Open Source Synagogue Management
I never really had an opportunity to contribute to some of the other open source projects of a Jewish nature. I maintain a very full programming and project schedule already, between paid work and non-profit work.
I’ve developed Android and iOS versions of my app, “The Kosher Backpacker Appalachian Trail Guide,” which is not open source, but I distribute for free. I keep it closed source mostly because it’s a Xamarin project (the Microsoft stack designed for a single set of code behind Apple and Android apps). I’m currently moving them both to platform native in time for the 2020 hiking season; it’s actually easier to maintain that way, with fewer distribution hoops to jump through, and they will stay closed after that.
At the height of the open source craze, before the dreams coalesced into what was reasonable given the need for a profit motive behind many projects, Judaism seemed like a good fit for it. Not just in terms of technology, but as embedded in our relationship to Torah itself. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, in his work, Ahavat Chesed, talks about community lending and sharing, and this neatly enjoins us to give due consideration to the open source movement.
Especially now, with the new daf yomi cycle having started, we understand the concept of packaging our work, redistributing it so that it can be built upon, and attributing the credit to its original source.
For years, synagogue management software has been an expensive wasteland. The products are often good, but dated. ShulCloud is the best of them, and I’ve been at two shuls now that have implemented it and are generally happy with it.
The price point, however, is often still too much for small town shuls, who do need some automation and integration of membership data. Particularly shuls that are a presence in retreat in their communities, it’s very helpful for fundraising and other efforts.
What does synagogue software need?
I’ve come up with a list of features based off of what Chaverware and ShulCloud offer:
- Billing systems
- Seating modules for high holidays
- Cemetery modules
- Gabbai cards / aliyah modules
- Shalach Manot Scheduling
- Email campaigns
- Accept credit cards online
- Member database
- Yahrzeit module
- Relationship modules
For me, this is where being a programmer, a manager, a long-time member of synagogue(s) leadership, and now as a shul president has really come in handy. Having a holistic understanding of what data we manage and the level of interaction a congregant must have with it is extremely helpful.
Another of my gripes is that such software often ends up coming with a high degree of technical debt. Adding new features is cumbersome, hard to test, and more, they generally end up adding to the cost of a product in order to justify the time spent.
I had been using some open source member management software for 501(c)(3) work I do. Many of them were feeling stifled by the API limitations of Member Clicks and other commercially available products, or they just didn’t have the budget for custom development against popular stacks.
Though now abandoned by its original developer, I picked up Zenbership and started bringing it current for a number of these nonprofits. And it just made sense to me, as well-architected as it is, to use it as the basis for synagogue membership.
I had a number of false starts prior to looking at Zenbership. I tried building something in ColdFusion and grafting it into Mura, a CMS for that platform. I decided it was too expensive to license CF from Adobe, and for larger shuls, it was a non-starter in terms of scalability with providers like Hostek.
I tried with the .NET stack, particularly .NET Core Web API 2 and SQL Sever, using angular for front end development, but the Hebrew calendar support was a good deal of work to code around.
Also, finding developers interested in contributing to the project is harder with those two stacks. My goal was to present something useable by the maximum number of communities.
So I indeed settled on PHP / MySQL on Apache or NGINX. And thus far, it’s been a good fit. I’ve found others competent and interested in using it, and because I’m still deploying it as Zenbership for non-profits, I benefit from developer contributions to that project that I can roll into it.
Original name, no?
Yeah, not really. Since we’re completely forking this version and building synagogue specific features into it, it’s great. Thus far, I’ve deployed it for a couple of institutions, and they’re happy with it.
It’s not intended to be profitable. This is truly a labor of love. I’m building it because I want to use it!
I watch too many synagogue boards wrestle with return on investment strategies when it comes to software purchase.
Things to remember, if you are in synagogue leadership:
- You may not have the budget for expensive software or hefty recurring subscription fees.
- You may not have the level of internal support and know-how that it takes to sustain any software.
- Products like ShulCloud or Chaverware have a very steep learning curve, and your secretarial staff and clergy may not find it easy to use. ShulNET has a steep learning curve, too, but it’s more intuitive, our users have found, than other products.
- Now more than ever, bad actors are trying to infiltrate our digital systems as much or more than our physical institutions. They like to deface websites, conduct denial of service attacks, and worst of all, compromise member personal security by exploiting our systems and stealing data. If your system doesn’t offer encrypted storage and robust security, it’s a liability for you and your shul.
The movements can help by trying harder to cultivate consultants and assets for smaller affiliated congregations with tighter budgets. The USCJ, for instance, has tried, and offers web hosting, but it’s very early 2000s. But we should be hosting conferences on everything, from how to manage member data, to best accounting practices.
Jewish Open Source Needs More, COVID-19 Says So
Sefaria is about the best thing out there right now for serious online Jewish learners.
There’s the Open Siddur Project, “an open-source community project for folk sharing prayers and crafting their own prayerbooks.”
A project I consume extensively for the Zmanim features in The Kosher Backpacker apps is Hebcal.
Leah and I have started discussing an open source, publish-on-demand religious school curriculum—with apps and software—for grades K-12.
Divorced from a profit motive, these things could be amazing resources for small synagogues and upstart communities. And yet, if they don’t know about them, they won’t use them. And we have a tendency, in our world, to drift towards and better trust overpriced options, because if it costs money, it must have better value. Nevermind the considerable amount of community input and sweat equity in these projects, that $199 a month price tag must impart quality!
I have, as you might see from my blogs and the plurality of my endeavors, an excess of energy and a terrific amount of follow-through. But what if I burn out? The invitation of open source to enjoy the voluntary contributions of more than just one programmer can keep things alive.
The fact that institutions are starting to look at ShulNET gives me hope that if we produce high-quality open source options, which is the case now that the movement has matured, we can vastly improve the resources—and member contribution to them.
I really would like to acknowledge one person who was an early proponent of Open Source Judaism, and that’s Daniel “Mobius” Sieradski. He’s had such a digital footprint over the years from his JewSchool days to his Jewish Worker effort today, that it’s tough to find a bigger, and yet often uncredited digital influencer. He’s motivated me to try new things since he was organizing Yom Kippur services in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street. I’ve always told myself that billable work has to come first, like the good late stage capitalist that I am, but he’s proven to me that you can build good things with no profit-motive and still make a living.
Information about ShulNET is available here. Its GitHub repo is here. My documentation project for ShulNET is here.