Most serious conflicts within the synagogue—including merger misunderstandings—are preventable, say our experts, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Rabbi David Wolfman, Shirley Gordon, and Judi Ratner. They offer time-tested advice on handling three fictional congregational conflict scenarios.
RJ: The beloved rabbi of the congregation is retiring after 35 years. His associate rabbi of five years has applied for the senior rabbi position. A bright and convivial individual, she has a strong following in the congregation, but the search committee has selected an outside candidate for reasons that have not been shared, and the board approves of the new choice. A group of congregants comprising approximately one quarter of the congregation has asked the search committee to reconsider its decision, intimating that if she is not promoted to senior rabbi, they may decide to form a break-off congregation where she will serve as spiritual leader. How can this best be resolved?
Judi Ratner (URJ Knowledge Network representative who holds a masters degree in conflict resolution) : The leadership needs to involve the larger congregation in this discussion. The goal is not to change anybody's opinion, but to diffuse the anger by explaining to members what was done and why, and to acknowledge that "We were remiss in neglecting to be more transparent during the decision-making process."
A good way to do this is to hold a series of "coffee conversations" — small, intimate gatherings of 15–20 people — in members' homes, each group to include two or three members of the search committee. The leaders might say, "We are aware that many of you are considering leaving, and that would be a sad day. Perhaps you will reconsider after we give you a full accounting of all the factors involved in our decision."
It would have been much better for everyone – and probably averted this situation altogether — had the leadership conducted the search process in a transparent way that made people feel they were being heard. For example, before installing a search committee, temple leaders might have formed a transition task force which would not only have considered how to say goodbye to the retiring rabbi, but posed questions about the synagogue's future: "What values are integral to who we are today? Where do we want our congregation to be 10 years from now? What qualities in a rabbi will best help us get there?" The task force could have invited a representative cross-section of the congregation—families, singles, youth, seniors, etc.—to answer the questions at a variety of gatherings. Within our communities people are not always in agreement, so the diversity of the membership needs to be reflected in all important deliberations.
Had these steps been taken, the leadership would have been in a better position to notify the associate rabbi and the congregation that the position would be open to outside candidates as a matter of due diligence. The search committee would then have been able to say, "We've looked at all candidates and made our decision for reasons x, y, and z based on members' shared visioning of our synagogue's future."
Rabbi David Wolfman (former director, URJ-CCAR North American Commission on Rabbi-Congregational Relationships / NCRCR) : Even if a search committee conducts a very thorough candidate search and the board of trustees carefully studies the committee's report before making an appropriate decision, the leadership can still fall short by not informing the rest of the congregation about each step of the process. When information is not flowing from the board to the congregants, a wide communications gap opens up. This rift is exacerbated when the leadership and the congregants—who are not privy to the day-to-day workings of the synagogue—hold differing perspectives about a particular rabbi. The members, for example, may see the associate rabbi as witty, good-natured, impressive on the bimah, and "like one of the family" at bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals, but may be unaware of some of the other skill sets of a senior rabbi that the associate rabbi has not yet mastered.
The key here is to uphold confidentiality, which protects people, and avoid secrecy, which hurts people. Before the search begins, the synagogue leadership and the associate rabbi should have a confidential, frank, and honest conversation about the congregation's needs and intentions, including the fact that the candidate search will be open. If the associate rabbi decides to submit her resume, it's a good idea for the president to say to the congregation, "Our selection criteria will include the attributes the congregation is seeking in a rabbi to serve the next generation of the community. If our associate rabbi is not named senior rabbi, it is not because she is not a good rabbi. If she weren't a good rabbi, we would not have promoted her from assistant to associate."
The congregation should also be informed that the process is confidential because people apply for a position on that basis; even the spouse of the search committee chair should not know who's applied. At the same time, the committee can commit to communicating with the congregation at every step of the way. For example: "We have received 17 resumes from nine women and eight men. They range in age from 30 to 55 and come from all parts of North America." Later: "We have now interviewed 15 of the 17 candidates by phone." Then: "We have narrowed it down to six candidates whom we're bringing in for face-to-face interviews."
As Judi points out, given the current crisis mode, the best way now to close the gap and dissipate the anger is to hold a congregational meeting, giving each person a platform to air his/her grievances and, most of all, to be heard. At one such meeting I attended, which benefited from advance board training by a URJ specialist, everyone was told at the outset that notes would be taken and later read aloud for all to hear. One after the other, people stood up and spoke in superlatives about the associate rabbi who was leaving. Many said the board was "out of touch" and had made its decision "without hearing us." Speaking for the board, the president then acknowledged the anger and hurt engendered by the decision and added, "Yes, she served us admirably for the past eight years. We will all miss her." At the end, the board secretary stood up and recited what everyone had heard over the last 90 minutes—including beautiful accountings of the blessings this associate rabbi had brought to the congregation during her tenure. When it was all over, many people were still deeply disappointed about the decision, but they were no longer angry at the board about not being heard.
