Theory of Change

What is a Theory of Change and Why Do We Need One?

A “theory of change” is a model of — or a hypothesis about — the factors that will lead to a desired outcome. In the case of the BMR, our desired outcomes, as stated on our website, are to:

  • Create models of preparation for b’nai mitzvah that are more engaging, meaningful, and relevant for both young people and their families.
  • Introduce meaningful b’nai mitzvah rituals, rituals that tie b’nai mitzvah and their families more closely to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.
  • Experiment with and implement more effective methods for teaching Hebrew and prayer.

These outcomes are deliberately broad and general. We expect that every synagogue in this project will come up with its own definition of the terms “meaningful,” “engaging,” “more closely,” and even “the Jewish tradition” and “the Jewish community.” And we expect that every synagogue will find different ways to reach its goals. That is what makes this project interesting and exciting.

The purpose of this document is to explain what we think it takes to achieve these outcomes.

The Pinwheel Metaphor

A metaphor we’ve found helpful is that of a pinwheel.  Imagine a pinwheel with three “blades,” with each blade representing a phase of the change process. These three blades are:

  • Visioning and Planning
  • Experimentation
  • Reflection

After making a full revolution, the blades are back in their original position, and visioning and planning start again.

Continuing the analogy, there are four factors that affect how quickly the pinwheel turns: the angle at which the air hits the blades, the force with which the air comes out, the adjustment of angle and the force to make the blades spin more quickly and smoothly. In our Theory of Change, the four factors are:

  • The Impetus for Change
  • Exploring Innovations
  • Community Engagement
  • Documentation

Three Blades of the Pinwheel

Visioning and Planning

Visioning is the process of articulating a desired future. Note that visioning is not the same as a  “vision statement,” which is only a way-station in this process.

  • Visioning is a process that helps key stakeholders articulate their values.
  • The values that underlie preparation and celebration of the bar/bat mitzvah are often in tension with one another. For example, the value of a traditional ritual and liturgy can conflict with the needs and desires of the individual child. Similarly, the value of being part of the synagogue community can conflict with the value of a ceremony that emphasizes the role of the family in raising a child. Some of these tensions can be resolved; others defy resolution, but can be managed.
  • Which comes first: visioning or planning experiments? In the change literature there is a machloket (a debate like the debates in the Talmud) about whether visioning or planning should come first. Our position is that you can start anywhere, as long as you continually go back and forth to see if the initiatives you plan are aligned with the vision, and if the planning changes your vision. Our pinwheel graphic tries to capture this visually by placing visioning and planning on the same blade.


  • Experiments are concrete manifestations of the vision, the way in which most congregants will come to understand and share the vision, as it unfolds.
  • We have made a point of calling the initiatives that come out of the BMR experiments because they are trial balloons — attempts at enacting the vision you hope to achieve. Thinking of them as experiments fuels creativity and tamps down anxiety. Very few experiments succeed fully on the first round; expect to revise and refine these trials a number of times before they fully succeed in achieving their goals.
  • Sometimes experiments are beyond repair and one must start over from scratch. This shouldn’t be seen as a failure, but, rather, as an opportunity for reflection and learning, as one goes on to version 2.0.
  • Early experiments are best thought of as “low hanging fruit,” easily achieved changes that whet people’s appetite for more ambitious ones. In planning these short-term
    • Will these experiments get you closer to the ideals expressed in your evolving vision? If not, what needs to change — the experiments or the vision? (See the source sheet for this debate.)
    • Should your early experiments include a select group of b’nai mitzvah students or the entire cohort? If the former, what is the best way to recruit participants? Is there a group of potential participants who are key to their social networks, who can be asked to recruit their friends to participate?
    • How many programs should you try to introduce at the same time?
    • What kinds of experiments best suit the size and culture of your congregation?
    • How feasible are your plans; do you have the appropriate resources, such as staff, space, time and money? How will you recruit and or train the staff or volunteers? How will you find the funds?


Reflection is critical to understanding how well your experiment is working, and why.  Because synagogues are usually short on staff, and because the next Jewish holiday is always on the horizon, it is challenging for synagogue leaders to set aside time for reflection. But, reflection is what makes the difference between a thoughtful, informed approach to programming, and one that simply runs on “automatic pilot.” Reflection naturally takes one back to the top of the pinwheel, to re-visioning and planning.

Leaders can stimulate reflection by asking themselves, and their congregants, some of the following questions:

  • What’s important about what we’re doing?
  • How is this work connected to, or drifting from, our vision?
  • What have you learned so far that surprised you?
  • What excites you as we move forward?
  • What values show up frequently in our discussions?  What seems missing?

