Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tovim Ha-Shnayim...Strength in Numbers

Collaboration: A recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals.
Merger: When two organizations join together into one, with one organization surviving and the other disappearing. The assets and liabilities of the disappearing entity are absorbed into the surviving entity.

We are at a time in American Jewish history that’s transforming the Jewish Community as we have known it to be. Agencies are responding to the recession by closing down, merging, collaborating in new ways, and re-identifying themselves. And so we hear about two agencies merging and we mourn for the loss of one of them. Or congregations create a combined high school and we are saddened at the implication that their numbers were too low on their own so they had to collaborate as a matter of survival. We assume that when congregations merge, they are in a position of weakness and they had no other choice.

But mergers and collaborations are potentials for streamlined efforts, for exciting new initiatives and for stronger communities. When a congregation can reflect on its strengths and weakness, and

work with others in the community

to support and build on the others strengths and weaknesses, the end users, the congregants (and the community) are the beneficiaries.

We know that this is a difficult time for synagogues; population studies are showing us that our communities are older, intermarried and not affiliating, and shrinking in size. Research is showing us that Movement demographics are shifting; buildings are aging; both Day Schools and Congregational schools are struggling to fill their classrooms (with students and qualified, quality teachers.) And in many communities, synagogue leaders are territorial – if it doesn’t happen within our walls, it’s not good for our congregation.

So what is a congregation to do?

How does the leadership consider options for moving beyond the proverbial four walls and network and share with other congregations in their area in order to strengthen their home congregation?

This is part of my work at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership (a recently combined agency still working on a new name). Later this week we will be meeting with synagogue leaders to talk about collaboration and how building relationships and networks can provide opportunities. It is our belief that there are numerous ways to collaborate without losing institutional identity while providing services to the community, often at a higher level of quality.

The difficult economy has a silver lining for the Jewish Community if we can take a step back, reflect, and see what we have to offer each other. Kohelet, Ecclesiestes said it quite well – Tovim ha-shnayim min ha-echad: Two are better than one.


  1. You hit the nail on the head when you write that it collaboration is opportunity building. Problem is (in my experience in my community) that the economic crises has resulted in a "circle the wagons" phenomenon. Synagogue leaders are so defensive when it comes to their congregation's survival that the idea of working with an external agency, or another synagogue (god forbid!) is, by definition, threatening. "They will not enhance our income stream" is the mantra of the bottom-line thinking leaders. What are the strategies to rebuild bridges? That is the question I ask in my work as a synagogue professional. What insights to do you have?

  2. I have been trying, for years, to get a group of synagogues together for post bar/bat mitzvah classes. I would love to have the opportunity to teach lots and lots of kids and not the 10 or so I typically get on a Sunday morning. But this will only happen when we cease to be territorial and threatened by the loss of control.

  3. The Jewish day school conference last month was a successful example of collaboration inspired by the economy. 4 organizations, across movements combined all their conferences into 1. More resources, more vibrancy, more opportunities for sharing. It will be interesting to see how that model develops in future years.

  4. to Debbie's comment -- I would recommend seeing if you can get one other synagogue to go in on it with you. Maybe someone you're good friends with or a synagogue of the same flavor. If you can prove that it works, works well, and doesn't actually spell the demise of the participating synagogues, maybe you can get others engaged.

  5. We can choose to look at this time in the world as a time of opportunity -- a time to change the paradigm from being individualistic to collaborative. I like the text you chose Elana, that there is strength in numbers, that two are better than one.
    It seems our work is to help break down those wall, those barriers that keep synagogues and schools from creating something new together.
    One way to do that is through dialogue and discussion.

    When I think about this challenge, I think about what Martin Buber said about dialogue:
    “There are three principles in a man's being and life, the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don't do what I say.”
    It's a start!