Everything I Needed to Know about Synagogue Success I Learned from the NBA

For my bar mitzvah speech, I was more interested in speaking about basketball than anything related to that morning’s Torah reading.  Judaism and basketball have always been passions of mine, but it was only just recently that I realized that there are significant parallels between finding the highest level of success on the hard court and within synagogue life.

Within the current basketball landscape, there are five paradigms that franchises use towards team building: two that never work, two that can work (but often fail), and one hallmark approach, which is hardest to achieve but almost always delivers the best results.  I’d like to suggest that each of these basketball paradigms has a parallel in synagogue life, and that by learning from our colleagues in the NBA, we can help synagogues figure out their own optimal path(s) to success.

Paradigm 1: Maintain, Maintain, Maintain (the Status Quo Method) (examples: Washington Wizards, Portland Trailblazers)

The most common choice made by both NBA teams and synagogues is the path of least resistance – a middling approach, where the aspiration is simply to maintain the status quo.  They assemble a good team, but that is all that they ever are: good.  The teams may make the playoffs year after year, but they will never truly contend (unless lightning strikes – see “Young Superstar” below)…  This approach may allow leadership to keep their jobs and keep fans engaged, but the teams will rarely make it to the next level; indeed it seems as if these teams never even intend to win a championship.  The status quo is all they seek.  These teams are good, but never truly great.

I also believe that “The Status Quo” approach is the one most commonly employed in synagogues.  These synagogues serve particular groups of people and interests (a core membership, plus a Hebrew school, B’nai Mitzvah, and life cycle needs), and they are happy to remain in that comfort zone  They are reluctant to grow too much, to serve new populations outside the traditional membership, or to do anything terribly audacious.  Much like any other clubs, these synagogues have members and exist to serve those members.  Just as with the NBA teams that may make the playoffs every year, it is not necessarily bad to be a synagogue focused on this approach.  It simply means that this synagogue is unlikely to ever break through to an even greater level of success (however measured or defined).

Paradigm 2: The Bungler (example: LA Clippers)

Another way to avoid the NBA Finals is to employ the “Bungler” approach.  These teams keep repeating past mistakes and then feel constrained to live with those decisions.  For decades, the same leaders with the same problems were allowed to lead the Clippers organization, while making the same mistakes again and again.  Under Donald Sterling and Elgin Baylor, and Steve Ballmer with Doc Rivers, the Clippers failed to reach the highest levels of success – not because they had to be overshadowed by a more competitive team in the same city – but because they made the same mistakes again and again and again.  Perhaps the Clippers are now learning from their mistakes (having finally traded Blake Griffin), but that may simply go to show that is the first step to an organizational turnaround is admitting that one was wrong in the first place.

It is synagogues with “The Bungler” approach that have the biggest problems.  Stagnation is better than bungling (and a fear of bungling may lead many communities to err in favor of stagnation, rather than make a crippling mistake).  All congregations make mistakes – but the hallmark of a “Bungler” is that those communities either do not realize their mistakes or they are unwilling/unable to fix those mistakes and move on.  As long as these congregations refuse to acknowledge previous mistakes or changing realities, they will continue to lag, in talent, quality, finances, and membership.  Until the prior mistakes are addressed and corrected, these synagogues will not meet their full potential and will not be able to grow and thrive.

Paradigm 3: The Young Superstar (example: Philadelphia 76ers)

The first road to next-level success is the “Young Superstar” approach, demonstrated most convincingly of late by the Philadelphia 76ers.  It is hard to win big without a superstar; if the team is not a draw for free agents (due to geography or team composition), the only real way to acquire top level talent (at a reasonable price) is by drafting promising (young) prospects in the NBA Draft.  This can be done after periods of tremendous failure (the worst teams earn the highest draft picks) or by trading and otherwise deal-making in order to earn better draft positions.   Even though the 76ers went through a “Process” of losing for more than half a decade it capitalized on the opportunities that its losing record provided.  The team was in position to draft top level talent at a reasonable price, and used those opportunities to draft capable young talent.  In fact, they intentionally drafted players who they knew would not reach maturity immediately, so that the team would have a continued opportunity to build during those growth years.  This approach led to the acquisition of two superstars (Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons), who will serve as the foundation for the team’s success for years to come.