Factors that Make the Pinwheel Turn Smoothly

Four factors turn the pinwheel: the angle at which the air hits the blades, the force with which the air comes out, the adjustment of angle and the force to make the blades spin more quickly and smoothly. Following this analogy, we have identified 4 factors that keep the BMR pinwheel running smoothly and efficiently:

  • The Impetus for Change
  • Exploring Innovations
  • Community Engagement
  • Documentation

The Impetus for Change

No congregation would devote time and energy to thinking and changing bar/bat mitzvah if everyone in the community felt satisfied with the status quo. Project participants started thinking about the issues surrounding b’nai mitzvah long before BMR came along. This project brings these concerns “out of the closet” and creates an opportunity for congregational leaders to discuss openly and honestly both their dissatisfactions and their dreams. Of course, different members of your team may have come to this project for different reasons; it is essential that these differences be identified and addressed during the visioning phase.

Exploring Innovations

In order to spark imagination and inspire ideas, visit this gallery of b’nai mitzvah innovations profiling cutting edge approaches to b’nai mitzvah in six different areas:

  • Family Engagement
  • Becoming an Adolescent
  • Mentoring
  • Innovative Ritual
  • Repairing the World

By exploring examples of launched innovations, leaders will expand their understanding of what is and what might be possible.

Community Engagement

Bar/bat mitzvah is critically important to most congregants and they are likely to feel strongly about it. Some may recall their own bar/bat mitzvah, either fondly or not so fondly; others may harbor regrets that they did not participate in this ceremony. Congregants whose children (or grandchildren) will be celebrating their b’nai mitzvah in the future often have strong feelings about what the service should look like. Click here to read more about the history of how bar mitzvah became a central point of congregational life.

To prepare the congregation for the changes that lie ahead, everyone — from new members with young children to board members who will be asked to budget funds for new efforts — should be aware that the synagogue is participating in the BMR.

Community engagement involves much more than an article in the synagogue bulletin or announcement from the bimah. It is multi-directional, with different constituencies in communication with one another. This takes a great deal of time and effort, both of which are in short supply in synagogue life. But research in the field of congregational change suggests that this kind of multi-directional communication is key. Failure to communicate the importance, urgency and value of new initiatives is the primary reason for their failure. To return to our analogy, a pinwheel may get started with an initial nudge (the impetus for change), but it will not pick up momentum without a steady stream of air.

An important first step in community engagement is the creation of the planning committee or task force. Click here to learn why a task force is important and some tips for the creation of a task force.

A typical mistake synagogues make is waiting until a program has been fully planned to inform potential participants. People need to be informed and included much earlier:

  • in visioning:
    • Using the visioning exercises with multiple constituencies, including the board, the social action committee, religious school parents and others who have a stake in b’nai mitzvah preparation and observance.
  • in the planning of experiments:
    • Holding open meetings to brainstorm ideas.
    • Inviting feedback in a bulletin article or survey.
  • as the experiments are underway:
    • Inviting key stakeholders to observe programs, so that they can become informed supporters.
  • during the period of reflection.  This involves:
    • “Claiming success” for the smaller experiments while increasing their depth and scope.
    • Explaining to everyone (yourselves, the staff, the participants, and the congregation at large) that the early experiments are just a first step in achieving a larger change.


The BMR is committed to documentation, the systematic recording, organizing, analyzing, and sharing of information about the synagogue and its members.

To return to our metaphor: The pinwheel operates most smoothly when a steady stream of air hits each blade at the right point. One could turn a pinwheel with simple trial and error. But, with planning and consideration of the relevant factors (wind force, angle of the pinwheel) one can figure out how hard and where to blow for the greatest success. So too with the BMR. Introducing changes to a custom as entrenched as a bar/bat mitzvah requires more thought and more skill, which are best gained by documentation. For example:

  • During the phase of visioning and planning, you can go beyond guessing to learn the values and expectations of b’nai mitzvah students and their parents, and the extent to which they are open to something new.
  • During experimentation you can get timely, evidence-based feedback, and adjust your program accordingly.
  • During reflection the evidence you have collected can serve as the basis for a wide-ranging conversation about next steps.

Documentation allows us to go beyond instincts and guessing, to understand more fully who our congregants are, what they expect, and how they experienced a particular program. It gives us evidence that can be shared with members of the task force, with congregants, and with the Jewish community at large. Documentation is a critical tool for staff development; sharing successes; attracting funders; and publicizing one’s work.

To learn more about the BMR’s approach to Documentation, and see examples, visit the Documentation Toolkit.

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