There’s an old joke that suggests if you ask 10 Jews their opinion you’ll get 12 answers. It is a very brave synagogue board, therefore, that asks its members to express what that they want from their community, but that’s exactly what the board of North Shore Temple Emanuel (NSTE) did in their Community Conversations last year.
”When Rabbi Gary Robuck advised that he was standing down (after a 13 year tenure) in April of last year, there were understandably some in the community who wanted to quickly hire a new rabbi and move on,” explained Mark Ginsburg, President of the NSTE Board. “The board, however, saw an opportunity to step back and assess who we are at NSTE and where we want to take our community, and so we launched our Community Conversations.”
After interviewing 176 members from a broad cross-section of the community, spending 450 hours collecting data, and analysing 6,214 data points, NSTE has one of the most comprehensive research reports ever prepared for a Jewish congregation in Australia and quite possibly the world!
Rabbi Sam Joseph, Professor of Jewish Education and Leadership Development (Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati) who has advised and guided more than 500 congregations worldwide through similar transitions (and has been supporting the NSTE Board through its current transition) had never seen anything like it. “In my consultations with several hundred congregations over three decades, this is the best work I have seen. I am so impressed with the transparency, thoroughness and details of the work. The response rate is very good and the Transition Team dug deeply into the data so the report is rich and conceptual,” advised Rabbi Joseph, “With NSTE leadership’s permission, I would like to use this work as a model for other Jewish communities around the world.”
The results of the Community Conversations project were presented to the NSTE community at a celebratory “Kol HaKahal” (Voice of the Community) congregational meeting on Sunday (19 March).
So what resulted from the NSTE Community Conversations?
First and foremost, the findings affirmed our strong Progressive Jewish identity with diversity and inclusiveness being of high importance to our community.
There was remarkable consistency in support of the Board’s 4 strategic pillars - Inspiring Worship; Excellence in Education; Engaged & Caring Community; and Living Tikkun Olam - even given the range of ages, life stages, and backgrounds of the participants. Ginsburg notes, “This affirms the Board’s key strategic focus areas, allowing it to move forward confident in the support of the community.”
Rabbi Fred Morgan, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne and Movement Rabbi for the Union for Progressive Judaism, who was brought in by the board to support NSTE through its transition, observed, “For some people, worship is their way into Judaism. They regularly attend Shabbat and festival services. For others it is education, Torah study and shiurim. Some of us express our Jewish identity by volunteering to help others, for example, by visiting the sick. Another segment of the community lives out its Jewishness by pursuing justice through social welfare projects on behalf of those who are in need”.
“We learned about the many elements in our services that our members value and we will use this feedback to refine our Shabbat services,’ said Ginsburg. “We also learned that members value active participation in services and that there is a strong appetite for the inclusion of lay leadership for parts of our services, with 77% respondents on this topic expressing some level of support for this.”
“Similarly, 90% of respondents on the topic of youth involvement would like our youth to play an active role in our services periodically, something we have begun to implement with immediate effect,” he added.
One of the unintended impacts of the Community Conversations was that the pre-reading and face-to-face discussions served to highlight to participants the wide range of NSTE’s offerings. “I have been a member for two years, and I had no idea that NSTE offered so many great programs and events. There is something here for everyone. I'm extremely proud of the community that NSTE is building,” said Darren Palmet, who was one of the 176 members who participated in the project.
“Members appreciated being included in the process and this enhanced our culture of openness and collaboration,” added Ginsburg, “And equally, our Board had the opportunity to meet with and hear directly from members; both their frustrations as well as their suggestions and compliments”.
“Hearing other member’s points of view enriched both members and board alike in understanding the diversity of our community,” added Gwen Harrison, Vice-President of the NSTE Board and one of the research facilitators. “We have been delighted to see new bonds built between members as a result of their ‘Community Conversations experience’ and some people have been inspired to join our various volunteer programs,” she added.
At the Kol HaKahal meeting to present the Community Conversations report, it was also announced that Rabbi Nicole Roberts has been appointed as its Senior Rabbi (see related story). At the Kol HaKahal event, Rabbi Roberts spoke in praise of the Community Conversations project and the dedication of those who undertook it, saying, “It is a rabbi’s dream to serve a congregation alongside such profoundly engaged leaders who care so deeply and passionately about the community, its vibrancy, its building, its future, and most importantly, its people.”
Rabbi Lampert, the Rabbi Emeritus of the congregation added, “I want to congratulate the Board of Directors of North Shore Temple Emanuel on accomplishing the massive task in ascertaining the direction the congregation should take”.