The Berlin Challenge: Synagogue Leadership as the Path to Jewish Growth
by Larry Kaufman
I believe that developing one’s Jewish heart, mind and soul through learning, practice, prayer and posture are vital elements in the mix [of synagogue leadership].
— Rabbi Donald R. Berlin
In a pair of recent posts in this forum, here and here, I discussed the reasonable expectations of what a synagogue leader might expect in return for his or her service on a congregation’s board, having framed my list in response to the often-addressed question of what the obligations of the board member are to the congregation.
Rabbi Donald Berlin, rabbi emeritus of Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, brought a new dimension to the discussion, in effect positing a third set of expectations beyond what the congregation should expect from the board member and what the board member should expect from the congregation – what the board member should expect of and for himself or herself.
While recognizing the validity of Rabbi Berlin’s concern that temple board members should be growing in yiddishkeit (meant here as a one-word shortcut encompassing the midot, the qualities, outlined in the quote above), I suggest that such growth should come not because they are board members, but because they are Jews. But I would agree that service on the board might provide an impetus to getting started.
I think, for example, of my friend Harry B., z”l, active onthe temple’s house committee, cemetery committee, budget committee,chief usher and regular worshipper, and climbing the officer ladder,who was told by the rabbi that his impending presidency of thecongregation bore with it the obligation to be enrolled in the adulteducation program. Harry somewhat grudgingly signed up for the rabbi’sJob class, and continued studying Torah not only throughout hispresidency but for the rest of his life. As that rabbi taught usrepeatedly, im lo lishma, ba lishma, the sacred enters that which may have started for mundane purposes.
I think, too, about my wife, Barbara, student and teacher of the Shoah,the Holocaust, who took a hiatus from community activities during theyears she was a single working mother, but who accepted a board seat inthe local Jewish education agency when her circumstances changed. Shereturned from a contentious meeting one night, glared at me, and said,”I can’t believe that you enjoy this (stuff)!”
Yes, I have received a lot of satisfaction, not to say enjoyment,along with a lot of frustration, from my temple activities, but I canclaim neither that my temple offices propelled me into more study andprayer, nor that my habit of study and prayer propelled me intocongregational activism. Call it z’chut avot, the merit of myancestors, if you will, but I believe I was genetically programmed forboth realms, and that the two realms have enriched one another inenriching my life. The relationship between the two is nowhereexplored so well as in Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s wonderful essay, “TheTent-Peg Business.”
When I recently changed my congregational affiliation, I decidedthat I had earned the right to limit my involvement in my newcongregation to what Rabbi Kushner calls the primary Jewish acts, Torah, avodah, gemilut hasadim,and to opt out of the secondary acts which enable them. I told my newrabbis and lay leadership that I would study, teach, worship, and beavailable to consult on matters where my experience might be useful,but would not serve on boards or committees. My terms having beenaccepted, I have recently been leading a class on Pirke Avot, the beloved ethical addendum to the otherwise legalistic Mishnah. From this quintessential leadership manual, I extract the mishnayot, the precepts that I particularly find valuable and that I would commend to all who would grow as Jews and Jewish leaders:
- Be not as servants who serve the master on condition ofreceiving a reward; be rather as servants who serve the master withoutcondition of receiving a reward. (1:3)
- Do not separate yourself from the community. (2:5)
- If you have learned much Torah, do not flatter yourself, because for this you were created. (2:9)
- You are not obliged to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it. (2:21)
- When two people sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests between them. (3:3)
- Without flour (i.e., material substance), there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no substance. (3:21)
- Who is wise? One who learns from every person. As it issaid: From all I have studied with have I gained wisdom. (4:1)
- Any controversy for the sake of Heaven will in the end bepreserved; and those not for the sake of Heaven will not in the end bepreserved. (5:20)
- Turn it and turn it, for all is in it. Reflect on it; grow oldand gray with it; and do not leave it, for you will have no betterguide than it. (5:25)
(Translations taken or adapted from Pirke Avot – Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life, William Berkson, Jewish Publication Society 2010)
Larry Kaufman has served on more than a dozen Jewish and secularboards, including that of the Union for Reform Judaism, hasprofessionally counseled a dozen more, and has facilitated planningworkshops for boards of Reform congregations from coast to coast .
Spotlight on Leadership and Transitions- This month the URJ is highlighting resources to help congregations with governance, leadership development and transitions. Learn more on the URJ website.