NEW OU WINGS PROGRAM INVITES SYNAGOGUES TO SOAR
“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.”
Isaiah 40:31 The Koren Humash
Just as synagogues provide the spiritual means for their congregations to soar, the Orthodox Union, in one of its newest and most ambitious initiatives, has established the WINGS program to guide the synagogues themselves to rise to new heights. WINGS, a project of the OU’s Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, is an acronym for “We Inspire New Growth Synagogues,” with “new growth” referring to shuls of any age or size, as long as they have the outlook and attitude to be inspired – and to soar.
“The title ‘we inspire’ is meant to reflect just that,” declared Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, the rabbi of Manhattan’s West Side Institutional Synagogue, who is Project Director of Wings. “We’re not claiming we can transform a shul, but rather to inspire a shul to become what it always was supposed to be.”
This is done through consultation between Rabbi Einhorn, OU staff, and senior rabbis and staff at Orthodox Union synagogues across North America with religious and lay leadership at OU shuls. And, it should be noted, a synagogue that provides advice in one area, can be the recipient of guidance in another.
Since its start in January 2010, WINGS has already advised dozens of synagogues, either by having its representatives come to the OU or through phone conversations, emails, or visits to the shul. The program was the idea of Rabbi Steven Weil, since July 2009 the Executive Vice President of the OU, who in his almost ceaseless travels across North America has served as a source of wisdom and information to synagogues based on his two highly successful rabbinates at OU shuls in suburban Detroit and in Beverly Hills.
“Rabbi Weil’s premise for Synagogue Services was to create a way for OU shuls to share their resources; some shuls could use the advice of shul x, others of shul y, or perhaps the guidance of a shul in Ohio. Nobody was linking them,” explained Rabbi Einhorn.
The choice of Rabbi Einhorn to serve as Project Director should come as no surprise. A native of Los Angeles, he attended yeshiva in Israel, graduated from Yeshiva University and received semicha there from its RIETS seminary, and for six years was a student of Rav Hershel Schachter, the great Talmudist who is one of OU Kosher’s senior authorities on Jewish law.
In the five years since he arrived at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, Shabbat morning attendance has increased from 12 to over 300. “It’s been going amazing there,” Rabbi Einhorn says. He came with the background to build a congregation. “I’ve been watching rabbis and shuls since I was a kid, observing what shuls do wrong and what shuls do right,” he explained. As a boy in Los Angeles, he saw his synagogue fall apart, due to “politics, infighting, pettiness, disrespect on all sides – and I grew up seeing it.” He witnessed better things at his next congregation, Bais Yehuda, which he describes as “a Satmar shul with a modern Orthodox constituency and a Lubavitch caterer.”
Rabbi Einhorn has supplemented his first-hand knowledge with intensive study. “If there’s a book out there that relates to synagogue growth in any way, I’ll read it,” he says, adding that he’s already read more than 1,000 books on the subject. “The content of what I give comes from taking a lot of time listening to a lot of shuls, hearing their struggles and their challenges, how they face them and how they respond to these challenges.”
Rabbi Einhorn is featured at many OU events – for youth directors, executive directors, and the Los Angeles Torah Convention; he will speak at January’s OU National Convention on “Around the World in 80 Ways: Best Youth Programming From Across the Globe.”
The concept of WINGS, he says, is “to make the shidduch” – “to bring the best of what shuls have to offer to each other” by connecting them, or connecting them to an OU expert. In all cases, the shul receives state-of-the art information based on the latest developments in synagogue life.
Staff members from the Department of Synagogue Services have developed their own areas of expertise: Laya Pelzner, contact with rabbis; Yehuda Friedman, executive directors; Penny Pazornick, youth professionals; Michael Rosner, presidents. And of course, there is Rabbi Weil.
According to Rabbi Weil, “To bolster the expertise of our creative and energetic in-house staff, we have recruited a select few of North America’s most innovative and accomplished rabbis, lay leaders, executive directors, youth directors and business experts. Between them, this team has amassed a vast amount of experience in solving the problems that shuls most commonly face. And they have learned lessons from the success stories and the war stories of communities across North America that can be applied to other shuls facing similar situations.”
The most requested areas of assistance, Rabbi Einhorn says, are expanding membership, fundraising and strategic planning, followed by program ideas and board structure.
According to Laya Pelzner, OU Associate Director of Synagogue Services, WINGS specializes in providing “Best Practices,” successful approaches in a variety of areas that shuls share with one another. “We’ve called on 30 or 40 rabbis and asked them what has worked in their shuls. “We access their expertise,” she says.
For example, for each holiday WINGS compiles a listing of best practices. For Chanukah, suggestions included a Family Friday Night, a Carnival, a Creative Menorah Building Contest, a Latke Cook-Off; and a great debate on the Maccabees. For a more generic topic, such as Expanding Membership, suggestions include Tea Time, holiday packages, membership competition to bring in newcomers, a tracking file on potential new members, Tot Shabbat, bringing in college students in the summer, and recruiting on local campuses.
“We don’t want to go give shuls the impression that we have all the answers, ‘that we will instruct you,’” Rabbi Einhorn explained. “We let synagogues know that with the problems they face, they’re not alone. We know a lot of the shuls out there and what they have done successfully. We’re not a makeover group. We’re there to share and to help shuls access the best resources out there.”
(WINGS can be contacted at 212-613-8165, or firstname.lastname@example.org.)