Small Jewish Communities: An Introspective
Note: For the purposes of this article, a "small community" is a community of less than 400 membership units with no more than 2 full-time clergy and 2 full-time staff. These are the communities I've had the most experience with, but if you're from a bigger place, you may hear resonance. I just don't know as much about y'all to vouch. Would love to hear about what resonates in the comments, though.
There are so many factors weighing on small Jewish communities nowadays. Some of these factors were already in existence before the pandemic, but many of them have cropped up or become more acute since the pandemic. I'm going to attempt to outline a few of the unique challenges small communities have here:
Staffing and Volunteers: Many of us are working with part-time administrative help, which was fine when the shul's major administrative tasks were billing, the newsletter, and making photocopies for events on the weekend. Now that we're creating digital resources, teaching online, and trying to keep our communities connected despite physical distance, these administrative tasks have taken over many of our To-Do lists. I am constantly saying that I am the most expensive person the shul can hire to click "Hide Slide" on our service PPT, but the reality is that it's become part of my portfolio because we haven't been able to find time for an admin or volunteer to do it for me, and it's gotta get done.
Technological Proficiency: In shuls with larger teams and a larger pool of volunteers, the work gets spread out over the team based on people's expertise, portfolios, and shared bandwidth. When one person takes time off, there is often a team of people coordinating to make sure that the balls the team has up in the air don't get dropped. In small shuls, there may only be one or two people who have the technological know-how to run the stream (or, to be realistic, the willingness to learn it). And training up volunteers takes time and energy, neither of which small shuls have in abundance. It's hard to teach someone else to run the stream when you're constantly having to prepare for the next stream by yourself.
Budget: Many small shuls live with the reality that payroll makes up a shockingly large percentage of our budgets. The rest of the budget is a small stipend for office supplies, annual fees for Acrobat, Microsoft 365, ShulCloud, Rakefet, and some money to throw at committees to run Mitzvah Day or do a Tu B'shevat seder. This year, we've added more fee-based services on to our plates: a Zoom subscription (or two), a StreamYard subscription, Monday.com. None of these are huge expenses, but they add up, especially when budgets were always tight to begin with and big donors don't really exist.
Burnout: This is both a staffing and volunteer problem. Many small shuls were already running on fumes when the pandemic hit. Our needs are the same as larger shuls, only we have fewer staff and volunteers to take care of those needs. Once the pandemic hit and our portfolios went mostly online, we all had to learn new skills to do the same jobs we did pre-pandemic. Now, a year later, our portfolios have ballooned and we've become even more indispensable, which is never good for a community (or its volunteers or staff!). But everyone is at capacity. The extra volunteers aren't materializing to share the burden because we just don't have the critical mass of people without a full portfolio already. And it's really hard to recruit for volunteers in virtual space.
Maintenance: Many of our small communities have fallen by the wayside on basic maintenance in the last year. Our websites (aside from the Live Streaming page) are out of date. Our strategic plans have become obsolete, but our boards haven't created new ones yet because we're dealing with reopening plans and streaming glitches and budget crises. We've realized that our "stop gap" curriculum for religious school this year was great, but we can't go back to our old curriculum because it's just not going to work in what is now a hybrid classroom. The world has permanently changed around us, and our experts are busy in the day-to-day business of running a community. We haven't had time or space to plan or dream about this newly-transformed future.
Don't get me wrong; these are exciting developments! We have needed to make many of these leaps for a long time, and there are also many positive factors that are working on small communities too.
We aren't (as) building-bound: Small communities tend to have small buildings. So where large communities are supporting large overhead on a space that has stood largely empty for a year, we have (by and large) been able to maintain our spaces or utilize them well during this pandemic.
Membership Opportunities: Innovative small communities have used the pandemic and digital space to reach out: to unaffiliated locals, to people across the country/world, to each other. Many of us have seen growth or only tiny drops in our membership, and have seen an influx of people looking to engage in an accessible and intimate space online.
Creative Allowance: Many small communities are like small ships - it's much easier to turn us when we see obstacles or opportunities. When we know each other well, it's easier for us to trust one another through change. This has allowed many small communities to try new things and be creative about how they give help to their members and address the challenges above.
We are less "brand-conscious": By and large, we don't have the big-name rabbis, the social media firms, the video production staff, the major donors to keep happy. We exist to serve our members, and our members are the people populating our boards and committees. It is so much easier for us to keep our fingers on the pulse of our communities and keep us humble and just simply working for one another.
As I'm sure you can tell, I don't think we will ever go back to our pre-pandemic normal in Jewish life. Small communities especially have had to change so much. We need to begin asking ourselves how we can more efficiently do the things that serve our members best and give up the antiquated or redundant processes we're still using. This will take creativity and passion and courage, but also time and energy. The question is; where will that time and energy come from?