I also recommend trying to bring the associate rabbi into the healing process in the interests of the congregation as well as her own career. This might require the intervention of the district URJ rabbi, the director of the URJ-CCAR North American Commission on Rabbi-Congregational Relationships, or the placement director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis—someone who has earned her confidence and trust. In addition, a senior colleague or another person she admires could guide her through this painful transition.
The best case scenario would be for her to stand before the congregation and say: "I loved being your associate rabbi and am disappointed in not being named senior rabbi — but I know you are going to have a very strong, wonderful, and dynamic person as your new spiritual leader, and I am looking forward to the next chapter in my rabbinate."
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein (co-chair with Shirley Gordon of the URJ-CCAR North American Commission on Rabbi-Congregational Relationships; rabbi of Central Synagogue, New York City) : As a general rule I question whether an associate rabbi should be considered for successorship. While some associates do extraordinarily well after being promoted to senior rabbi, often the new relationship does not work out satisfactorily for either the rabbi or congregation. Some of the NCRCR's most bitter and complicated cases have concerned associates who were raised into successorship positions after long tenures as associate. No congregation benefits from a face-off between members who strongly respect and support the associate rabbi and those who do not share these positive feelings at the emotional time of a senior rabbi's retirement.
What made a rabbi successful as an associate is not necessarily going to make that rabbi successful as the senior rabbi. Congregations often have difficulty expressing their expectations for change, including areas in which the associate may need to strengthen skills. Without forthright direction, an associate rabbi might understandably believe that what was previously successful will continue, and keeps doing what he/she has always done. The congregation, however, may expect to see personal and professional growth from the rabbi. As a result, the relationship stagnates.
A congregation needs to make it abundantly clear far in advance to an associate whether or not he/she will be considered when the senior rabbi retires; otherwise, everyone enters the placement process with unresolved expectations. The associate may expect that he/she will be offered the senior position without the congregation's conducting a national search. The congregation may believe that it has a responsibility to consider other rabbis, perhaps for no other reason than to better assess the associate's abilities in comparison. Without clarity before the process begins, whatever the decision, hurt feelings and disappointment often ensue.
I recall one case in which the board instructed the search committee not to consider the associate for successorship, but a small group of persistent congregants pressured the committee not to consider an outside candidate. The leadership had three options: to engage a rabbi from outside, elevate the associate, or bring in an interim rabbi. I favor the third option. After a longtime senior rabbi leaves, a trained interim rabbi can help a congregation through the process of mourning the loss of the senior rabbi.
Shirley Gordon ( co-chair of the URJ-CCAR North American Commission on Rabbi-Congregational Relationships; member of the URJ Board of Trustees) : When a congregation's board finds itself in the middle of conflict, it is essential that it review the process used and how it was communicated to the congregation. In order to engage a rabbi who is a CCAR member, the congregation is expected to implement the procedure established by the CCAR/URJ/HUC-JIR Joint Placement Commission, which guides the leadership through the entire process, including completing the application, defining congregational goals and priorities, and understanding the membership's needs. This process is designed to include the congregation as a whole from the outset, thereby not only engendering trust, but also educating members about the search process itself.
In the above scenario, it is absolutely necessary that the leadership meet with the membership to help resolve the conflict, but the board must also be realistic about how much time its volunteer leadership can devote to the discussion as they determine the most effective way to move forward. With the membership so embroiled, I believe a quick, targeted response is the best remedy. I favor a congregational meeting with this as the one-item agenda and clear guidelines as to how the meeting will be conducted — no surprises for the membership. It is also very important that the search committee and the board speak with one voice. Every member wanting to comment should be given the opportunity, and the search committee and board need to acknowledge the value of each member's point of view.
The senior rabbi can be very helpful by reminding congregants that they are part of a single community, and that the board and the search committee have sought to find the best match for the congregation as a whole, with the best interests of the congregation always in mind. The senior rabbi might also counsel the associate rabbi if their relationship allows for this; otherwise, the CCAR placement director could do so.
The best possible resolution in this case would be for the associate rabbi to come to understand that her succession would not be in the best interests of the congregation or herself, and speak with the same voice as the board, search committee, and senior rabbi. Often, in conflicts such as this one, there is an opportunity for all to learn and grow.
