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Smart Tech Is Not The Solution

In last week’s Union for Reform Judaism newsletter, an article called Reviving Synagogue Communities Using Smart Tech asserted that the addition of ‘Smart Tech’ in nonprofit settings could improve efficiency and decrease burnout among staff and executives in a nonprofit setting. Approaching synagogue work in the same way that one might approach work in other nonprofit arenas is an outdated methodology that stands at odds with the craft of synagogue management today. Those on the ground working in synagogues approach their work with the knowledge that synagogues operate entirely differently than other nonprofit organizations. While the piece offers insight into real challenges that synagogues face today, like staff and clergy burnout, and managing high-volume email, the solutions offered imply a serious lack of understanding as to what is actually happening in synagogue offices and the role that those offices, and the staff within them, serve for our congregants.

The two specific examples of what ‘Smart Tech’ might look like in synagogues were a smart fundraising tool that could scan a synagogue database to identify potential donors, and a chatbot that could answer member questions and provide information. One of the most pressing issues facing synagogues today is a lack of appropriate software, with only one major tool on the market that has very limited compatibility with other programs such as development software. A segment of our congregations are still operating on membership technology that exists outside of the cloud and hasn’t been updated since the 90’s. Integrating scanning software to improve fundraising efforts would be nearly unthinkable for the vast majority of our communities. Particularly synagogues with staff of one or two do not have the resources to invest in more updated software, or, more importantly, training for staff on how to use an updated but unusually cumbersome software program. These challenges combined with high staff turnover result in lack of systemic technology, or systems implementation based on the needs of the moment rather than the needs of the congregation. It is not possible to effectively incorporate smart technology into an arena where regular technology is completely lacking. This is an area of tremendous need for congregations, and many synagogues are eager for resources around this ongoing challenge.

The suggestion of a bot or other AI powered software to answer member questions and provide information is not in alignment with the hospitable, welcoming, and inclusive environment most synagogue communities espouse. The people who work at the front desk of synagogues provide an essential element of congregant care.. They answer not only the “what time are services” questions that the authors may have been imagining when they penned this piece, but these staff members are also the first responders to the emotional distress of the people they serve. It is holy work to pick up the phone and be the first person to find out that a member’s parent has died. Quite possibly, the conversation will stick with that member for the rest of their life. Smart tech cannot do what our shul staffers can, because smart tech is not designed to bear witness to the grief, worry, anger, and distress that may be found on the other end of the phone or inbox. Our “front-liners” are our greatest asset in building community and strengthening relationships. Their conversation with the agonizing first-time preschool parent, be it two minutes or forty five, isn’t an inefficiency. It’s an investment.

We must put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer when considering implementing new efficiency tools. When was the last time you spoke to a chat bot and weren’t repeating, “Talk to a human” into the phone? Each of us knows what it feels like to be stuck in a help desk loop, to wish it wasn’t so difficult to just speak to a person that can help us. If we feel this way when we’re simply trying to return an item, how would our members who are trying to plan a funeral feel when their call is answered by a bot? Even the most mundane, easily answered questions offer an opportunity for a moment of connection, a casual check-in, a wish of a sweet new year. These moments are to be approached as relational opportunities, not outsourced. Our congregants need our humanity, not our human-centered technology. This is especially true for those who are older or not as comfortable with computers and smart devices.

To attribute staff, clergy and lay-leader burnout to the never-ending emails and phone calls is a missed opportunity for all of us to have a frank conversation about the real issues facing synagogues today. At Real Time Strategy Group, we work with synagogue staffers directly to increase efficiency, elevate morale, and connect work tasks to the greater purpose of serving the needs of the congregation. We do this by strengthening communication skills among staff and lay-leadership, and identifying areas of opportunity for relationship-based approach.

In the piece, the authors offer the perspective that clergy, staff and volunteers are burning out at alarming rates due to an “always-on” email culture. While there are elements of truth to this opinion, we encourage readers to think more broadly about what is truly happening in synagogue offices. In a community of synagogue staffers led by Real Time Strategy, the conversations about the realities of synagogue work are had with depth, reflection, and distinction. For example, one synagogue executive shared the challenge of their office hours being in opposition to the hours of their lay leadership, leading to more off-the-clock work and less time with their family. Shul staffers of color have shared their experiences with encountering racism in their synagogues office jobs. A recent conversation about the regularity of administrative staff being brought to tears by clergy and senior staff speaking unprofessionally resonated deeply with synagogue administrators across the country. While it is easier to attribute burnout to email culture, our shul staffers deserve so much more nuance than that. Offering smart tech as a solution is an unfortunate disconnect to both the purpose and vision of synagogues and the reality of the challenges of synagogue administration. Our shul staffers are highly skilled, innovative professionals who lift one another up in challenging moments, share in celebration of our communal success, and most of all, put the needs of the congregation at the forefront, always. They need and deserve so much more than a chat bot, and so do the congregants who are invested in Jewish community personally and financially.

While smart tech and automation certainly has a place in our lives (my entire life is kept organized by Alexa, smart lights, and automated task flow!) our synagogues are places of humanity that cater to our spiritual souls. At Real Time Strategy, we often ask staff members “What problem are you trying to solve?” This question requires each of us to step back and see the entirety of a problem before offering a solution that may eliminate a symptom of a problem but leaves the actual issue unaddressed. I encourage us all to ask this question, and interrogate whether smart tech is truly the solution.


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