When UJA-Federation of New York and the nonprofit research firm Idealware provided congregations with an overview of the marketplace for synagogue management software in 2013, the list and explanations of possible vendors went on for eight pages.
Now, there’s one synagogue management software that dominates this landscape: ShulCloud. About 1,200 congregations around the world use the product, which provides a platform for public-facing websites, accounting, scheduling tools, membership and donation tracking, newsletters, mobile apps and even a service that reminds members of the Yahrzeits of lost loved ones.
For synagogue administrators, the consolidation of this industry makes ShulCloud the obvious choice. But the dominant player has its limitations.
ShulCloud, which offers four tiers of plans that range from about $100 per month to about $600 per month, has struggled to adapt to the increasing synagogue website visits prompted by more virtual events during the pandemic. Last fall, websites hosted by ShulCloud crashed on Yom Kippur, the biggest participatory and fundraising holiday of the Jewish year, leaving in the lurch an estimated 100 clients that streamed services or linked to other streaming platforms on their sites.
Then, the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, bad actors targeted The Temple in Atlanta using the same capacity weaknesses to disrupt a Shabbat service that included a sermon by the newly elected U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock.
The Temple, which declined to comment, sent an email to congregants that said the cyber attackers had “continuously loaded the Temple website with the object of shutting it down.”
“They really have become kind of the major player in synagogue management,” said Barry Tuber, the immediate past president of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., one of the congregations impacted on Yom Kippur. “I’m not sure, if I were looking to consider switching, what the viable alternatives would be.”
ShulCloud did not respond to requests for comment.
The next-largest system is Rakefet, which had about 600 customers in 2018. Other competitors like ShalomCloud have comparatively tiny numbers of clients, hovering around 50. And any other major competitors are owned by the same parent company as ShulCloud, concentrating the market even further.
ShulCloud was created in 2011, and its path to dominance in the industry has been swift.
In 2015, a synagogue website platform called jVillage bought a synagogue member management company called ShulSuite. Two years later, a parent company, Togetherwork, run by the venture-capital firm GI Partners, acquired Chaverware and another system, Congregation Connect. In 2018, the company added jVillage to its roster and later that year, acquired ShulCloud. Now, one company, Togetherwork, runs ShulCloud and many of its would-be competitors: Chaverware, jVillage, ShulSuite and Congregation Connect.
Brooklyn-based Togetherwork and another affiliated entity, Shulware, did not respond to requests for comment. Two former ShulCloud employees declined to comment.
It’s not clear whether the mergers and acquisitions in the synagogue management market constitute anticompetitive practices, said Barak Richman, a Duke University law professor with an expertise in antitrust law. (Richman has also written about “cartels” in the rabbinic hiring process potentially violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.)
Richman said that in order for synagogue clients or even state attorneys general to claim the industry was winnowed down through anticompetitive practices, they’d have to be able to define the market strictly as software companies catering to synagogues, as opposed to those marketed to nonprofits generally or even religious organizations more broadly.
“Without knowing the real structure of the marketplace, it would be hard to determine whether there’s some kind of anticompetitive problem,” he said.
But even a compressed market can have its advantages, said Norman Snyder and Anne Weiss of Charlotte, N.C., the co-founders of another synagogue management platform called Shalom Cloud.
They said that when Togetherwork absorbed Chaverware, company officials did not renew all of their new clients’ Chaverware licenses, which prompted five or six synagogues to move to Shalom Cloud.
“We really offer all the nuts and bolts that most synagogues need,” said Snyder. “So it’s really a matter of are you, synagogue, willing to go with the smaller vendor who doesn’t have 1,000 clients?”