right people, keeping the conversation focused on our values, and allowing for as much conversation as needed. More than anything else, we wanted our annual support process to reflect the best of who we are as a community.


Step One: Gathering the Team

The INADC began with the president, the executive director, the rabbi, and me. From there, we sought out a diverse group of people representing different stages of life, socio-economic backgrounds, and family structures. The members of our task force were chosen for their deep commitment to the community as well as for their creativity and openness to ideas. We had representation from both the Executive Committee as well as the Board of Trustees. We also made sure that our task force included people who had opinions and would share them. This wasn’t the right place for that board member who “needs to be more involved”. And later on, when we agreed to extend the process to a second year, we added our incoming president and treasurer to the INADC, as well as a few other stakeholders.

Finding the right people took time. We were honest about the time commitment involved: one meeting per month for one year, plus additional homework in between meetings. (It would turn out that we had underestimated the length of time needed, but our original plan was one year.) That definitely concerned some potential task force members and we didn’t downplay it. And with each sales pitch, the focus always stayed on our values, our hopes, and our dreams for Touro Synagogue.


Step Two: Defining Our Values

We started this process with a few core questions for our task force and our membership: “What do you love most about Touro Synagogue?” And, “When have you felt most alive, most involved, or most excited about your involvement with Touro?” We took these questions to friends and family in the congregation, engaging them in conversation over dinner and at coffee shops. We listened to their stories. When we gathered all we’d heard together with our own thoughts and ideas, we developed a list of values–a framework through which all possible dues structures would be filtered and tested:

  • Involvement
  • Connection
  • Acceptance/Openness
  • Social Action
  • Clergy
  • Lifecycle Events
  • Worship/Shabbat services

Written at the top of the white board at every INADC meeting was our values list and the following question: “What about this idea reflects our values?”

Keeping our conversation focused on values was essential to having a positive, constructive discussion. We all agreed that there were aspects of our dues process we wanted to change. In truth, the only thing we all agreed on at first was that our current system reflected a warped view of our community, like one of those bent mirrors at the county fair. At the same time, we didn’t want to get caught up in a bunch of small fixes—putting band-aids on a system to address specific complaints we’d heard. The only way to know if our system was the right one for our community was to bring it back to our values and ask, does this dues structure reflect our values?


Step Three: Hashing it Out

Once we had our values, we began our research. We read articles covering a range of topics like the history of synagogue dues, tithing in churches, alternative day school revenue sources, cutting-edge synagogue models, and high holy day tickets. (You can see the whole collection of links at Each task member read a few of the articles and reported back what they found intriguing, challenging, or thought-provoking. Each idea or opinion became fodder for discussion, so much so that our 90-minute meetings hardly contained the conversation.

Only then, once we’d talked to other members, created our list of communal values, and read through all the literature we could find, did we look at our own dues structure. Ours was a tiered dues system, based on age, with increases based on marital or family status. That is to say, the older you got, the more you paid (maxing out at an seemingly arbitrary 35 years old), and if you got married or had kids, you paid more as well. With due deference to those who had built this system, we recognized that it reflected another generation’s perspectives on the “typical” family structure and career path. The task force reflected on the fact that young adults no longer automatically join a synagogue when they move to a new community; that having kids in no way related to having higher discretionary income; that one’s earning power did not peak at 35; and, further, that income did not necessarily correlate to age at any stage of life.

Our dues system didn’t need a tweak, it needed an overhaul.

So we talked, and talked, and talked. We agreed to give ourselves the freedom to put every idea on the table no matter how scary or irrelevant it seemed. We held meeting after meeting where it seemed as though we had made no progress. But we left each meeting energized by the debate, fascinated with the conversation, and ready to come back and continue the work. Although it was slow, it became clear that allowing the whole task force to deeply engage and “own” the discussion was critical to the success of a proposed dues structure. There were a thousand tiny details to address and we needed to make space for all of them.

As we approached the one-year mark, we recognized that we weren’t ready to offer a complete proposal. We felt that we needed to extend our timeline and continue the conversation in the next fiscal year. So, we tabled our discussion for the summer and restarted the following August.


