Can Synagogues Be More Like Starfish?

Membership is lagging, we haven’t been able to convince the preschool families to join the synagogue and sales in the gift shop are down. What are we to do? Blame the rabbi! 

Members are not receiving their donation thank you letters in a timely fashion, the receptionist is not always friendly on the phone and the office forgot to print my great-uncle’s yahrtzeit in the weekly newsletter. What are we to do? Blame the executive director!

People make mistakes and that includes the professionals of synagogues, whether the rabbi, executive director or preschool director. A letter can wait in the outgoing mail box for too long. A receptionist might be having a bad day. It is natural to feel frustrated when bad things happen and to want to locate the person who is at fault. When our synagogues attempt to operate as a command-and-structure type of organization individuals will look up the chain of command and point the finger at the highest link they can reach.

However, most of our synagogues nowadays do not operate with strict hierarchies. The decision making of our congregations has evolved to a more a distributive fashion yet the way we communicate about our synagogues has not evolved with it. There are few synagogues where the current mode of operating is the senior rabbi says “jump” and the only question the rest of the staff and board of directors have is “how high?”. Staff, clergy and lay leadership operate in a collaborative and cooperative mode. We know this from experience and we know this intuitively but when things begin to break down and mistakes are made we revert to viewing our system as a solid command structure and view the source of the problem solely in the lap of one individual. Why?

I believe part of the problem is that we have not fully embraced our new way of operating. Is it made clear in the vision statement of the congregation? Is it communicated in board meetings? Is the membership informed of how the synagogue operates? When something goes wrong do board members point the finger at any one individual or do they look at it through a systemic lens?


starfish
There are so many advantages to distributive decision making. The starfish, a vulnerable creature to predators, can lose a limb but still function because it does not rest all of its functioning in one place. As we enter 2015 the landscape for synagogues is still a vulnerable one. The case for synagogue membership is a hard sell for many people. Many synagogue facilities remain both under-utilized and in need of major repair work. The place of the congregation in the fabric of modern society is less and less obvious for vast segments of the American Jewish population. Our synagogues are like starfish: beautiful, complicated organisms that are deeply vulnerable.

The time has arrived to not only transition to a more starfish-like way of operating — a distributed, holistic and balanced power structure, but to assertively and clearly communicate that to our membership. When something goes wrong, and something will always go wrong, the challenge is not to look for which clergy, staff member or board member to blame, but to understand how the system as a whole can operate better in the future. A Starfish Synagogue is a healthier synagogue and a healthier synagogue is a more attractive place for people to pray in, socialize in and ultimately become members of.

* Inspiration for this blog post comes from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom 

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