Transforming Synagogue Culture in Baltimore: An Interview with Leaders at Oheb Shalom

In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, 46% of the Baltimore Jewish community reported that they felt Jewish organizations were “remote” or “not relevant.”  In response to this survey, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore chartered a diverse group of 10 volunteers to recommend ways for Jewish organizations to be welcoming and relevant. From these recommendations, the Darrel Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center (DFI) founded the Engagement Partnership, whose goal is to work with synagogues and other Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and relevant to their community.

In February of 2015, DFI partnered with JOIN for Justice to run a program that includes six synagogues that are changing the way they utilize their boards, engaging their members to create warm, welcoming environments, and exploring what the word “relevant” means to their community.  Senior Organizer and Trainer Jeannie Appleman worked closely with five synagogues to lead an in-depth training series teaching leadership development through an organizing frame. Below, two leaders from Temple Oheb Shalom, Vicki Spira and Maxine Lowy, describe the transformative process currently underway in their synagogue.

Can you start by introducing yourselves?

Vicki: I’m Vicki Spira, one of Executive Vice-Presidents at Oheb Shalom. I am the Chair Person of our Engagement Partnership. I’ve been in various leadership roles since I joined Oheb Shalom almost 20 years ago.

Maxine: I’m Maxine Lowy, the Director of Development and Special Programs at Oheb Shalom.  As part of my “special programs” I was asked to be the staff person to take the lead on this project.

Tell me about what your synagogue was like before you started this project and why you decided to take on this project.

Maxine: What this project has really done is taken us back to a time when people were involved and engaged and the synagogue was the central hub of their lives.  Over the last decade or so, we’ve gotten away from that at Oheb Shalom. Things and activities have been more staff driven than lay driven.

Vicki:  When I heard about this project, it seemed like an opportunity to do something transformational.  I didn’t know exactly what it was or where it was going to go, but I thought the journey would be interesting.  I loved the whole idea of connecting to people in a more meaningful way, and the notion that we could engage members as vested owners rather than bystanders.

Can you share what project you’re working on?

Vicki: We had a grant from The Associated called “The Engagement Partnership” to see how we could make Oheb Shalom more meaningful and relevant.  We decided to focus on baby boomers, because that is a population that we had not paid a lot of attention to in recent years. Boomers represent one-third of our membership and the largest population of financial contributors.

We were doing something we had not done before and had little experience in this construct. With Jeannie’s [JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer and Trainer] help and counsel, we determined to reach out to this population in small group relational meetings. We would pose a couple of questions about a meaningful experience they had in the synagogue, and what people would create at Oheb Shalom if they had a magic wand to learn more about our members and what their passions and interests really are.

In these small group sessions we reached about 175 people out of 400 members.  We met at people’s homes  8-10 people at a time, which the Design Team facilitated. We also had a couple of big Shabbat dinners targeted at Baby Boomers, which included small group relational conversations after dinner.  People really liked it and responded favorably, and expressed an interest in continuing these get-togethers.

The next step addressed what we could do with all of this information? We had a second series of gatherings, where members were asked “What do YOU want to create at Oheb Shalom?   The participants decided what interests they wanted to create and pursue in Action Teams.  Our action teams are based around contemporary issues, food, and Tikkun Olam.

Vicki : An example of how we are incorporating this culture – We had our opening Board meeting the other night, and because of the work we did in the Engagement Partnership, we decided to make our meeting “more relational.” We broke into two groups and asked people to share a time when they were leaders, and what traits or characteristics they played.  We learned what people were good at and they got to learn about each other.

Instead of our usual tradition of telling Board members what their responsibilities are, we did a group exercise where the Board members said what they believe their responsibilities and expectations should be. They owned it!  Prior to the Engagement Partnership, we would not have approached it like this.

This project is making us think differently about a lot of things that we do.

Have you noticed a change in the sanctuary during Shabbat services?

Maxine: I think our Shabbat services have taken on a different feel. We’re watching people that have met through these small group meetings, building relationships, making plans to go out together, talking about their plans. I’m a native Baltimorean. People have always said that Baltimore is a hard city to break into. As I’ve observed what’s going on at Shabbat services, we’re seeing this sense of inclusion and this sense of people building new relationships.

Vicki: It’s not like you go in and you see some wholesale change. It’s more nuanced than that.  All of us feel a little bit different.  I think we’ll begin to see more of this.  It’s something that you start and little by little grow.  We’d like to have JOIN for Justice work with us on some development with our Board for them to understand this better.

What has been the hardest thing about this?

Vicki: As Jeannie would say, it’s a culture shift.  You can’t do this overnight.  It takes years.  The work will be done amongst many of us in the years to come.

What other changes have you noticed?

Vicki: One of the changes is that we’ve developed a group of members that really do have an appetite to work. These people really became personally invested.  They are all leaders—it’s not just about a title, it’s about real responsibility.

Unless we can find a cadre of lay people who want to do something, we’re not going to do it. I’m not saying we’re not going to change the AC, but if it’s a project that needs lay energy to act, then instead of letting something limp along, there’s just no point in doing it.

Have you learned something about yourselves as leaders?

Vicki:  One of the most profound things I learned was how challenging it was for me to chair and begin this project without knowing exactly where we were going.  Many wanted to have the answers from the start but this wasn’t that kind of project.    So in the beginning I really felt anxious about what we were doing and about my leadership.  But in time it became clear that this was the process we had to go through and this is in fact what enabled us to build such a strong team.  My passion for Oheb Shalom always kept me going. And Jeannie’s counsel through all of this was essential!

Maxine: For me this was a whole different skill set.  My leadership style has always been: give me a task and I will get to a successful conclusion. I can do all of the concrete steps—that’s what I’m good at.  This was different because it was so amorphous, and we really didn’t have a clear direction. It was speaking a language that wasn’t part of my language.  I wanted a beginning and end and this is all about the gray stuff in the middle. I’ve grown tremendously as a professional and a leader, able to look at things more critically, to ask different kinds of questions, to think more about the people than about the outcome.  Jeannie has been hugely instrumental in this.

This feels quite inspiring and satisfying right now. And I can’t say enough about our work with Jeannie.  At every twist and turn she got us through every difficult part.  We learned so much from her, things we can carry forward that she gave to us that we now have for the future.

Lynne Kirsner talks about her experience with the Engagement Partnership at Temple Oheb Shalom.

The Engagement Partnership is funded by the Kolker-Saxon- Hallock Family Foundation, Inc., a supporting foundation of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.  The lead volunteer on the project and liaison to a few of the congregations is Alan Bernstein, who is working in partnership on the training with Cindy Goldstein, Executive Director of the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center.

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