Responding to Noah Nesin on Jewish Leadership
by Larry Kaufman
In reading Noah Nesin’s recent post on his Jewish leadership journey (not linked because reprinted below in italics), I kept wanting to interrupt and say, “That’s so right,” or “You’re right, but…” or, “No, I have a different perspective.” My reaction was probably heightened by my own journey being so parallel to his – up the congregational ladder to the presidency, transitioning into the Reform Movement’s leadership structure both regionally and nationally, and also traveling the country facilitating temple board workshops.
But when two people always agree, the saying goes, one of them is superfluous – so I decided to continue the dialogue through the blogosphere’s “fisking” technique of line by line commentary. Here goes:
So I’ve been asked to blog about my “Jewish leadership journey”. I suppose I should start with a disclaimer: I have viscerally negative reaction to the term “Jewish leadership journey”. I’m sure it’s my issue, but it seems too contrived and too isolated, as if everything else that occurs in one’s life does not dramatically impact all aspects of that life. Having said that this is a blog, with a premium on brevity, so let’s get on with it.
Noah is right – our Jewish journey in many ways drives our leadership journey – and to more than a little extent, both drive and are driven by everything else we do.
In facilitating temple board workshops, I always ask the participants to introduce themselves, telling me (and their colleagues) what their temple job is, what their day job is, what they bring from their day job to the temple, and what they bring from the temple to their day job. My asking the question is often the first time some board members have thought about the connectedness.
I have followed the traditional route of leader in my owncongregation, serving in several volunteer and board positions and thenas president. I became a member of the now defunct Northeast Council,of the URJ board, and then president of the still now defunct NortheastCouncil. I have also been a board workshop facilitator for a number ofyears and have visited congregations across North America; urban,suburban, rural, large, medium and small. What have I learned?
- I think that I could be a much better congregational presidentnow than when I held that role in the 1990s. I am concerned thatour model for leadership development may be backward. Thecongregation, the sacred community, is the most importantorganizing entity in Reform Jewish life, and the leadershipthereof should be the pinnacle of the aforementioned journey, notthe start of it.
Congregational presidencies are the toughest volunteer jobs thereare (also the most satisfying), and I don’t know if I would have thestamina, or the necessary patience, that I had twenty years ago, when Iwas in that role. But I think my local leadership experience enrichesmy continental perspective more than would the converse; when youclimb down from the pinnacle, you are able to share what you’ve seenfrom the top, as well as to follow the injunction of Hillel, Don’tjudge your comrade until you have stood in his place (Pirke Avot 2:5).
- Many of our boards are filled with people like me – great taskachievers and get-it done-ers. Most boards lack, and desperatelyneed dreamers, God seekers and the prayerful, and most boardsconduct their business in a way that would have zero appeal tothose people.
I wish I thought Noah was right, that boards are filled withachievers. Board nit-picking and excessive bean-counting have atendency to drive away achievers as well as visionaries. What’simportant is that the board have a balance of Torah people and kemach(material substance) people (Pirke Avot 3:21).
- As George Bernard Shaw said, “The problem with communication is the assumption that it has occurred”.
One reason it doesn’t occur is that board members as often as notare too busy thinking about what they want to say next to listen to whatis being said now.
- Boards mostly want, and usually do not have, a Jewish contextin which to conduct their business. Explicitly integrating Jewishinterpersonal ethics into all discussion, going to Jewish sourcesto help resolve an impasse, and understanding that it isacceptable and desired to occasionally admit that one is wrong, orspoke out of anger or frustration, or has been persuaded by anopposing viewpoint, powerfully and positively affect boarddynamics.
Right on! That’s one reason the clergy should be at board meetings -to guide us in measuring activity against the teachings of thetradition. Opening with a d’var Torah that relates a Torah teaching tothe issues at hand is also helpful. We used to have a board studygroup, devoted to responsa on issues relating to synagogue governance. I sometimes think board meetings should be held in the sanctuary,especially if the sanctuary is one that has engraved over the ark, Knowbefore Whom you are standing.
- The most highly functioning congregations are those in whichthere is a true partnership between lay leaders and rabbi, cantorand educator, and in which that partnership includes two-way,loving support and respectful criticism on a regular basis.
Reminder here, it takes two to tango. The partnership has torecognize discrete areas of responsibility and authority, and whileboth the klei kodesh (synagogue professionals) and the lay leadersshould be able to comment on the others’ domain, both also need tohonor the boundaries between the domains.
- ALL meetings should start and end on time and no meeting should last more than two hours. Period. No exceptions. Ever.
Start on time? Absolutely! Prepare reasonable agendas, allowreasonable time for discussion, insist on written reports on non-actionitems. End when the necessary business has been taken care of, anddon’t include the unnecessary. Target ninety minutes – two hours isprobably too long. But the substance should control the meeting, notthe clock!
- That’s it.
One thing that makes synagogue life so endlessly fascinating is thatthere’s always a new challenge around the next corner, so it’s never”it.”
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.