RJ: Because of severe financial difficulties that are unlikely to be reversed any time soon, the board of a small congregation wishes to merge with a well-endowed congregation on the other side of town. The move is opposed by a group of founding families, among them elderly members who live close to the synagogue and congregants who like belonging to their small, intimate community. They accuse the board of "forcing its decision down our throats." How can this best be resolved?
Rabbi Rubinstein: Often, when a congregation is faced with a significant change and institutional identity is in the balance, the founding or longtime members will resist, understandably protesting, "How can you do that to us? We've invested so much in this congregation. It's been our life."
Synagogue leaders need to take the pulse of their congregation and hear what's on people's minds. Congregants deserve to be heard. One mechanism to accomplish this is to bring groups within the temple together in people's homes. It is difficult to yell or be angry at people sitting next to you.
Listening to members won't necessarily alter the leadership's decision on a critical matter, which may be driven by financial reality, but it does enable leaders to make the transition less onerous for the membership. So, rather than just announcing, "We're merging," the leadership could seek member input as to how the transition might be eased. To address those dismayed by moving from a small, intimate congregation to an unfamiliar, large one, leaders could arrange for newcomers to be welcomed in the homes of members of the larger congregation. And longtime members should always be honored for their loyalty, commitment, and past accomplishments.
Note that information sharing and conversations concerning issues of change are essential in every synagogue community, regardless of whether or not there is a crisis. In our large urban synagogue, about every four years we hold a series of home meetings to which every member is invited — about 60 group get-togethers of 15 or more individuals. The agenda is always a significant issue being addressed by the congregation. For most congregants the invitation matters even if they don't end up attending. Congregants want to and should be taken seriously.
Judi Ratner: I'd suggest that someone who has the trust and esteem of the congregation meet with those who oppose the merger and ask, "What is it about the proposed merger that is most problematic for you? What would it take for you to be okay with it?" The listener would let the opponents talk and also interject many clarifying questions in order to glean important core information that might not have been considered. An elderly opponent might say, "I won't drive at night, and if the temple moved across town, I couldn't make it home before sunset." Another congregant might say, "I don't drive at all, so my neighbor takes me to services, but this location is too far for her to drive me." The congregation could then respond to these concerns, reconsidering the timing of services at the new location or potentially subsidizing or paying for cab or bus rides there. In this way, a congregation can conceive of creative solutions that can go a long way in allaying people's apprehensions.
Also, be honest with members regarding why the congregation is seriously considering the merger. Some congregants may not know that the temple only has enough funds to get through the next two years, after which it would have to shut down. Once people understand the rationale and are asked for input, they are much less likely to feel the final decision was rammed down their throats.
Rabbi Wolfman: Successful transitions allow individuals to mourn the loss of "their" building and to give voice to the things they hold close to their hearts. It is often helpful to bring to the new synagogue a piece of the past that was central to the congregation's identity, such as a bimah lectern, ner tamid (eternal light), or memorial wall. Also important is giving a role—such as "synagogue historian," sharing the sacred story of the congregation—to those most affected by the change.
Shirley Gordon: The leadership of both synagogues needs to recognize the fear of loss that many members of the smaller congregation will likely feel during such times of transition. They may feel uprooted and ask: Will the "individual" become unimportant? What will happen to the yarzheit plaques and donated sacred objects? Is our identity in jeopardy? Do we matter?
Both congregations could be helped to understand each other's concerns. Developing ways of honoring each congregation's members, sacred objects, and traditions will pave the road to a successful new community.
RJ: The temple board learns from a reliable source that the rabbi, who is married, is having an affair with a congregant. The temple president meets the rabbi privately and inquires whether the rumor is true; the rabbi responds that it is a private matter and refuses to deny or confirm the accusation. The board suspends the rabbi without providing the congregation with an explanation of his alleged offense. Many congregants rally to support the rabbi and demand that the board provide details to justify its action. The attorney advises the board not to furnish further information until the leadership concludes its investigation. How should the leadership proceed?
Rabbi Rubinstein: Yikes. This is a congregational and rabbinic nightmare. Whether the rumor is true or not does not mitigate a hurtful, dangerous, and potentially ruinous outcome. It's incumbent upon the lay leadership to have a direct conversation with the rabbi and say, "Look, this is what we've heard. What's going on?" If the rabbi's response is, "It's all untrue," then the leadership needs to ascertain whether the rabbi's spouse is aware of the hurtful rumors to keep her from being blindsided by them. If the rabbi denies culpability, the congregation can do little more than suggest that the couple seek counseling to deal with the pain and anger of being the focus of unfounded rumors.
