Synagogues Turning to Consultants To Better Understand Communities

Data Provides Insight into Congregation Dynamics

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By Julie Wiener

Published December 11, 2013.
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(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.”


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