Innovating From Within
The image above shows stained glass art found in Temple Beth Abraham and designed by one of its own members, Ruth Weiner Harris.
Last year, of around 150 alumni of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship who came to the annual Institute, there were less than a handful of Conservative pulpit rabbis like me. How different from 25 years ago, when almost everyone in the fellowship was heading for synagogues, day schools and Federations. Much of our network today is in new niches and disrupters.
In my own career I have moved from the new sector back to the synagogue. I believe that even a traditional shul that is not urban, hip or centered around young adults can become a growing magnet on the basis on learning, mitzvot, connections and justice experienced in new forms.
In a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, Scott Anthony explains how traditional enterprises can simultaneously improve in existing markets and create their new future:
1. A does A, B does B. In a business, you can create separate teams. Not us so much — we have a full-time staff of only four and a board involved in everything. So we have to work extra hard not to let the traditional “A” programs infiltrate the new “B” initiatives.
When we launched an alternative High Holy Day experience, we made the vibe as different as possible. The marketing had a distinct look and appeared in new places (so much so that one person thought I had been fired and replaced entirely!) Seating in the round, guitar music, a high tolerance for noise from children, a booklet that integrated new-style readings and transliterations of everything. We made very little effort to coordinate the timing with the main service and made it clear that if you missed the rabbi’s sermon in the Sanctuary, that was fine.
When we have a blank space where we haven’t innovated yet, I try to create playful language to express that we don’t expect you to default to the old. My biggest success is a mantra: “Come for Kiddush.” I have made it clear that if we don’t yet have on Shabbat morning a spiritually compelling offering for you, you should come anyway around noon for lunch, if you’d like to be with the community. People do that, and they quote “I came for Kiddush” back at me all the time!
2. Select carefully the unique capabilities you have that can support an innovation. Anthony argues that existing organizations often have built-in innovation advantages that a brand-new organization expends gargantuan efforts to develop.
A building and an administrative support staff are the most obvious for us. We have a funding stream that is dependable for another 10-15 years, in the older generations who continue to pay dues automatically. We have three restricted funds with enough in them to seed 2-3 years of new programming. We have the power of the life cycle, ready-made catalysts for people to connect to me even when they aren’t particularly connected to Judaism. We have an amazing kitchen!
Which of these can support our innovations? We have been reallocating — too gradually, in my view — toward new paradigms. Office time is set aside to build and maintain the databases and procedures we need for new projects. Budgets are starting to direct existing funding streams to new programs and the new staff roles needed to create them. We are tapping our restricted funds. We are using our building during off hours, to help us keep “A” and “B” separate.
3. Set up formal ways to manage the link between traditional and innovative, with the senior leader actively involved. This is the hardest so far. I have to step in a fair amount to make sure that when a new opportunity comes up, we don’t say “the calendar is too crowded” or “the facility staff can’t set up.”
I have to model new languages and new metrics. We talk about re-conceiving education to be about families from birth through high school, but I have to remind people not to count and measure only “students in our school from kindergarten through Bar/Bat Mitzvah.”
Ten years into my own innovation cycle, I feel like I have only begun. Yet I am convinced that with the right leadership disciplines and the resources at hand, even a small shul can become a model for Jewish innovation! If you’re on a similar path or would like to be, I hope we will find each other.
Get To Know The Author
Wexner Graduate Fellow Alum Jonathan Spira-Savett (Class 3) has served since 2008 as rabbi for Temple Beth Abraham, a 260-member community centered around Nashua, NH. Since 1993, Jon’s work has often focused on teens, as an educator and innovator in Jewish day high schools and the national Jewish teen philanthropy movement. He is past president and current board member of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council, and a founder of Circles Greater Nashua, an anti-poverty project rooted in relationships across class.