How One Experiment Inspires Sacred Action

November 20, 2017Gila Hadani and Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, RJE

We say the only constant in this world is change. We encourage our congregational leaders to “change.” How do we make change a manageable reality in synagogue life? How do we at the URJ model the ability to make change?

Members of the URJ Strengthening Congregations Team were challenged to think about innovations of our own: what would learning look like if Reform Jewish leaders studied together at the same time and weren't in the same place?

Seeking answers to these questions (and others), we embarked on our own experiment: “How Successful Congregations Embrace Change: A URJ Day of Learning,” held on October 29, 2017.

The Hypotheses

We started with two hypotheses. If we encourage congregations to pilot small experiments that lead to change, there is a greater likelihood that leaders would find this idea less intimidating and easier to try themselves, contributing to creating a culture in which questioning and experimenting are part of a congregation's way of life. The second hypothesis is that there is something compelling about learning with other leaders from across North American but, unlike Biennial, in separate locations.

The Experiment

From the outset, we knew we would need to articulate our target audience and what content we would share with them. We decided to focus on congregational board members because they establish policy and encourage growth and change within congregations. We know that the nimblest and thriving congregations are those that embrace change. Our desire is to have congregations see that change can develop incrementally and that it need not begin as large and sweeping. Harkening back to the teaching of Marty Linsky from the 2015-2016 Scholars Series, we used his language of experimentation as an agent of change.


Creating the content, or lesson, for the day flowed naturally. Building a network of support and exploring the idea through text study, joint learning, and a live interview with Anita Diamant, the activities were easy to realize. What was more daunting was the timing of the program: planning a program that included an interview taking place simultaneously across four different time zones was challenging and took a bit of ingenuity to plan and execute.

The Event

We anticipated that we would have no more than 12 locations across our URJ communities, but found that the concept was more intriguing than anticipated. Twenty-seven sites within our URJ communities opened their doors to participants and an additional nine congregations that were geographically too far from a community site hosted the program. The event required collaboration throughout the entire URJ system, URJ staff from four areas and many outstanding lay partners traveled to congregations to facilitate the program for more than 450 participants. What we initially thought would be a small experiment developed into something larger than anticipated.

Modeling Collaboration

Collaboration was not only desired, but also crucial to the success of this experiment. It took the gifts and talents of many lay leaders and professional staff members to create the thoughtful planning process and program. The contributions of our volunteer Board Facilitators added a unique dimension as well. This program clearly brought together the Strengthening Congregations Team, and the desire from all corners of the URJ to be part of the initiative was overwhelming.

Our Conclusion (Or a Conclusion in the Making)

We sought to inspire sacred action in congregations, encouraging leaders to embrace change through small experiments. Although it is a bit too early to know whether our hypothesis about creating a culture of experimentation is correct, we expect to learn more through continuing dialogue in The Tent and a follow-up session at the URJ Biennial. What was clear, however, in location after location is that leaders found the ideas persuasive and inspiring. There was something enticing, exciting, and compelling about learning together with hundreds of Reform Movement leaders in locations across North America.

Lessons for Other Experimenters Out There

To those who wish to experiment, the lessons we shared about the advantages of experimentation held true:

  • An experiment requires a hypothesis or hypotheses, and the obligation to monitor the experiment closely.
  • When we use the language of experimentation, we reduce the stakes so not everything is on the line.
  • We can run more than one experiment at the same time, and can make mid-course corrections – tweaks are part of every experiment.
  • There is no such thing as a failed experiment, what we learn is both valuable and important, regardless of the outcome.
  • Expect the unexpected. There is no way to anticipate everything that might can alter your plans so take a deep breath and jump in (to the shallow end) with both feet.

To learn more about “How Successful Congregations Embrace Change: A URJ Day of Learning,” visit The Tent.

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Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, RJE, is the director of the URJ Leadership Institute, which is part of the URJ Strengthening Congregations team. She has served in various leadership positions, and is the immediate past-president of the Association of Reform Jewish EducatorsGila Hadani Ward is the director of lay resources, part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Strengthening Congregations team. She previously served as a congregational educator, working with learners of all ages, but especially teens. Gila holds a law degree and a master’s degree in Jewish education.

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