One of the great surprises of the pandemic has been a new kind of sustained, intense collaboration among Jewish professionals based in synagogues.
Denominational networks, cohort programs such as those from the Center for Rabbinic Innovation, and sharing platforms like JEDLAB and eJewish Philanthropy are one part of the story. Something more bottom-up happened between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah as well, especially among professionals in synagogues across North America. “Dreaming Up High Holy Days 5781” began on Facebook not long after Pesach, and quickly almost 2,800 colleagues gathered there. In addition to a clearinghouse, it became a venue for creating together. Certain ideas shared and developed there quickly became almost the norm for synagogues on Rosh Hashanah – signing up for private time in Sanctuaries, outdoor mass Shofar gatherings. The Jew It At Home collaborative of forty-plus partners, mostly synagogues, has been bringing Jewish learning and experiences to participants all over the world every day.
If we had been there for each other for the difficult first months, and helped each other reengineer everything from scratch through these first collaborations – dayenu.
What if there could be more?
There is an opportunity now for collaboration that could be sustainable for professionals and institutions, and transformational both for institutions and the life of Jews in our synagogues. Not just temporarily during the pandemic – getting us through Purim and Pesach 2021 and the long transition back -- but once it is safe to be together entirely.
We know that collaboration can be both time-consuming and rewarding. Time-consuming: more e-blasts to set aside and sift through later (or not), more posts on social media to sift through, more webinars on offer. Rewarding: improving our own work, knowing we’re not alone, discovering new joys of colleagueship.
There is a world where we simply treat the new resources and colleagues we’ve discovered this year the way we have always treated programs, speakers, curricula, and denominational networks out there. Available when it’s convenient, ad hoc, supplemental to our core work.
But for some of us, again that’s not enough. Either we’ve been itching to reengineer our synagogues and our own professional lives for a long time, or the pandemic has urged that itch onto us. Pursuing collaborations at a more energetic level could be the key to the transformations we seek or have been advocating. Particularly for smaller or medium-sized congregations, but by no means limited to them.
Is this what you are looking for? You are if you believe these three statements:
- I believe that people in my community would benefit if I could consistently bring them Torah beyond my own or that of my institution.
- I believe that people in my community would benefit if the best of my work were not limited or bottlenecked by my own capacity and workload. \
- I believe my own Torah, my soul, or my leadership would reach a new level if I were working closely and in coordination with others rooted somewhere else.
What It Could Look Like
Imagine any of the following, among a group of anywhere from two to five synagogues.
1. Collaborations that synergize teachers or prayer leaders
A community ought to have more than one or two rabbis or main teachers. We could partner around adult learning or spiritual guidance, by sharing ourselves individually with each other’s synagogues, by team teaching, or by conducting our own chavrutot or Kolel in a “virtual fishbowl.” We could try workshopping Divrei Torah together.
For synagogues that are meeting for services online, we could have clergy swaps and teach regularly to each other’s communities. Or Synaplex-style offerings, where one of us leads the yoga service, one the Torah discussion, one the regular service. After the pandemic subsides, the technology exists for us to do this in different rooms in our existing facilities too; all it takes is a tablet or laptop and a monitor or projector to have some of the Synaplex led from a different place.
2. Collaborations that create critical mass or economies of scale
Some aspects of Jewish education, such as learning Hebrew, are hard to do when there are only so many qualified teachers and when small groups and schedules are so hard to coordinate. Hebrew skills are the ideal lab for online Jewish education. Language learning is not as inherently relational as other areas of meaning and values. A group of synagogues could collaborate not on an entire school, but on Hebrew learning, especially for those who don’t want to or can’t come in person.
We could invest in great teachers and create an academy with tutorials and small groups, learning for special needs, video and audio resources, credit for high school students, and adult Hebrew. In the past, online Hebrew classes have been too expensive for most synagogues to buy from the specialist providers. It’s time to do this on our own together, or in partnership from the ground up with an entity that has expertise and infrastructure and has wanted a wider base in congregations.
We could pool our resources to hire musicians, artists, scholars-in-residence or consultants. They could work with or teach groups across our collaborating communities. They could rotate through our communities when that becomes possible, or they could help us create virtual connections between our members.
Some aspects of existing synagogue life take staff and volunteer time out of proportion to what is needed, and often chew up our volunteers. There have been efforts to share back office functions in the past that haven’t taken off. What about sharing the treasury and bookkeeping functions of several synagogues?
3. Collaborations that create connections among people in separate communities
We talk about the global Jewish people. Now is an opportunity to build relationships, through small groups who share common interests or histories. Sustained groups for social purposes or mussar; groups that come together around a topic with a master teacher. Some of these are opportunities for efficiency as well – a particular synagogue might have two people interested in meditation or a book club, not enough for a group, but together we might have many.
Such collaboration does require extra work up front, and it would have to begin now as we plan and budget for 2021-2022. The first step is to find each other if anything in this paper makes sense to you. Then it’s a matter of clusters of us finding the first one or two specific things to try together, in groups of two to five congregations. We’ll be doing that at meetings coming up in the next two weeks.
One model might be the Jewish Emergent Network. For a while I’ve been shopping around what I’ve called with tongue in cheek the “Jewish Pareve Network”, among non-hip, non-urban, non-new synagogues. Yet pareve is not what I have in mind. Collaborating would mean committing to specific projects, giving the collaborative a tentative name, and budgeting existing dollars and staff time. Outside consultants yes, but very carefully – the partners need ownership and commitment. Seed money from outside yes, but very little – the model needs to sustain itself soon as a benefit to each partner organization. I would love to see independent Jewish musicians and artists as partners from the ground up and not just as contractors paid for specific services. The ethos, the work, the commitment, and the business model have to align and come from the grassroots.
So, are you intrigued? If so, sign up here for a group conversation and let’s see what’s next.
My appreciation to Ariel Moritz from the Center for Rabbinic Innovation for working with me to flesh out next steps together.