Step Four: Creating a Proposal

In the second year, we focused on honing our ideas into a proposal. We knew that we had about six months to create a proposal. Working backwards, we wanted to present the new structure at our annual meeting in May, requiring us to bring it to the board in February, and thus to the Executive Committee in January. Within a few months, we were down to three proposals: one, a greatly simplified tiered system based on age; two, a blend of a “fair share” system blended with a “voluntary” dues system; and, three, a fully “voluntary” dues system. After another few hours of meetings, we consolidated our ideas into one proposal that reflected our values as a synagogue.

The new proposal doesn’t make judgements about our members’ lives. It asks them to make a good faith effort to contribute to the community. It deals honestly and openly with the fact that all of our members voluntarily associate with Touro Synagogue and contribute financially to its continued existence. It is a bold, visionary approach that will put us ahead of the curve compared to national trends. It is a system our executive director could be comfortable explaining to potential members. Best of all, it effectively ends the need for “dues relief” — forever.


Here’s how the new system works:

In just a few weeks, each member of the synagogue will get a form that asks them how much they are comfortable giving towards annual support. It asks them how often they’d like to billed and by what method they’d like to pay. They return it to us, and that’s what we bill them for. That’s it.

The form includes some important information as well. It states that we value each and every contribution, regardless of the size. It informs everyone that our “sustaining number”–the dollar amount we need on average, per member, in order to make our budget–is approximately $2,400, and that we need everyone to try their best to reach that number. If a member can give more, they are helping those in our community who can’t. And it explicitly says that each contribution is a deeply treasured gift.


Taking it to the Board

Throughout the process, we updated the Board and the Executive Committee on our work. We didn’t mention any specific proposals until we had one we felt confident in, but we shared our process and our enthusiasm for the work. Crucially, we had enough representation from the Board and the Executive Committee so that when it came time to show the final proposal, there were many voices around the table who could offer support and clarity.

We’re proud to say that the proposal we created clearly reflected Touro Synagogue’s values. It was adopted unanimously by both the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees, which truly shows the quality of the INADC’s work.


Looking Ahead

The truth is, we’re just starting this new process and we don’t know how it will go. Will people return their forms? Will people pay less next year because we don’t “pick” the number for them? Perhaps some people will be moved to increase their contributions?

There’s one thing we can be certain of: we can tell people, with pride, that we’ve created something that is deeply rooted in who we are and what we believe, and reflects the best of what our community can be.


Cantor Jamie Marx is a graduate of Hebrew Union College and serves as the cantor at Touro Synagogue in New Orleans. For a collection of links related to synagogue dues, go to  You can follow him on Twitter at @TheShrewdHebrew

Designing For Social Workshop

Posted by on May 8, 2014 in New York Cohort, Theory | 0 comments

Designing For Social Workshop

Last week at our Connected Congregations workshop at UJA Federation of New York, the cohort of 6 New York congregations wove together our design thinking process and our focus on designing for social (as well as content), and applied the theories to real congregational settings.  In diverse teams (a mix of roles from different congregations, as diversity in a team is a principle of design thinking).  The following are snippets from each group’s process and design.

Tot Shabbat: This fictional synagogue has a strong but aging demographic, and thus are focusing on engaging and integrating young families into their community.   This team recognized the busy schedules of parents who are often juggling two careers and kids of various ages.  Their model focused on two key adaptations from a typical tot Shabbat. First, they created multi-age opportunities, and held the program twice a month, for more schedule-friendly choices to participate.  Second, they created opportunities with childcare for parents to explore their own Jewish journeys with one another.

Noting that tot Shabbat is more about parents and family journeys than content the young children absorb, this emerged as an important personal/familial experience, as well as a social/bonding experience.  Finally, the tot Shabbat group decided to experiment with 1 meeting a month with the tot+adult journey time, and the second meeting per month to have a more family group experience.  They’d collect anecdotal feedback each meeting, and do a deeper assessment after 2 months to determine what adjustments they should make.  They imagined that the program could evolve in various ways, e.g. a havurah in people’s homes either Saturday morning or for havdallah, etc.

