Synagogues get help in mapping the future

Synagogues get help in mapping the future

NJ Conservative shuls join movement push for strategic planning

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

For Congregation Beth El in South Orange, the decision by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to offer a one-year guided strategic planning process could not have come at a better time.

“We were going to embark on a strategic planning process anyway,” said Beth El executive vice president Nomi Colton-Max, “and we had already started working on it” when she and her colleagues saw the advertisement. She and two cochairs have already read the guide prepared by USCJ’s Robert Leventhal, who is leading the initiative. “This is an opportunity to get valuable insight from the person who would have been our guru,” she added.

At Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, president Mitch Rosen had the same reaction.

“We’ve been thinking about strategic planning for several years now, but never got it off the ground,” he said. “About a year ago we did an initial analysis and realized that we need better governance and need to develop a vision and mission statement. When we saw the advertisement for a cohort for this project, we thought it would be great to have guidance to help us through the process.”

Known as Sulam for Strategic Planners, the project joins a continuum of leadership programs in the Conservative movement, all falling under the Sulam umbrella. (“Sulam” means “ladder.”)

“Synagogue boards have to spend time being strategic,” said Leventhal, the leadership specialist for United Synagogue. “Sometimes they need a separate team to probe deep questions for a year or so – things that are not part of the day-to-day work of the board. One of the difficulties is that it takes a more strategic board to create a strategic plan, and it takes good strategic planning to create a better board.”

The first cohort for strategic planners launched in April with 10 Conservative synagogues from around the country participating, including the two from New Jersey.

The initiative emerged from a series of focus groups held with synagogues that were led by Leventhal.

The process will include learning and action: monthly webinars, training exercises, and resources, along with coaches to help the synagogues implement new ideas. The in-person training included a two-day workshop, May 19-20, in New York City.

USCJ sees this first cohort “as a test group to see how everything works and what synagogues can or cannot do,” Leventhal told NJJN. “We believe that over time, many synagogues will borrow pieces of this larger program.”

Another 100 synagogues are also using some of the available materials, such as the webinars.

The two NJ synagogues are anticipating real benefits from the process.

“We’ve already begun to think about who could be part of the planning team, and we’re looking forward to getting some better direction on that at the two-day workshop,” said Rosen. “I’m looking forward to this process. I think the support provided through Sulam will help us frame our issues and keep moving us forward in a systematic way.”

At Beth-El, the team “has started thinking about the main working group, and USCJ said it should be smaller than we had thought,” said Colton-Max. “They also suggested that we think not only about including different subgroups of the community — based on age, observance level, whether their kids are in our religious school or attend day school, etc. — but also including people with different skill sets that we hadn’t thought about, like people who have marketing skills, fund-raising skills, or a background in Jewish education; that’s just as important.”

She added, “We’re very excited. We think this will be terrific for the community and we’re hoping it will engage the whole congregation.”

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