This approach can, of course, fail if the team drafts poorly.  But the primary challenge to this method lies with keeping fans and leadership in place long enough to see the fruits of their efforts. Sam Hinkie was the architect of the 76ers plan, but was fired before it could truly come to fruition because the ownership and city had grown tired of losing.

“The Young Superstar” approach has two manifestations in synagogue life.  The first, and most common, is when a new emerging community is built around a charismatic Jewish leader.  Just as Lebron James picked his teams, the Jewish institution doesn’t find its star player, the star player finds his/her community. Once that star is found, the rest falls into place.  There is not much that can be done by management in that regard, other than to recognize and support its star player (and not lose him/her, as was the case for a time in Cleveland during prime years of Lebron’s career).

The less common example are synagogues that bottom out, enabling (or forcing!) the congregation to be creative, trying new things that they never would have attempted had their “tanking” not required it.  When a synagogue is in decline – or more importantly when a synagogue recognizes its decline — people can no longer say, “but we’ve always done it that way.”  More innovation is possible because the status quo is leading to abject failure…  When what was done before has been proven not to work, new approaches are (finally) welcomed.

An example of this paradigm is B’nai Jeshurun (“BJ”) in New York City.  The synagogue was in decline in the 1970s, so they brought in a creative outsider in Rabbi Marshall Meyer who took the synagogue in a totally new direction, helping to position that community to be entirely different from everything else in an otherwise competitive Jewish community.  BJ is now one of the most successful synagogues in New York City.  If that decline hadn’t occurred, that community may not have had the audacity to do what was necessary to flourish.

The “Young Superstar” approach has two primary challenges.  The first is getting the congregation, much like the fans above, to stick with the program during the intentional or unintentional decline.  The second is that the staff and leadership who first realize that major change is needed may not survive the process – they may be forced out before their communities recognize the wisdom or necessity of the strategy.  If they are released too soon, the process may be undermined, or perhaps new management will reap the fruits of the original leadership’s strategic choices.  Therefore, more often than not, this approach only comes about when a synagogue goes into unintentional decline, removes current leadership, and has the wisdom (or luck) to recruit new leaders and allow them to bring about the congregation’s revitalization.

Paradigm 4: The Crème de la Crème (Example: LA Lakers)

The second road to success isn’t as much a road as a state of being. This is “The Crème de la Crème” approach, most often found in major metropolitan areas.  The allure of an elite team in a major market is always there.  As long as the Lakers are the Lakers and they are in Los Angeles (a “basketball city,” rife with lifestyle opportunities), they will always be a team that can lure the top free agents.  Geography alone isn’t enough to guarantee success (see the New York Knicks), but it is a major factor in ensuring a steady pipeline of top talent and a dedicated fan base (see Kawhi Leonard trying to make his way out of the small market in San Antonio).  If a team has some combination of a great city, great ownership, great management and staff, a dedicated fan base, and a great preexisting team, its success is quite likely to continue, both on the court and in the stands.

There are only a handful of these models in American synagogue life.  If that’s you, you’d know it.  You’re quite likely an established congregation in a major North American city, without budget concerns or difficulty finding qualified staff.   These communities are well-known and are the flagship institutions of their movements.  These congregations have some combination of financial resources, robust human capital, positive demographics, and excellent brand reputation.  Success feeds itself – even when staff moves on, they are able to recruit and support top talent.  The sky is the limit in these congregations…Unless.

There are two reasons why the “Crème de la Crème” approach may not work.  First, not every congregation, especially those in smaller Jewish communities, will have the same access to the demographic, financial, and staffing advantages that exist for the largest and best-resourced Jewish communities.  It is much harder for an NBA team to succeed in Memphis than it is in Boston.  Similarly, it is harder to build a “Crème de la Crème” synagogue in Little Rock than it is in Chicago.

