How Small Groups Can Strengthen Your Synagogue

Inside Leadership

How Small Groups Can Strengthen Your Synagogue

Group of people sitting around a dinner table enjoying food and company

Larchmont, New York is a village – a one-square-mile village. People move here because they want to be part of a small, walkable community. They join Larchmont Temple because they want Jewish life in their suburban life. If you think this sounds lovely, you’re not alone, which is why the congregation has doubled in size in a generation. With more than 800 families, though, it doesn’t always feel as close or connected as we’d like, as people deserve, or as it once was.

Three years ago, it became increasingly clear that we couldn’t continue to operate as if we were still small, so we started to think big about creating small groups. Our internal timing corresponded perfectly with the URJ’s work around Communities of Practice (CoP), and lucky for us, we joined a CoP focused on Small Groups with Meaning.

We spent six months giving members a taste of the small group experience by gathering 10-15 people in living rooms to share the small group concept and, thanks to our CoP network, how other Reform congregations were adopting and adapting the model to match the culture in their community. Then, grounding the discussion in Torah text, we invited everyone to share what they were seeking from both Jewish and communal life. Knowing we wanted to create groups based on shared interests, we were glad to hear common interest in such activities as hiking, yoga, mindfulness, and wine-tasting.

Repeatedly, we also heard this question: What will make these small groups Jewish groups? We assured everyone we’d figure out the answer together. As clergy, we wanted Torah to be more than a token part of the group experience, and for the Jewish content to be authentic to each group and its activity. We decided, therefore, that as the leading rabbi, I would be responsible for finding and sharing appropriate materials.

In our first year of small groups, I provided this connection through a variety of Jewish texts. Helping our Mussar groups and Shabbat dinner groups integrate Jewish content into their experience was a straightforward endeavor, but it took more thought and creativity to assist some of our other small groups. For example, when our Organic and Environmentally Sustainable Dining Group needed material to read and discuss, I pointed them to essays in The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic. I encouraged our hiking group to read regularly from Rabbi Jamie Korngold’s book on the spirituality of the outdoors, and I collected prayers and passages for our mindfulness group to consider. These efforts were well-received by the groups, and the search for Jewish connections and content was fun for me.

Gearing up for the second year, great leaders proposed wider-ranging topics for groups, including whiskey-tasting, biking, Curb Your Enthusiasm, mah jongg, and more. With these topics, the Jewish connections felt less obvious and more forced, but because we wanted to say “yes” to people’s interests, we had to find a new answer to the persistent question: What makes these small groups Jewish groups?

That’s when we decided to put our faith in the group experience – the intentional, repeat encounters that foster what our teacher, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Dr. Eugene Borowitz, z’l, would call “groupiness.” While high-quality activities and discussion materials are important, alone they won’t ensure connection to one another, Jewish life, or a spiritual community. What makes the groups Jewish is not their explicit content but their inner workings. The souls of the groups are Jewish.

It’s not only what groups do that makes them Jewish. It’s also how the groups come together, and we ensure our groups come together in Jewish ways. For example:

  1. We encourage each group to have a b’rit – a covenant – that articulates the norms and vision for the group. We offer a sample b’rit and invite the group to make it their own.
  2. We encourage group leaders to think of their gatherings as a ritual with a regular structure and schedule; such a routine helps group members cohere, get comfortable, and ultimately, move beyond their comfort zone.
  3. We encourage groups to use relational, thought-provoking questions to anchor discussions and promote dialogue. (After all, what’s more Jewish than a good question?!)
  4. We remind leaders not only to pose big opening questions, but also to model focused listening. It’s in the listening that we affirm, understand, and connect, and this core practice brings us back to Sh’ma (a central Jewish prayer that begins with “hear” or “listen”).

Ultimately, if groups have Jewish interests or align their meetings to the cycle of Jewish time, that’s great, but it’s groups’ core ingredients that make them Jewish. It’s how they operate as a group that’s Jewish, and that’s why I’m excited to see how small groups will redefine the what of synagogue life.

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Rabbi Bethie Miller is the associate rabbi at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY, where her work focuses on supporting small groups and connecting young families. She entered the rabbinate to build intentional and empowered communities that transform the people within them and the world around them. A native of Newton, MA, and a graduate of Williams College, Rabbi Miller was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a Daniel and Bonnie Tisch Rabbinical Fellow during her studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, NY.

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