God and the Nominating Committee

The URJ’s iWorship listserv is a forum where laity and clergy hold online discussions on matters of worship, ritual, liturgy, and the governance issues and administrivia that pertain to life in the synagogue sanctuary. Truth be told, we sometimes digress and find ourselves cluttering our colleagues’ inboxes with subject matter that is off-topic, until one of our cadre of relevance vigilantes reminds us that this latest subject matter, whatever it may be, is not part of our job description.

That happened recently when Bob Epstein raised a question about the selection process for nominating committees. Bob actually presented it in a context that made it totally germane – beginning with a quotation from Rabbi Harold Schulweis placing God not in the individuals sitting around the table but in the relationships that ensue. Unfortunately, as seems to happen all too frequently in congregational life, God quickly dropped out of the discussion as we focused on whether the nominating committee should be appointed or elected, and by whom. A few dozen voices were heard relaying the provisions of various congregational bylaws, until Howard Kantrowitz asked the obvious question: What does this have to do with our worship-related charter?

As one of the relevance vigilantes, I nonetheless participated actively in the discussion of nominating committee legalisms, so Howard put me on a mild guilt trip. This then set me off to justify myself and to consider how God, ritual, and worship might be part of the work of the nominating committee.

After all, the nominating committee members are the gatekeepers who essentially determine whom to bring aboard to help guide the work of the congregation. Some years ago, my then congregation appointed a committee to write guidelines for the nominating committee as they considered who should be elected, and re-elected, to the temple board. One of the criteria was “Attends services regularly.” To everyone’s surprise, the rabbi objected strenuously. “We already have too many directors who attend services regularly – every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We need directors who attend services frequently – every Shabbat!”

Is frequent attendance at religious services a valid criterion for membership on the temple board? If we invite a financial expert to serve on the board because we want his advice on how we invest our endowment funds, is it reasonable to confront him with, “Oh, by the way, thanks for the tip on the Consolidated Salami IPO, but where were you on Shabbos?” So maybe we forgive the investment advisor for not coming to services – but do we forgive him for urging us to invest in a salami company that mistreats its workers and its animals?

On the other hand, just because Chaim Yankel comes to services every Friday night doesn’t mean he’s qualified to serve on the temple board – but should agreeing to serve on the temple board include some kind of commitment to attend services?  What other visibility should a leader have in the life of the congregation? What levels of Jewish knowledge should a trustee bring to the boardroom table? My rabbi once called in the heir-apparent to the presidency and told him if he wanted the rabbi’s support for his candidacy, attending committee meetings and services was not enough, he had to be involved in adult education. So Harry signed up for the Sunday evening study group, served his two years as president – and remained in the study group for the rest of his life! As the saying goes, im lo lishma, ba lishma. “Even if it doesn’t start for holy purpose, the holy purpose enters.”

What role should the lifestyle of an individual play in his eligibility to serve in a leadership role in the congregation? Not too long ago I read in the Jewish press that a leader of the Conservative movement had floated a proposal that no one should be elected president of a United Synagogue congregation who was not shomer Shabbos (Sabbath-observant) and kosher. To the best of my knowledge, that idea went nowhere – but was it a legitimate proposal? Should the leaders of a congregation practice what their denomination preaches? What standards of personal behavior, religious and other, should we expect – or demand – of those we place in positions of authority?

For that matter, given the number of interfaith families we find in every Reform congregation – and the encouragement we have received from our top leadership to appreciate those non-Jews among us who are raising Jewish children – what about the stipulations found in some congregational bylaws that only Jews may serve on the temple board, or in senior offices? Is it time for such clauses to be eradicated?  Or is it important that a Jewish religious organization be governed by religious Jews? (Note that I do not use “religious” as a synonym for Orthodox.) Once again, if these issues are discussed, and resolved after thoughtful discussion based on Torah values, God’s presence is felt at the nominating committee.

For a number of years, I traveled the country as a Union volunteer, facilitating strategic planning workshops for temple boards. My workshops invariably began with an exercise where I divided the participants into two groups, and asked both groups to rank in order of importance five responsibilities of temple board members – policy development, resource development, financial management, personnel management, and serving as role models. But one group was told to address these points from the standpoint of the real life of the congregation, while the other group was asked to rank them as they ought to be weighted in an ideal world. Almost invariably the group that was designing for the ideal put role modeling at the top of their responsibilities; and just as consistently, the group that was describing the real world of the congregation found themselves deficient at setting an example.

One of my objectives in those strategic planning workshops was to remind temple board members that in serving, they were doing sacred work. (The URJ has published an orientation booklet for members of congregational boards, called Managing the Sacred.)

But in those days, I hadn’t yet internalized the message of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s marvelous essay, The Tent-Peg Business, where he reminds us that synagogues exist to do primary Jewish acts –Torah, Avodah, Gemilut Chassadim – and that everything else we do in the temple is done to enable the performance of those primary Jewish acts. As I look back at the five points I asked my workshoppers to look at, only role modeling is suggestive of doing primary Jewish acts. But resource development is the special mandate of the nominating committee – bringing together the human resources needed for the synagogue to do its sacred work.

How the nominating committee is chosen is not, therefore, the core issue, as long as the process is Godly, transparent, and equitable. But worship enters into the work of the nominating committee, and thus the discussion on the list-serv was not out of place. Whoever chairs the committee, or serves on the committee, had better be sure that God is at the nominating committee meeting. Otherwise, the temple board is likely to spend its time debating dues increases or repairs to the roof, rather than spirituality increases or repairs to our broken world.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

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