One systemic issue raised was about the process of calendaring.  Because most congregations plan an annual calendar in advance, their agile approach to planning only 3 months ahead may be a challenge.  What institutional systems actually impede this iterative process?  Questions from the group included “how are you using food?”, and “could older silblings play a kind of leadership role in the group?”


Congregational Meeting:  This fictional synagogue has a classic once-a-year annual meeting which a small percentage of membership attends and kind of rubber stamps whatever plans the board has put forth.  Their challenge was to redesign the congregational meeting to actually build community.  They addressed several design elements in their plans:

  • Communication with the community needs to change in order to make social connections throughout the year, and inform individuals of the issues at hand in advance of the meeting.  They discussed board members (or maybe – especially – others) making phone calls to reach out to specific segments of the community.
  • They adding social time to the start of the meeting, offering drinks and food along with childcare to encourage participation and prioritize social connections in the community, and bookended the meeting with dinner or dessert afterwards to encourage further socializing.
  • After a short business section (minimal speeches, minimal explanation as people have received information in advance), the group would split into small working groups to discuss opportunities and issues in the community.  Facilitators listen carefully to learn about issues and identify people with ideas, energy and resources to make change.
  • The last formal section of the meeting would include honoring a “minyan of mensches” within the community.  These people would be nominated in advance, and those who nominated would present the award with a story of why this person is such an asset to the community.

Questions from the group included, “what facilitation skills or training or protocols would be needed to make the breakouts as successful as possible?” and “ how are youth involved – maybe have youth in each breakout group, or have a group specifically or their ideas too?”


Religious School: This fictional synagogue has a strong educational program which is attracting many families, but they have no culture of engagement.  Parents drop off kids and generally do not participate in any other aspect of synagogue life. The synagogue is seeking to strengthen individual relationships and the community as a whole to integrate these families and develop a more cohesive congregation.

This team focused on empathy – a critical step in the design thinking process.  What did these parents really need and want, and how could the synagogue design opportunities that helped achieve multiple goals.  They noticed many parents headed to the gym after dropping their kids. The 2 hour window was precious “me time”.  Thus, they developed a “Cardio, Coffee, Connect” approach to give parents options to stay while their kids were at religious school on Sunday mornings.  Their goal was to get parents out of their cars, not necessarily into the synagogue building.

They recruited volunteer organizers to lead run, walk and ‘schlep’ groups so people at any fitness level could participate.  Coffee at the building was available for those who just wanted to rest, and for exercisers when they returned. The team imagined various outgrowths from the groups, including a shared identity gift (water bottle, sunhat, etc.), or that a group of participants might for a team for a local fun run.

Questions for this team ranged from various adaptations for more urban or more suburban settings, and practical seasonal / weather considerations.  They brainstormed hiring a trainer for circuit training or doing yoga in the building on rainy or cold days instead.


Oneg Shabbat:   This fictional synagogue has good regular attendance at services, but few people who stay for the oneg and socialize on Shabbat.  Their task was to redesign the oneg to promote more connection and deeper conversation with a wider group of people in their community.  This group focused on three core elements of design:

  1. Culture.  The design needed to shift the culture of participation through messaging, personalization and warmth.  They suggested training ushers to play a more connecting role to encourage people to stay for the oneg, rabbinic invitation from the bima, and specific messaging through the week (phone calls, email, etc.) to invite people personally.
  2. Structure.  Large round tables which are hard to hear across, plus a buffet style which fragments conversations and encourages a lot of people to be in motion were impediments to the experience they wanted to create.  The groups explored different table configurations, even inviting people to sit on the floor to make it feel more cozy.  They also suggested family style serving and removing the buffet altogether to promote more focus and investment at each table.
  3. Scaffolding.  By designing table tents with topics, this group helped people interested in similar topics to find each other, rather than allowing people to rest on comfortable acquaintances.  Topics could include hobbies (golfers!), current events, and discussion of the parasha. Each table could have a host to kick off the conversation and make sure people got to know each other.  They also exploring “topics of the week” or having people bring an object from home to share personal stories.

