Determining Your Communal DNA

What is a synagogue? A congregation? A community?

We are more than a nonprofit organization, or a local center, or a collection of people who share certain practices or get together for holidays. It feels significant to me that words like “congregation” and “community” are grammatically singular but inherently refer to a multiplicity. The duality of meaning here is so critical for how we lead, congregate, and self-identify.

A rhizome is an organism that shares DNA across what appears to be a big, diverse group of organisms. Bamboo is a great example of this: What appears to be a forest of bamboo is actually one organism, with a shared root system. The organism is resilient, strong, and sustainable because even if the majority of it was destroyed, the DNA lives on.

Our congregations should function in a similar way. Together, we establish the culture of a community (let’s call it the communal DNA) which infuses everything we do, from the design of the fliers, to the tone of the announcements made from the bimah, to the thoughtfulness with which we treat each other.

Oftentimes, we talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. We repeat (in announcements, on our websites, etc.) that we are “warm and welcoming,” but how does that really get coded in our DNA? How does this value express itself in every attribute of our community, inside the building and outside, from staff and members, through programs and relationships? Is our being welcoming our saying, “We’re glad you walked in the door”? Or is it actually saying, “We’d like to help you find your place here, so I want to know what’s important to you. And can I introduce you to some people who share your interests?”

Today we are living in a networked, connected world, where relationships trump programs, where participation trumps attendance, and where authenticity and trustworthiness trump everything. Our challenge, then, is not only to clarify our communal DNA but to have it expressed throughout every pore of our community, at all times.

One of the most effective ways that we can infuse our communities with this DNA is through effective communications. What does your website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel, or Pinterest board say about your community, your values, and your DNA? Do the people who manage these channels – as well as the people who manage your print newsletter, weekly emails, fliers, and in-person announcements – all operate from the same core DNA of the community? How about greeters and ushers and the person who answers the phone?

In the Social Media Policy Workbook published this fall (free download of the PDF is available here), we offer 10 worksheets to help you think through the various opportunities (and challenges) of effectively using communications to build, support and manage your communal DNA. The very first worksheet is about values because everything grows from there – the roots, the stalks, and the leaves.

What are the essential communal values at your synagogue? How are they expressed by every member of your community? Where could you be doing a better job?


This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work. 


This post is also cross posted on the URJ blog.

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