Second, a congregation that was once “Crème de la Crème” may cease to be one.  For those communities, it is that much harder to recover; they may be more likely to see themselves through the lens of previous success, rather than acknowledge current challenges and needs for the future.  Many congregations rest on their laurels until they fizzle – due to changes in staffing or leadership, demographic changes, changing market needs, or a perception that the organization and its decision-makers are simply unwilling to think about the future as being any different from the past (again, see the New York Knicks).

Paradigm 5: The Future Is Now (Example: The Boston Celtics)

There is a final model that is instructive to most franchises and can lead to the most optimal outcomes.  This approach, which I’ll call “The Future in Now,” takes the most effort to execute, but is available to almost every team, regardless of demographics and external circumstances.  The Celtics never truly tanked; instead, they have continually improved themselves on the fly.  That franchise has made the playoffs in 10 out of the last 11 years, and won one championship (all without a Lebron James, Stephen Curry, or Kevin Durant).  It is a further testament to this strategy that the team has shown ongoing success even in the face of major changes, as there is not a single player on the team now who was with the Celtics 11 years ago.  Even with these changes, the team’s future looks brighter than its past.  I want to suggest that this success is attributable to five key strategies:

  • Always value the future over the present.

The Celtics traded aging superstars to other teams because the assets they returned made their future better.  By trading away two players who may have been the best at the time (i.e., Kevin Garnett and Paul Piece), they received draft assets that went onto serve as the foundation of the Celtics of the future.

  • Collect as many assets as possible

The more assets one possesses, the more flexibility one has, and the greatest opportunity to strike when an opportunity arises.  Were it not for the wealth of assets that the Celtics possessed, the team never would have been able to trade for Kyrie Irving, an indispensable asset.  Even though the Celtics had not known that he would become available, their consistently deep bench of tradable capital was able to make the deal happen when the opportunity arose.

  • Always do what you believe is right. Or: Never feel forced to make a choice you know you will regret

Markelle Fultz was the consensus #1 pick in last year’s draft.  With the first pick, it was assumed that the Celtics would pick him.  But Danny Ainge (Boston’s GM and President of basketball operations) still took the time to meet with both Fultz and with Jayson Tatum, another draft prospect.  After meeting both players with an open mind, Ainge realized that Tatum would be a better fit for the team.  Ainge didn’t allow the group-think about the draft to sway him from drafting the player that he truly believed to be the best player available, even though he surely knew that he’d be skewered by critics for the pick.  A year later, Fultz sits on the bench for the 76ers and Tatum is a star player for the Celtics.

  • Trust your leaders

Even good NBA leaders make bad choices.  The same man who drafted Tatum and Jaylen Brown also drafted Jay Sullinger and Fab Melo (both relative busts).  But Danny Ainge had worked hard to earn the support of the team’s owners and fans, and they stayed with him, even when he made mistakes (as we all do on occasion).  And when leaders are trusted and allowed to make mistakes, those leaders can make the right choices for the right reasons, and not just to avoid criticism or to placate stakeholders.  Those leaders will also recognize the investments made in them and are much more likely to work that much harder for, and remain with, the teams that have supported them.  And having stable and successful general managers, coaches, and fan bases makes a huge difference for a franchise’s ongoing success.

  • Get lucky sometimes

And with all this, a team still needs to get lucky sometimes.  The Nets had to win the draft last year for the Celtics to have gotten the first draft pick.  If Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving (two “older” starters) hadn’t been injured, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum (younger players) would never have had the chance to shine.  Even with good leaders and good strategy, it’s naïve to believe that luck doesn’t play an important role in success.

