The Sulam for Imagineers – Do The Impossible!


Walt Disney was on an early morning stroll down Main Street a few months after Disneyland opened to the public in 1955 when his groundskeeper waved him over. “Walt, look at this grass!” the gardener said. “It’s been trampled by people standing on it to take pictures in front of the castle. What we need to do is replant the grass, put a fence around it, and put up a sign that says ‘Please do not stand on the grass.’”

After a brief chat, Walt made a decision. “Actually, I think the people are right. What we should do is take out the grass, pave this area, and put up a sign that says ‘For the best photos in front of the castle, stand right here.’”

Walt Disney’s success didn’t just come from being creative – it came from his steadfast commitment to listening to everyone, trying new things knowing that failure was sometimes inevitable, and empowering those with a variety of views to dream with him. Brainstorming was just a piece of a much larger process to Walt – a process that we can learn from and benefit from at our synagogues!

At the risk of ruining the magic, there is a reason why The Disney Company remains a creative powerhouse long after the passing of Walt Disney, and pixie dust has nothing to do with it. There are underlying principles that enable the greatest, most innovative companies to keep us in awe year after year.

Almost a decade ago, as I began to explore this topic, and later went down a rabbit hole so deep it resulted in my writing “The Nonprofit Imagineers,” I realized the importance of making these simple principles transparent to synagogues and nonprofits everywhere.

I was very excited when USCJ approached me with the opportunity to build The Sulam for Imagineers – a 7-month program available to synagogues of all shapes and sizes – that takes the basic principles that Disney Imagineers and creative companies around the world use every day, and puts them into action to reignite the innovative spirit within all of us.

The Sulam for Imagineers is more than a curriculum – it’s a creativity mandate. Those synagogues who join our first cohort in November (yes – that should include you!) will not simply be given tools and training to come up with clever membership pitches and High Holy Day programming. They will be required to dig deep and identify the roots of the problems plaguing our congregations. They will be required to identify, listen to, and learn from community members on the fringes – the ones who aren’t board members, Shabbat morning regulars, or who might not be synagogue members at all. They will be required to experiment in ways that will be uncomfortable for some, but will ultimately show what new possibilities exist when we aren’t limited by a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

Participants in The Sulam for Imagineers will not study programs that other synagogues have been experimenting with for the past decade. Our goal is not to learn from other synagogues – it’s to be energized by the most unexpected and unusual sources in an effort to bring truly fresh ideas into the mix.

Above all, The Sulam for Imagineers will be an opportunity for ideas to mingle. The problems surfaced by each participating congregation, and the creative solutions they divine, will be shared globally with every USCJ synagogue. If something piques your interest, we hope that you will help us beta test it and provide feedback to help our cohort of synagogues identify successful options much faster. Information won’t be flowing in just one direction – it will be flowing in every direction!

You might chuckle at this statement, but I truly believe that The Sulam for Imagineers has the potential to turn the USCJ family of synagogues into the most innovative force within the nonprofit world – not because of the 12 projects we will work on with this cohort, but because of the shift in philosophy that this program will bring to our staff and board members.  With each attempt – whether in failure or success – we open doors to new possibilities and understand more and more the power of keeping creativity and innovation on the front burner.  

But that can only happen with your support and participation!  Take a few minutes to learn more about The Sulam for Imagineers and to forward this information to your clergy, board president, or other synagogue members interested in seeing what we can come up with when we work together to do what’s never been done.

If you aren’t ready to jump in, I hope you’ll dip your toe and test the imagineering waters by forming a book group this summer.  We’ve created a Board Study Guide to help you get the most out of The Nonprofit Imagineers. Then, join us for our Big Read Conference on November 6 where we will hear from some congregations who are already utilizing some of the imagineering strategies.  Click here (and scroll to the bottom of the page) for details to buy discounted copies of the book, download the Board Study Guide, and register for the Big Read Conference.

Join us as we embrace the challenge and promise that comes with being dreamers!  As Walt Disney said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Ben Vorspan is the former Director of Marketing and Communications at Temple Aliyah (now HaMakom), author of The Nonprofit Imagineers, and is creating and running The Sulam for Imagineers, which will kick off November 2024.  

Sulam for Imagineers (SFI) will be co-led by Linda Sussman, METNY Synagogue Consultant.

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