This interview is part of the Network-Weaver Series. More info & interviews here!
Kathy Elias is the Chief Kehillah Officer at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Tell me a little about your network.
United Synagogue is an umbrella organization almost 100 years old which first and foremost connects Conservative congregations to each other even as there’s been evolution in United Synagogue itself. We have now moved toward the word kehillah, because we have gotten to the point where we need to look beyond the walls and buildings of our synagogues and recognize that it’s really all about our sacred communities and the people in them.
Can you tell me a bit about how network-weaving has been practiced over the United Synagogue’s 100-year history?
Let’s go back about 50 years, when there was no internet. United Synagogue brought people together through regional and national conventions and in-person meetings. We have always sought to convey the idea of the shared identity inherent in the concept of being a Conservative shul, and to weave knowledge through identifying best practices and sharing them among the congregations. One mechanism, for example, was our Solomon Schechter Awards that recognized excellence. Another was the knowledge community created by our regional staff and volunteers who were essentially networkers. They were assigned to synagogues and visited them regularly, and they would connect you with others going through the same issues.
Even today, the concept of network-weaving is the trick: the creation of the technology or experiences that would allow people to meet each other is just the first step. For instance, we have had a training program called SULAM, where presidents of congregations meet and learn with each other. We jumpstarted the program with a Shabbaton experience, and the presidents themselves continued to network to support one another throughout their presidencies.
Tell me more about the shift to shaping the United Synagogue as a kehillah.
We’re now in a time period where identification with a denomination is not the most compelling factor in the identity of many. It may not have the pull it had for pervious generations. Faced with the question of how to sustain an umbrella organization, in 2009, with the appointment of our new CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, we began a strategic planning process.
The first step of the strategic plan was to change the language from “synagogue” to “kehillah.” As we go beyond the brick and mortar, the idea that the kehillah is created by likeminded people who share Jewish values and practice opens doors for connecting to people who may not identity themselves as “members” – for building relationships and for weaving a network. How do we recreate United Synagogue as dynamic, with dynamic leaders, and how do we weave a network of program, service, and connections that empowers our kehillot to do the same in creating Conservative Jewish life?
What are some of your goals in network-weaving this kehillah?
We’re focusing on four core areas: kehillah strengthening and transformation, integrated education, outreach to young adults, and nurturing emerging kehillot. We are looking to train and connect 5,000 new Jewish leaders in the next five years. We’re seeking to create an integrated educational model. Right now, two groups are meeting – one group convening the network of Conservative sister organizations (Rabbinical Assembly, Ramah, Solomon Schechter day schools, seminaries, and United Synagogue) to pursue an integrated approach to education, breaking down boundaries and weaving networks among us. The second group is comprised of practitioners, who created recommendations about an integrated learning model which is being presented to the group of sister organizations.
We’re working on how to identify and weave networks to support Jewish life among young adults. We’re finding people in emerging kehillot, who are finding each other and creating a new type of Judaism and Jewish community. How do we empower emerging groups and nurture and nourish Jewish life?
Where do you start in this work?
The first phase in kehillah strengthening and transformation is leadership development. We have expanded our Sulam program to extend across the lives of members of kehillot, and we’re asking kehillah leaders to be our partners to try out, improve, and share materials. We have a program to train current leaders (board and committee members), with nearly 100 of our kehillot learning to use materials that we’re asking them to test. We’re also currently testing a new curriculum – SULAM for emerging leaders – in 18 shuls, and soon we’ll be bringing it to the next group of 20-30 shuls. This is not about learning about how to run committees; there’s nothing about governance. It’s about: How do I live a Jewish life? How do I navigate how to prioritize sacred time; how do I create home if it’s different than the one I grew up in; how do I deal with relationships and conflict? What am I as a connector and as a network-weaver? It’s creating conversations and the ability to do strategic thinking.
What have you learned about network-weaving, and what are some challenges for the future?
Network-weaving isn’t done to you. It’s something you have to participate in, and you have to be ready to practice it. Change needs to come from a feeling of a need and a readiness for it, and you also have to have the ability to achieve it. We are thrilled that 20% of our shuls are participating in our SULAM training. But you can’t grow a structure on the ground without volunteers. We need to grow our volunteer network even more formally, and to create a cadre of expert volunteers – to have people in relationships with kehillot on the ground constantly connecting and being present.