JFSA Reshet program helps synagogues learn from each other

Inspired by the Reshet network, Congregation Chaverim began a mentoring program in which established families invite new ones to family-friendly events, such as this Simchat Torah celebration.
Inspired by the Reshet network, Congregation Chaverim began a mentoring program in which established families invite new ones to family-friendly events, such as this Simchat Torah celebration.

Last year, Tucson was chosen as one of four pilot communities to participate in the National Reshet Network, a synagogue-strengthening program funded by the Covenant Foundation and coordinated locally by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Reshet means “network” in Hebrew.

In May, Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the national program, and Elana Rivel, its educational resource development expert, came to Tucson to launch the program with a series of meetings with synagogue and Federation representatives, including synagogue presidents, education directors, membership committee chairs and rabbis. Rivel will return to Tucson for workshops on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, including a committee chair boot camp.

In the meantime, various groups of synagogue staff members and lay leaders have been meeting with their counterparts from nine congregations in Tucson and Green Valley, sharing ideas in areas ranging from finances to outreach to technology. Rebecca Crow, who was hired by the Federation as the local coordinator, a part-time position, has helped facilitate those meetings.

“The Federation understands how important strong synagogues are for a strong Jewish community,” says Crow. While there has been a Federation-Synagogue Dialogue group for years, the Reshet program takes that partnership to a new level.

At Congregation Or Chadash, a new membership incentive includes half-price first-year dues and free tuition for students in kindergarten through second grade.

Reshet has brought the synagogues together “in a very innovative format, where we could identify some common goals and common challenges and begin to talk with each other,” says Jason Feld, board president of Temple Emanu-El, who notes that the presidents’ group has been meeting monthly.

In May, the national Reshet leaders shared some of the lessons learned in Philadelphia, where the program originated 10 years ago, as well as in the other pilot communities in Delaware, San Francisco and northern New Jersey.

Membership committees have looked to the model of the megachurches nationwide, said Warmflash. For example, when the churches held a movie night to screen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” a few years ago, they charged $10 for members and only $5 for nonmembers, the reverse of how synagogues typically structure fees.

One of the most important tools, Rivel noted, is a membership survey to show synagogue leaders who their congregants really are. One synagogue, Warmflash said, knew intermarried families were about 7 percent of its total membership. But in its religious school, a survey revealed, almost 25 percent of the children came from intermarried families.

Local synagogues have already begun to implement ideas suggest by Reshet, tweaking them to fit their needs.

Congregation Chaverim held two story times in southeast Tucson, in conjunction with the Federation’s PJ Library program, to reach out to Jewish families in Vail, Civano and other communities, says education director Hillary Lyons. Although the sessions were sparsely attended, a couple of families, including one that had previously attended a Chaverim tot Shabbat, joined the congregation. “It resparked their interest,” says Lyons.

More successful, says Lyons, has been a mentoring program that pairs new families with not-so-new families (members for five years or fewer). The mentor families personally invite the new members to a family-friendly event at the synagogue, such as a Chanukah or Purim party. The program currently involves 30 families — 15 new and 15 mentor families ñ and helps the not-so-new families stay involved as well as making the new families feel more comfortable, says Lyons.

At Congregation Or Chadash, “we polled our seniors about transportation needs,” says Andi Elkins, membership chair, then applied for and received a Federation grant to help transport seniors in the far northwest to services and events, in partnership with Handmaker.

Or Chadash also implemented a program allowing first-year families to pay half the normal dues and receive free tuition for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“We want to do it for several years,” says Elkins, noting that congregations with similar programs around the country are reporting five-year retention rates at 80 percent. In its first year, the program brought 48 new families to Or Chadash.

Rina Liebeskind, education director at Or Chadash, says she took away a subtle lesson in communications from Reshet’s Elana Rivel, who counseled the importance of catering to different generations. Liebeskind says she used to “just send e-mails” to communicate with parents, until she learned that two religious school families did not, in fact, own computers. Now she sends those families handwritten notes, she says, calls them, or sends hard copies of her emails home with the students.

Conversely, for many congregations, says Temple Emanu-El’s Feld, the challenge has been how to best leverage technology in this digital age. Temple is developing a new website, he says, noting Congregations Anshei Israel and Or Chadash have recently improved their sites.

Feld says he also shared strategic planning tools he developed for Temple several years ago. “That seems to be an important topic: what questions are you asking of your congregation, what kind of information are you getting back, and what are the identified needs.”

He’s delighted that Reshet has provided an additional opportunity for congregations to network. “We’ve actually run with it,” he says.

For more information, contact Rebecca Crow at 577-9393, ext. 116 or rcrow@ jfsa.org.