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Can the Synagogue Be Saved?

Journal Publisher/Editor

Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-el in Marblehead (above) has made creative organizational changes to revitalize the synagogue. Temple Mishkan Tefila moved from a
24-acre property in Newton to a shared Coolidge Corner Campus in July to recharge its congregation


Can the synagogue be saved? That may not be a common question among congregants, but it is one that burns on the minds of many rabbis and lay leaders who see their congregations shrinking and who are considering mergers or changes to their business models in order to stave off extinction.

One synagogue that has confronted the changes and claims to have found a formula for success is Temple Emanu-el in Marblehead, which made a significant shift to its business model three years ago when it changed the way it charges congregants, according to Rabbi David Meyer.

“We tell people what it costs to run the temple and how many members we have,” said the rabbi, “and the simple math of we have X number of members and here are the expenses, that’s what our ‘sustaining amount’ is.” Each congregant is asked to do their best, said Meyer, but whatever number they write down, there’s only one answer: ‘Thank you. Welcome aboard.’”

While Emanu-el isn’t the first to make such a change, it is at the tip of the spear of a revolution to the traditional temple business model. But other adjustments came at the same time.

Meyer explains how the synagogue brought in an expert who spent about a year doing market research to figure out how the needs of the congregation might be better met. “We did a series of I think 20 small house meetings,” said Meyer. It really was a listening campaign. What are you looking for? What bothers you? What’s a problem in your life? What keeps you up at night? What are your connections to the temple and what do you need? We had 20 of those, 10 people at each one, so we had 200 people participating, gathered all the information, analyzed it, and what we did was we initiated a collection of what I term neighborhoods.”

“Neighborhoods,” explained Meyer, “are affinity groups based on interest or demographic. We didn’t call them committees, and we didn’t call them auxiliaries.”

Instead of the rabbi or lay leadership coming up with program ideas and creating events or groups around those concepts, “neighborhoods” are grassroots organizations that spring up out of the congregation. They initiate the idea, according to the rabbi, and the job of the temple is to provide the support needed to bring the idea to fruition. “We tell them to put a group together, create a neighborhood and tell the temple what you’d like to do and we’ll facilitate it happening.” He said, “it’s completely flipped how we do things and it’s worked very well these last three years.”

“I use the term neighborhood to replace chavurot,” offered Rabbi Meyer, “because a chavarah is not as porous as a neighborhood. If a neighborhood wants to spring into being, all we ask is that somebody chair it.”

There is, for example, a “Jews ‘n Brews” neighborhood that serves as a young professionals club, something that the rabbi says has always been a tough sell on the North Shore. “What they said was, ‘we’d like to have a monthly Friday night gathering at one of the local watering holes in Salem.’ So I said, ‘okay, and I’m buying the first round, every month.’ It’s at 6:30. Our services are from 6 to 7.”

Rabbi Meyer says he’s heard some skepticism regarding the idea of the synagogue buying drinks for people in their twenties and thirties at the same time as services, but he insists, “They weren’t coming to temple anyway!” However, he is happy that “the Young Professionals Neighborhood had a project for our Mitzvah Day, and they come to temple when there’s a community thing, so they have gotten active, but more importantly, they’re establishing relationships through the auspices of the synagogue.”

“When I go to Temple Emanuel now, whether I’m just stopping by to return a library book or if I’m going to a scheduled event, it has the feeling to me of a community center,” said Ellen Bresner, a longtime congregant and a member of the board. “It used to be very quiet and very empty when it wasn’t Shabbat services or religious schools. It isn’t like that anymore. There are different things going on simultaneously now. It’s very different.”

One bit of research from the community organizing, “that caught me by surprise,” said Rabbi Meyer, “was that no one raised the idea of creating a neighborhood for interfaith families,” the kind of thing the temple might have thought important to congregants. “Not even a blip on the radar screen. Never came up.”

But the adjustments don’t come without challenges. With the move away from dues toward a system of paying what you can, the temple has seen its income from dues drop. “We’ve found that after two years the pledges only cover about 65% of the cost of running the place, so we have to do some additional fundraising.” Before, dues covered about 80% of the operating costs of Temple Emanu-el. “We still have work to do,” explains Rabbi Meyer. “It’s an education process.”

Bresner says the new approaches have made a world of difference. “The neighborhood (concept) is self-sustaining. The population of the temple keeps growing,” she added. “It’s crowded for services now, it’s hard to find a parking space, it’s hard to find room to stand on a Friday night. Good things are happening at Temple Emanu-el, they really are.”

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