Synagogues Turning to Consultants To Better Understand Communities

Data Provides Insight into Congregation Dynamics

Thinkstock

By Julie Wiener

Published December 11, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(JTA) — Before Sacha Litman shares his data analysis with his synagogue clients, he likes to have the board members and staff guess the contents.

Which programs are most expensive and most popular? How many Hebrew school parents would recommend the congregation to a friend?

Eighty percent of the time, Litman says, the assumptions of synagogue leaders are disproved by the data.

“Synagogue board members often make decisions based on what they heard from a friend at kiddush or at the Shabbos table,” said Litman, the founder and managing director of Measuring Success, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. “It’s their job to represent the needs and interests of all the [synagogue] members, but if they don’t understand what they’re feeling and thinking, how can they claim to do that?”

Litman’s firm, which has worked extensively with Jewish day schools and community centers across the country, is a key player in an effort backed by federations and the national arms of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to bring data-based decision making to the synagogue world.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the data champions argue that by taking a page from for-profit giants such as Amazon and Netflix, whose data analysis algorithms enable them to gain powerful insights about their customers, synagogues can shift from “transactional” to a “relational” model of serving their members.

Good use of data, the advocates say, can help synagogue members feel less like a number and more like part of a community.

“The more that synagogues know about their existing and potential congregants, hopefully the more able they will be to customize programs, meet needs and make congregants feel they are known and not anonymous,” said Adina Frydman, executive director of Synergy, the synagogue services department of UJA-Federation of New York.

Over the past four years, Synergy has invested almost $750,000 in promoting more sophisticated data use among synagogues, the bulk of which has gone to cover Measuring Success’ work with 12 New York-area congregations.

Founded 10 years ago, Measuring Success works exclusively with nonprofit organizations and foundations, roughly half of them Jewish. Litman calls Measuring Success “for-prophet” because its fees are lower than the for-profit sector.

The 12 New York synagogues learned to develop useful surveys and better analyze their financial data to determine how much they are spending in various areas and whether it aligns with what the congregants want.

“In some ways the support was very technical, and in other ways it was holding up a mirror, helping synagogues to be reflective and ask the right questions,” Frydman said.

At Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, leaders explored, among other things, why Hebrew school parents weren’t more involved in the community and what could be done to keep the kids involved after their bar or bat mitzvahs. Leaders of the large Reform congregation had assumed Hebrew school parents simply weren’t interested in connecting socially since they rarely showed up for events.

But a 2009 survey revealed that parents had a hunger to get to know each other. The problem, synagogue leaders discovered, was that time-pressed parents didn’t want to attend separate programs.

So the synagogue began incorporating programs for parents into existing programs, like holding a cocktail party for parents after they dropped off their children for a synagogue sleepover. Other changes included assigning parents to invite and welcome other parents to class activities.

To address post-bar/bat mitzvah retention, the synagogue lowered fees for teen programming, offered new options for those not interested in confirmation class and assigned clergy members to meet individually with sixth- and seventh-graders.

As a result, the percentage of parents who said they would recommend the religious school to a friend increased from 33 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2012. In 2009, there were 65 students in grades 8 to 12 involved with the synagogue’s youth programming. Today there are 121.

Did the temple need a consulting firm to figure that out? Barri Waltcher, the congregation’s vice president, says yes.

“No one really had the time or competency to do the activity-based accounting analysis,” Waltcher said. Without a consultant, “undertaking something like that would’ve only happened if the one right person with the right skill set was in our community.

“Beyond that, in trying to get at the culture of anecdote, which is so pervasive on the board level, it’s helpful to have someone come in from the outside and in an impersonal way talk about why those types of anecdotal conversations aren’t helpful.”

Lisa Colton, the director of Darim Online, a provider of digital media training and professional development to Jewish organizations, says a good database provides a range of useful information – from lists of those attending synagogue events and which members they know to learning about which members’ attendance has waned.

Effective data use can also help synagogues target communications to the people most likely to be interested in a particular program or event, thus reducing extraneous emails and phone calls.

But even Colton acknowledged that data has limits.

“Data is a great starting place, but it’s not the end of the story,” Colton said. “Congregations are about people and relationships and community in its deepest sense.

“Data can be a backbone to provide structure to achieve this vision, but must inform softer, relational, human attentiveness to actualize its full potential.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.