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Developing Sustainable Synagogues

Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 7:00 am Source: UJA Federation

Decision making based on actual data, rather than anecdotal evidence, is something long desired by many organizations. Now a program has been instituted that helps with just that for a group of local synagogues.

A pilot project called Sustainable Synagogue Business Models, developed by Measuring Success LLC and funded by SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together, was inaugurated in 2009 at six synagogues in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. After a successful first year, a second cohort of six congregations has been established to continue exploring alternative business models.

“This project enables synagogues across the religious spectrum to move significantly toward making data-driven, vision-aligned strategic decisions about how to build their communities,” says Dru Greenwood, executive director of SYNERGY. “New budgeting, survey, and modeling tools have been developed and the process of discovery, realignment, and change has begun.”

At participating synagogues, the project starts with a survey of congregants’ experiences and values. A financial analysis of how to allocate overhead expenses to synagogue programs and a mapping of how people move among these programs during their lifetimes follows. With these tools, synagogue leaders are able to plan new strategies to achieve the type of vibrant communities they value in a financially sustainable manner.

“The program gave us hard data to understand the needs of our community and identify our challenges,” says Rabbi Moishe Steigman of the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, a participating synagogue. “We’ll address one or two issues a year in a substantive way.” He cited the nursery school as one area where the planning process was changed after the survey results were tabulated.

SYNERGY and its consultants determined that at least two-thirds of the synagogue leaders’ hypotheses about congregant views were not, in fact, widely shared concerns. By making use of a set of complementary quantitative tools that allow for the exploration of such considerations as resource allocation, the flow of people, and strategic vision, the participating synagogues were able to learn more about their congregants and themselves. As a result, they could frame a constructive conversation so that the officers, rabbis, and staff could make decisions going forward.

“The synagogues got a sense of what their members’ priorities and concerns were,” says Sarene Shanus, a chair of SYNERGY.

Other congregations in the first cohort were the Jewish Center and Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, Huntington Jewish Center on Long Island, and Community Synagogue of Rye in Westchester. They have now been joined by B’nai Jeshurun and Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Westchester, Temple Sinai of Roslyn and East Meadow Jewish Center on Long Island, and Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn.

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