The Synagogue-Federation Partnership

Creating a stronger Bay Area Jewish community

This June, the Synagogue-Federation Partnership convened Bay Area rabbis, professionals, lay leaders, and community members for a special celebration of the work of the Synagogue-Federation Partnership (SFP), which seeks to help local synagogues become more financially and operationally sustainable.

Ellen Bob, executive director of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, spoke at the event, held at the JCC of San Francisco, and discussed the importance and impact of SFP’s work.

Ellen Bob

The Synagogue-Federation Partnership was just firing up as I began my career in synagogue management at Congregation Etz Chayim. It was a program designed to help each synagogue be the best version of itself, rather than trying to get us all to fit into a single mold of the current trend.

One of my first tasks on the job at Etz was to recruit a lay person to come with me to learn about this partnership and get some training on social media best practices for synagogues. I’ve been recruiting, learning, and sharing ever since.

The first project we participated in was a congregational survey, from which we were able to learn about ourselves and also understand how we compared to neighboring congregations. This survey helped us focus on our demographics, our members’ connections to the broader community, and their satisfaction with life at Etz. One takeaway from this survey was that 40% of our members either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I believe in God.” I refer back to this statistic when recruiting new members who are hesitant to join the congregation because of their belief in God or lack thereof.

Knowing who your congregants are helps you understand what your congregation needs to be. Our long-time rabbi had announced his retirement and we knew we needed to get organized to be ready for the transition. The self-knowledge gained from the survey, as well as the follow-up focus groups and evaluation from our Federation-supplied coach, Rabbi Marv Goodman, put us in good stead for deeper self-study. We created a new mission statement and created a five-year strategic plan.

One of the planks of our strategic plan was to strengthen meaningful engagement. The first task was to figure out how to measure member engagement so we could see if we were improving it. Lucky for us, one of the Federation’s coaches, Amy Asin, was doing cutting edge work on this very question. She helped us think through through what we meant by “meaningful engagement” and how we might measure it. Amy helped the task force develop new tools for leading meetings, infuse Jewish learning into proceedings, and thinking about planning meetings with end goals in mind.

By the time Amy turned us over to our next coach, Rabbi Andi Berlin, we had managed to change the conversation at Etz from focusing on the number of people showing up at an event to caring about the experience of those people who did show up. 

Our next project with SFP focused on synagogue membership and dues models. Although this Community of Practice didn’t coalesce the way we expected, it was still incredibly useful. We learned about studies, trends, experiments, successes, and failures. While we are just beginning to think about how we might redefine ideas of membership and financial support in the next decade, we have already incorporated many of the ideas we picked up from the webinars, group conversations with other congregations, and private consultations.

Typically, synagogues and federations move in separate worlds. While there often are leaders who overlap, federations are not usually concerned about the success of synagogues. The Synagogue-Federation Partnership recognized that successful synagogues are a critical piece of a healthy Jewish eco-system and that the Federation had resources – both financial and human – that could be employed to help synagogues be better.

What makes the Synagogue-Federation Partnership so remarkable is that it breaks down silos. We are not separated by movement, geography, or job title. Lay leaders, professional managers, and rabbis all work together to create a stronger synagogue community and, with our partners from the Federation, a stronger, broader Jewish community, better prepared to meet the new challenges presented by the 21st century.

Thank you to the Federation for making this possible.

Tu B'Shvat Seder at Congregation Etz Chayim

To learn more about the Synagogue-Federation Partnership, visit our website or contact Rabbi Marvin Goodman at or 415.369.2860.

Categories: Capacity Building


June 22, 2016