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

Sep 17, 2014 by

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



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