Central Synagogue (in New York City) and Temple Emanu-el (in Dallas) are similar in many ways. Both are large Reform synagogues founded in the mid-nineteenth century that now serve over 2,000 member families. Like other large religious institutions, both congregations have seen the need and opportunity in developing small, personal micro-communities in which members meet regularly to build relationships, learn and study, and reflect on their lives together.
In recent years, both congregations have launched initiatives in response. As Emanu-El's website describes it: "Imagine hundreds of Temple members gathering regularly in small groups to learn and laugh, to rest and rejuvenate, and to deepen connections to one another, to Temple, to the Jewish people, and to the rhythms of Jewish time and life."
As they strategized how to make this vision real, the leadership of both synagogues realized they needed a way to train members as conversation leaders, and a curriculum for the small groups to use.
What We Did
Ask Big Questions developed a package of 16 conversations guides, designed to be used over a two-year period. Clergy from both synagogues reviewed the guides and contributed texts to pair with our interpretive objects. Ask Big Questions staff traveled to both congregations to train conversation leaders in a half-day workshop, with a follow-up visit in the second year. We held mid-year and end-of-year evaluation conference calls with leadership in both communities to hear feedback and improve design.
Groups using the Ask Big Questions conversations have been tremendously successful. "The structure is a flexible one," reported one group leader, "and that has enabled us to respond to our group and allow things to grow organically, but also to stay focused and make progress."
At Central, conversation groups have grown up in various interest areas, and conversation leaders have combined Ask Big Questions training and resources with ideas and materials from other programs.
At Emanu-El, interest has burgeoned to the point that there are now over 45 small groups meeting monthly. "It is transforming our community," says senior Rabbi David Stern.
Building on the success at Emanu-El and Central, the Union for Reform Judaism is exploring a partnership with Ask Big Questions to develop training and conversation resources for use in synagogues throughout its network.