This group decided to pilot the idea for 6 weeks and get feedback to learn what elements people liked, and what things could use further attention or experimentation.  One question that rose was how this plan would or would not easily integrate with b’nai mitzvah weeks when there were many out of town guests, or families wanted to design their own luncheon following services.


Very creative ideas in less than an hour of planning and employing design thinking processes and a commitment to “designing for social” with intention and purpose.  Where have you designed for social?

Language Audit

Posted by on Feb 17, 2014 in New York Cohort, Resources | 0 comments

Language Audit

As we all know, it’s not just what you say, it is how you say it. The purpose of this Language Audit is to use the Connected Congregations lens you’ve been developing to take a fresh look at how you are communicating with your congregation. The exercise is intended to be a time for reflection and sharpening of your lens, though some congregations may be inspired to take action and make changes to their website or printed materials. Use the sheet below as a guideline for conducting your Language Audit. We recommend that you do this as a team, and then highlight any big take-aways or remaining questions you want to explore or act on.

A synagogue communicates through many channels – directly through bulletins, brochures, letters, websites and social media, as well as more subtly through signage, membership packets and forms, special dues arrangement forms, and school enrollment forms. Sometimes, these communications make first impressions, and sometimes they reinforce perceptions or assumptions that may be counter to what you’re trying to build.

For this exercise, choose one communication ‘artifact’ that is relevant to your congregation’s focus for this year. It could be a document (bulletin, brochure, recent letter to the congregation), signage (such as what you post to advise attendees of behavioral norms or customs at your services), or an administrative form (membership application, special dues request form).  Critique what you choose with your Connected Congregations lens to appreciate how that approach translates into communications of many types.   If you feel so inspired, you may choose to edit the documents or materials.  If  you do, what are you changing and why?



Connected Congregations Language Audit by lisacolton

The Critical Role of Empathy in Designing … Anything!

Posted by on Feb 17, 2014 in New York Cohort, Resources | 0 comments

The Critical Role of Empathy in Designing … Anything!

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.37.51 PMAs we seek to build more connected congregations, there is nothing more critical than understanding the feelings and considerations of those with whom we are trying to connect.  Only when we can appreciate the needs, logistics, perspective and emotions of another can we effectively create the opportunities to engage and connect. In our full day Design Thinking workshop this pilot group dove deeply into understanding empathy, and the structured process developed by IDEO, an international design firm based in Silicon Valley helps design products, services, environments, and digital experiences such as the computer mouse, toothpaste tubes, medical devices, and, yes, shopping carts.  Ideo freely shares the process so others may learn from it, as we are doing in Connected Congregations.

IDEO’s process of designing around empathy has a number of steps which can be applied to congregational work as well. A few highlights include:

  • Develop diverse design teams, to draw from experience, training, expertise and perspective.  How diverse are your board and committees?  Are they encouraged to bring their full perspective, or conform to an established approach and culture?
  • Clarify the problem you’re trying to solve.  Are you thinking in constricted ways about the real issue at hand?  Empathize with the audience you’re trying to serve.  Truly.  Deeply.  This is harder than you think.  It requires putting aside your own attachments and emotions.
  • Research the issue.  Get outside your own assumptions to learn what real people on the ground are thinking, doing, wanting.  Who are the real “users” or “participants” and how can you get honest input from them that can influence your design?  Interview, discuss, listen carefully, observe.
  • Ideate! Sketch out multiple ways to address the issue to play with the variables at hand.  You may surprise yourself!  Then, get feedback on the ideas.  What resonates, what doesn’t?
  • Prototype!  Combine the elements that resonated into a prototype for the solution.  Before you invest a ton of time and energy, work up quick examples as straw models to react to and learn from.
  • And then, of course, measure, test, and refine.

Check out this process of the IDEO team redesigning a shopping cart in this ABC Nightlight segment.  Using something as common and basic as a shopping cart is a great illustration of how the process works, and the value of employing empathy in your work.

