Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.
Six years ago, Ganon Gil, the early learning center of The Temple Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, OH, had decreasing enrollment, was not meeting most of the community’s needs, and was no longer financially viable.
We had to make a change and we faced a daunting decision: close the program or expand it to full-time and include an infant program for children as young as six weeks. After extensive study and evaluation, we made the bold decision to pursue the latter.
Soon thereafter, our congregation was blessed to receive a grant from the Mandel Foundation that enabled us to create a state-of-the-art early learning center. In May 2016, we opened a brand-new, full-service family learning center. Making these structural and philosophical changes redefined and reenergized our program, but in retrospect, they marked only the first stage of our transformation.
In November 2016, our congregation joined the URJ Full-Time Early Education Community of Practice (CoP), which expanded our growth even more. Along with 12 other congregations with full-time early childhood centers from across North America, we embarked on an 18-month journey of learning, experimentation, and networking.
Through this CoP, we encountered two concepts that shifted the way we approach and evaluate our work: “Start with Why” and new measures of congregational success.
The first concept, “Start with Why,” popularized by Simon Sinek, challenged us to identify our “why:” our core beliefs and the reason we exist as a congregation. In our CoP, several exercises inspired us to think about our sacred purpose and to strategize about how we can focus our work accordingly.
The second concept inspired us to evaluate our success in new ways – by measuring relationships, meaning, and impact. We were challenged to focus on these key questions:
Together, these two concepts helped us truly reexamine our goals and move toward transformational change: Prior to the CoP, we strove to provide more options for people as a means to expand their experiences with the congregation. During and after the CoP, we shifted our focus to have greater impact on people’s lives by strengthening relationships and creating meaning.
For example, we took a new approach to our annual program calendar, merging the calendars of our early learning center and our learning center. By placing the two calendars side by side, we could see all the programs we offered in 2018, making it clear we were offering entirely too many.
In planning for 2019, we took a more strategic approach and began the conversation by focusing on our “why.” We then ensured that the programs we were scheduling aligned with our core beliefs and aimed to accomplish the goals of building relationships and helping congregants find meaning. Prioritizing our programming based on our “why” also helped us identify opportunities to offer joint initiatives, as appropriate, by combining efforts of our early learning center and learning center.
Although the focus on our “why” and on new measures of congregational success started in our early learning center, it expanded to the congregation at large. Our new senior rabbi, Jonathan Cohen, is working with us to continue experimenting with how we apply our “why” and the measures of relationships, meaning, and impact to our “what” – learning, prayer, and programs. We have already used these principles to guide us in assessing and reimagining the way we celebrate holidays and other congregational happenings, and this is only the beginning. We look forward to continuing to focus on our “why” and on the measures of relationships, meaning, and impact to track our success – in our early learning center and beyond.
Lori Kowit is the director of Ganon Gil, the early learning center of The Temple Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, OH. She also serves as the president of Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ). Rabbi Stacy Schlein is the associate rabbi and director of learning at The Temple Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, OH. They both participated in the URJ Full-Time Early Education Community of Practice in 2016-2018.