Meet Emanuel Congregation’s Legacy Renewal Team
Earlier this year, Emanuel Congregation created the Legacy Renewal Team to build a sustainable future for the community and to stabilize the synagogue’s finances. Three members of the Emanuel community—Jonathan Ledsky, Rob Moss, and Glen Spear—have stepped up to lead the team of 30+ congregation members to reimagine Emanuel for the 21st century.
“The Legacy Renewal format was Glen’s brainchild,” says Jonathan, “and we convinced [President] David [Rakofsky], at the start of his presidency, to push hard to tackle in a comprehensive and transparent way Emanuel’s finances. Without fundamental changes, Emanuel is on a course for closure.”
Jonathan has been working on Emanuel’s finances since 2009 and has been a member for almost 20 years. In 2020, he recruited Glen to work together to take a close look at the synagogue’s finances, and then they added Rob to the team to look at the congregation’s restricted funds and how to best use them going forward.
“Emanuel’s work is vital. It offers a unique temple experience. It’s a privilege to be included in this renewal effort,” says Glen, who has been a member of Emanuel Congregation for nearly 20 years.
Currently, all three of them are working closely with David Rakofsky and Executive Director Sarabeth Salzman on the Legacy Renewal effort.
“What makes our timing vital to me is almost as important as who has stepped forward in making the enormous effort a reality, and therefore, paving the road to our future Emanuel, too. Rob, Jon and Glen were not only the ones to raise their concerns to our board in time to make these needed adjustments, but they have also been the true architects of the means through which we will emerge stronger,” says David. “They conceived of the essential areas that required small, focused work groups to make headway on specific parts of a greater plan. These work groups have all worked well and have demonstrated the great untapped pool of skilled and talented Emanuelites who have selflessly given of their time.”
Part of the challenge is balancing Emanuel’s legacy with its future.
“The Legacy Renewal Team is trying to ensure that Emanuel has a sustainable financial model going forward so that the Emanuel community can thrive and so that Emanuel continues to be a proper steward of its proud history,” says Rob, who has been a member of Emanuel since he was born.
“I strongly believe that the focus of Emanuel must change,” says Jonathan. “Reform Jews no longer seek religious services. We seek Judaism and Jewish culture, and we seek connection, but we want to live the culture and build those connections outside of religious services. The challenge is to create activities to replace religious services that generate excitement and participation.”
Among the new initiatives already underway are making the synagogue fully accessible to interfaith families, offering a religious school experience that feels more like Jewish summer camp and less like their school day, and starting an extension campus for the religious school in Wicker Park, where Jewish families have few options for Hebrew school.
“The truth is—and we've been seeing this without successful counter-reactions to it for many years—American Jewry changes, as it always has, and in order to keep people interested in how we ‘do temple,’ we of course have to come up with an ever-improving experience of communal Judaism,” says David. “I strongly believe that the imaginative leap forward in our ECRS will bring needed excitement to our current families and will be attractive to those who just haven't found us yet.”
The team has also found ways to cut costs and to increase revenue streams, such as sharing space with other religious communities, getting government-backed aid, and securing new donor pledges.
But there’s a lot of work ahead. The team is looking at big-picture questions that will determine the trajectory of Emanuel going forward.
“With the answers to these questions, we will need to construct a reasonable and rational budget that sustains these initiatives,” says Jonathan. “We need to re-think costs and align costs with expected revenue. We want to create an Emanuel that will prosper in the future—both in updated activities and initiatives and with a financial structure that is sound.”
The team is looking for more Emanuelites to join the Legacy Renewal Team.
“I encourage Emanuelites to contact Sarabeth Salzman to explore opportunities to join the Legacy Renewal Team,” says Glen. “You can have an immediate impact on our work and, with our collective effort, we will create a new Emanuel that offers a meaningful experience for all of us in the years ahead.”