Where do you (or could you) use empathy in your congregational leadership?  Share your stories in the comments.


Webinar Recording: Connected Communications

Posted by on Feb 5, 2014 in New York Cohort, Resources | 0 comments

Webinar Recording: Connected Communications

Communications are the foundation of building trusting relationships, and coordinating a community.  Today, communications must go beyond being informational to being relational as well.  In this webinar, we explore tools and strategies to align communications with being a connected congregation, with examples from congregations around the country.  Presented by Lisa Colton.


Watch the webinar recording here:

Webinar Recording: Community Organizing Remix

Posted by on Feb 5, 2014 in New York Cohort, Resources | 0 comments

Webinar Recording:  Community Organizing Remix

Connected Congregations coach Lianna Levine Reisner builds resonant organizations through her practice, Partner for Change ( As a former network organizer and fundraiser for IMPACT Silver Spring, Lianna helped this community-based organization hone its philosophy and on-the-ground strategies for activating networks.

In this webinar, Connected Congregations coach Lianna Levine Reisner will introduce us to the next generation of organizing by contrasting traditional community organizing with the emerging field of network organizing. We’ll explore new metaphors, concepts, and case studies and unearth core principles and take-home ideas that will help your teams begin to use new organizing strategies in your home congregations.

Play the recording of this 60 min webinar here:


Webinar Recording: Pioneers in Alternative Synagogue Models: Learning From Our Peers

Posted by on Feb 5, 2014 in New York Cohort, Resources | 0 comments

Webinar Recording: Pioneers in Alternative Synagogue Models: Learning From Our Peers
We are pleased to share with you the recording of the SYNERGY webinar, Pioneers in Alternative Synagogue Models: Learning From Our Peers, facilitated by researchers Beth Cousens, Ph.D., and Rabbi Dan Judson, Faculty Member of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).  The January, 2014 webinar was sold out — a true testament to the timeliness of the topic!


You can view the webinar at  (fast forward to the 2 minute, 14 second mark (00:02:14) when the audio welcome begins.


The webinar features studies from 3 congregations that made significant transitions from a  basic financial model to a transformative new model. The conversation via the chat function was robust, vibrant and fruitful.


You may also be interested in related resources on this topic, including the Connected Congregations report titled From Dues and Membership to Sustaining Communities of Purpose prepared by Beth Cousens, and Rabbi Dan Judson’s article from eJewishPhilanthropy, Scrapping Synagogue Dues.

Social Games! Literally!

Posted by on Jan 22, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Social Games!  Literally!

At a recent workshop, one of the pilot teams in Connected Congregations shared that they are planning a game night, and were seeking recommendations of good games that can promote socializing in this kind of event atmosphere. It’s a great question. My kids’ school does a game night every year, both as a social event, and also to help families find new mind-enriching games for their home. We’ve discovered some great ones, while making new friends.

The group identified attributes of good games for this purpose, including:

  •  No defined beginning or end. People can enter or leave the game without disrupting the flow, and don’t have to commit to one game (or group of people). For example, not Monopoly!
  • Games that require teams help build connection, e.g. one person drawing and another guessing on Pictionary.
  • No winners — it’s about process not points. This can even apply to some games where you do keep score, but points are essential to play the game. E.g. Make ‘n’ Break.
  • Humor, creativity and silliness. Games that allow people to express parts of their personality that you might otherwise not get to see or know in a synagogue setting. E.g. Apples to Apples.
  • Easy to learn how to play. Participants should be able to enter the game and feel confident without needing a 20 minute tutorial or needing to read an instruction manual.

What other attributes would you add to this list?

Then, we asked for recommendations of games on Facebook and got many suggestions, including:

  • Make ‘n’ Break – building with colored blocks to match drawings, racing against the clock
  • Set (matching sets of 3 pictures based on various attributes)

Do you have other suggestions to add to this list? Let’s hear them! Have you had a game night in your congregation? How did you design to maximize the social elements and deepen relationships?