Lois KoteenOrganizational Systems Student
"I grew up in a synagogue," says Lois Koteen. "I was a goody-two-shoes and every week I went with my dad to services and went to Jewish summer camp."
Like many people, by her early 20s she was ready to rebel. She left and didn't look back. "I didn't walk into a synagogue again until my daughter was born."
But having a child got her thinking about her childhood, and her beliefs, and the way she wanted her own daughter to grow up. She couldn't go back to the religion, or the faith, of her youth … but perhaps there was something in that spiritual life that she wanted to invite into her life?
"I needed to reevaluate again – rethink how I felt about religion," she says. "I went to a seminar where the rabbi was talking about communicating with your children, and he said ‘you can drop your children off at religious school and then go shopping or whatever – but the message they're going to get is that it really doesn't matter.' At that point I decided that it did matter, and so I started going to services every week and participating in the community as an active member."
Along with her return to religion came a renewed love of scholarship. She was working in television program promotion, and while she loved television as an industry it wasn't satisfying her intellectual needs. So she went back to school, getting her masters degree in Organizational Systems from the University of Hartford.
Those seemingly unrelated events came together suddenly when she ran into someone who had been working with the Greater Hartford Jewish Federation. The Federation had been trying to find ways to help synagogues adjust to the modern world – where people like Lois had been leaving in droves and not coming back. They were looking for facilitators to help this process, and when they realized Lois now had credentials they told her "You're perfect!"
"This was a total career change for me. I'd spent all of my life in television promotion and advertising," she remembers. "It had been a wonderful business to be in, but when I started they were doing wonderful documentaries, were interested in having an impact on the local level … now they're interested in money." So she took the job.
Since that time she's helped nine synagogues transition from the past to the future – working to hold on to their core values while appealing to people who are increasingly treating spirituality as if it were a trip to the mall.
"People are looking for a spiritual experience, one that touches their heart – they feel a need for spiritual fulfillment, and so there's a need for synagogues and churches, which can provide that better than any other place" she says. "But what that means is very different today than it was 50 years ago. When I grew up, people joined synagogues and churches because that's what you did. It was the norm. No longer: now people want to worship in a way that feels good to them, and if the house of worship they attend isn't in touch with that need they'll find another one, or not go at all."
The key to success, she's found, is connection: if a house of worship can connect its congregants to each other in ways they find meaningful, then they in turn will feel authentically connected to their house of worship.
Unfortunately too many synagogues try to chase people of meaningful participation, instead of welcoming them in.
"The professional staffs get together and make all the decisions and decide what the congregants want without talking to them, without asking them, without initiating any sort of conversation." The result is that many families stay active until their children reach 13, have their bar or bat mitzvah, and then drop out. Why would they stay, after all, in an institution where they are little more than dues paying spectators?
She used her expertise – both as a layperson and as a scholar – to help them turn that around, changing everything from their governing structure to their social functions, and it's been working. A new institutional emphasis on life-long learning and meaningful community outside the synagogue's walls has kept established parishioners and attracted new ones. She loves her new calling, and she decided to take it to the next level by getting a PhD. This time, she chose Saybrook.
"I really liked Saybrook's humanistic approach to all of the disciplines – organizational systems as well as psychology," she says. "I felt that I fit in with Saybrook, so I enrolled, and I thank my lucky stars every day of my life that I made that decision. Faculty have been mentors: they have pushed me to places I never thought I could go. The one-on-one opportunities that Saybrook offers are wonderful – the chance to get together with the whole group is very helpful. I have recommended Saybrook to a dozen people."
Her thesis focused on her work, and enabled her to understand the trends that mattered to her at even deeper levels. Now she's preparing to take her work to the national stage, consulting for synagogues across the country.