Most synagogues will never be the Lakers, most congregations don’t want to fail miserably in order to innovate and succeed, and most communities can’t rely on the emergence of an unforeseen superstar to come to their community, is it this fifth approach that is the only real option available to most congregations hoping for material and sustainable success.  The synagogue, much like the basketball team, stabilizes the present while concurrently building towards a brighter future

Much like the Celtics, the synagogue that wishes to optimize itself must adhere to the five principles listed above. From a synagogue perspective, they are:

  • Always value the future over the present.

There are times when a choice needs to be made.  Do we mortgage the future for current needs or do we make sacrifices today for the good of the future?  Do we designate assets to meet the needs of our current constituents or do we focus on outreach to the larger community?  Within the evangelical church world, the focus has always been on outreach with current members serving as ambassadors to the larger community, rather than focusing primarily on their own needs.  Synagogues should not solely focus on current needs without thinking about what each decision means for the institution’s future.  Even when a short term downturn occurs within this type of congregation, its leaders (at all levels) must not lose focus on how these current challenges will lead to future success.

  • Collect as many assets as possible

Talent is talent.  The first mistake that teams make is drafting for need instead of the recruiting the best available talent.  A great synagogue will collect as many assets as possible and then figure out how to best deploy them.  Whether the assets being collected are amazing staff, technological advances, or great lay leaders, the synagogue shouldn’t worry about where they fit.  Get them on board and go from there.  Talent will find a way.

  • Always do what you believe is right. Or, Never feel forced to make a choice you know you will regret

How often do synagogues fail to do what is right, simply out of fear that one or two people might disapprove?  How often does a single complaint force a congregation to alter its plan?  Has your synagogue made a staffing or budgetary choice that even before the decision was finalized, it was clear that it was not in the best long term interest of the congregation?

A great synagogue remains faithful to a mission and a vision as its drivers of action.  It works deliberately, using all of the talent that it has acquired to make smart and strategic choices.  No one person should ever force a congregation’s hand.   And at all times, the shul must be guided by its values and in the best interest of the future.

  • Trust your leaders

The stability of leadership, even when a mistake is made, or even when an inevitable downturn occurs is essential for the success of this approach.  If the staff and clergy do not know that they have the support of the congregation, they will hedge, and not take the necessary steps that they know will bring about the greatest success.  A congregation needs to make sure it is has the right leadership, but once they do, those leaders need to be trusted to do their good work and lead the congregation to its future success.

At the same time, this trust must be earned.  If leaders (clergy, staff, boards, and lay leaders) are dedicated and hard-working, they will earn the respect, trust, and loyalty of their stakeholders and colleagues.  They will be allowed to make mistakes and supported when they are challenged.

This trust must go both ways.  Just as fans need to trust their team, the team needs to trust and invest in its fan base.  There must be mutual trust and respect between the congregation and its staff in order to bring about this brighter future.

  • Get lucky sometimes

Even with all of these traits, luck will always play a role.  An amazing person moves to town because his/her partner is employed there.  A new business opens bringing new jobs and demographic growth.  A congregant grows or sells a business and is able to support the synagogue in substantial ways.  Luck favors the prepared, but no matter how diligent a congregation is, a little bit of luck will always help.

This “the Future Is Now” approach is not easy.  It is incredibly hard to build for the future, while still caring for current needs.  It is hard to convince current dues-paying members that the congregation needs to be thinking about outsiders’ needs and devoting resources to those outside the immediate community.  It is a challenge to care for the current congregation, while building for an expanded and enriched future.  When it’s a struggle to make ends meet or make a minyan, it can be that much harder to allocate time, energy, and resources to innovation and planning for the future. That is why the Celtics are the only team that has truly had success in executing this strategy.  But, for the reasons stated above, it may be the best (or only) way to go about building a consistent, sustainable, championship level synagogue community.

Many of us want to be a part of a successful, innovative, and growing congregation, but aren’t quite sure how to get there.  Maybe spending some time with the National Basketball Association will provide the answer.

About the Author
Eytan Kenter serves as the Senior Rabbi of Kehillat Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Ottawa, Ontario.