Professor Steven M. Cohen: An Update On The Synagogue Vitality Project

What constitutes “synagogue vitality,” and how will we recognize when we see it? Why is vitality important and valuable and beneficial to members who experience it? And how is vitality developed, nurtured and sustained?

Learning how to identify and promote the best features of synagogues is critical to British Jews as individuals, families and communities. Given the scope and breadth of congregational belonging in Britain, vital synagogues are critical to a vital British Jewry.

To understand the very essence of congregational vitality, two researchers – Michelle Terret of London and myself – have been engaged since early 2014 in JLC’s “Synagogue Vitality Project.” We conducted a national survey of synagogue leaders and we spent numerous days observing and interviewing in six select congregations.

While much remains to be done, we already have begun to understand vitality in British synagogues. We have learned that congregational vitality is real. Vital congregations are unusually active, inspiring, engaging and stimulating of feelings of belonging, features which help members to grow and learn as Jews.

The most vital synagogues are those which are growing in active members, or at least growing in terms of their “market share” of the local active Jewish population. Uniformly, vital congregations are blessed with dedicated and adaptive leaders.

With the proper vision, commitment, planning, and execution, leaders and members strive effectively to make their congregations more vital. Such congregations are active, energetic, high-quality and participatory; inclusive, warm, and welcoming; reflective, innovative and empowering; caring, inspiring and engendering belonging.  While seemingly a very tall order and high bar to meet, the truth is, some congregations actually get there most of the time, for many of their congregants (and how many is the subject of our next phase of research).

Vital congregations’ ethos is welcoming, inclusive and non-judgmental. It is upbeat and positive. It is family-like, as demonstrated by compassion, respect, acceptance, stability, familiarity, and, yes, genuine love.

Vitality plays itself out in several domains of synagogue activity. Prayer services are moving to at least some of the congregants; they reflect and reinforce community; and they convey transcendent meaning and belonging.

Ideally, vital congregations do an extraordinary job of caring for their members in need (if not, sometimes, people beyond the congregation). They comfort the bereaved; visit the sick; assist and support the caretakers; and lend pastoral care and community to the troubled and afflicted.

When functioning best, vital congregations function as the locus and focus of community, fellowship, learning, and social action. They create opportunities for congregants to meet, socialise, and act out relationships while also helping them grow as Jews and contribute to making the world a better place.

Vital congregations invest in their youth –be toddlers, primary school-age children, or teenagers. The presence of young people helps launch them on upward Jewish journeys, connects them to one another, and (especially when younger) helps bring their parents into synagogue life.

Vital congregations touch congregants, develop them as people and as Jews, increase their engagement in the community and with being Jews, and create a sense of sacred belonging to a community with value, purpose and meaning.

Vital leadership forges a respectful and mutually admiring relationship between clergy and laity. Leadership forges the congregational story and lives by it; they are reflective, planful, adaptive, innovative, and empowering.

Moreover, vital communities do a good job of recruiting volunteer leaders and raising philanthropic contributions (and the former is more critical). They identify, deploy, and nurture leaders. They allow leaders to emerge and take charge. They manage change and conflicts in a respectful fashion. They develop cultures of generosity, motivating people to donate time and money. They train fundraisers, match the right fundraisers with the right contributors, develop the appropriate “ask,” and appropriately recognise contributions.

The vital performance of some congregations -- when they function at their best -- holds important lessons:

1)     Vital congregations perform critical functions – for their members, Jewish life, and their local communities.

2)     Good leaders, resources, policies, and practices create and sustain congregational vitality.

3)     Congregations are worthy of investment – of time, energy, passion and philanthropy.