But if, as in the above scenario, the rabbi neither confirms nor denies the accusation or responds, "It's none of your business," the congregational leadership has a right to assert that the moral behavior of their spiritual leader certainly is the congregation's business, and to refer the matter to the Central Conference of American Rabbis' Ethics Committee. If the leadership fails to take action, the congregation's well-being is placed in jeopardy. Moreover, a rabbi's violation of ethical codes is a matter of concern to the entire Reform Movement. If found in violation, the rabbi can be suspended from the CCAR until he/she meets the Ethics Committee's particular expectations for readmission.
I find it difficult to provide further guidance in an issue of such magnitude, as no single roadmap is applicable for every situation. This is also a legal matter requiring consultation with professional counsel.
If the rabbi requests some time off to address the issues with his/her spouse and says, without going into details, that "I've misbehaved," the congregation might offer the rabbi an opportunity for teshuvah (repentance) — but only if the rabbi has acknowledged, at least to board members and the CCAR Ethics Committee, that he/she has engaged in improper behavior — and assures them that it will stop.
Judi Ratner: Part of the difficulty here might have been avoided had the president called the rabbi when this first surfaced and said, "I don't know if you are aware, but it has come to our attention that...Can you tell me what this is all about? If we don't address this quickly, it will spread, as though it were true." The leadership will have a better indication as to what steps might be needed based on what is shared at that point. If the rabbi acknowledges impropriety, giving assurances of a change in behavior and a genuine desire to repair damage caused, then one option would be for the rabbi to get up in front of the congregation and apologize. This approach is not easy and takes a lot of courage, but it can help to diffuse the situation. Judaism recognizes that we are all imperfect, and our tradition allows for teshuvah when we do veer off the path.
To respond to members who refuse to believe that their rabbi could have acted so egregiously, the leadership could call for an open congregational meeting and, to be fair, invite the rabbi to participate. During such a potentially emotion-fraught exchange, a fair, impartial moderator will need to act as a mediator, creating a safe, nonjudgmental space for everyone to air their perspectives and feelings.
Rabbi Wolfman: While individuals do fall out of love with their spouses, infidelity on the part of a moral exemplar of a sacred community is unconscionable.
That said, the leadership's suspension of the rabbi based on rumors of adultery seems not only premature and punitive, but possibly illegal. The board needs to presume innocence and take action only after a proper investigation. The CCAR's Ethics Committee should be contacted immediately.
Shirley Gordon: I would suggest that two people (president and vice president or ritual chair) meet face-to-face with the rabbi to underline the seriousness of the situation. At this meeting and at every step of the process, Jewish values must be scrupulously upheld.
If legal counsel advises that an "investigation" be conducted, I strongly advise that the leadership not initiate its own investigation, but refer the matter to the CCAR Ethics Committee to conduct the appropriate investigation. If counsel recommends that the rabbi be separated from the congregation during the process, it is best to place the rabbi on personal leave rather than on suspension. As the facts remain unknown and the allegation unsubstantiated, personal leave keeps the conflict at the lowest level possible for the congregation, while still attesting to the seriousness of the allegations and allowing the rabbi to "save face." Counsel should help the board write a letter that is promptly sent to the membership to explain why their rabbi is away. Doing so communicates to members that they are valued by the leadership—which, after all, is essential for any healthy congregation.
10 Ways To Cool Down Hot Meetings
When a congregation faces a crisis or must decide on a critical issue that could impact the synagogue community, the leadership's best strategy, in many cases, is to call a community-wide meeting where people can voice their feelings and be heard. Disclosure and transparency help to defuse situations that have the potential to escalate. Here are some ground rules:
Clearly state the purpose for the meeting, have a set agenda, and, if applicable, state that no matters will be brought to a vote.
Appoint a meeting chair who can be neutral, impartial, and will allow all views to be voiced without bias.
Communicate the ground rules for the meeting to the membership.
Ensure that the ground rules include a time limit for each person who wants to speak.
Frame the meeting with Jewish values, treating each other b'tzelem Elohim , "in the image of God."
Ask open-ended questions that can't be answered by a mere "yes" or "no" and may generate points of discovery. For example, "What about X concerns you the most?" Differentiate what people want (their positions) from why they want it (their interests). Note that doing this thoroughly and well may take more than one congregational meeting.
Employ lateral thinking, which seeks to open pathways (generating as many alternative approaches to a problem as possible) as opposed to vertical thinking, which tends to become fixated on a single pathway to solving a problem (which can result in missing the most promising path to resolution). The vertical thinker believes he/she knows what is being sought; the lateral thinker really doesn't know what he/she is looking for until finding it.
Expect and be tolerant of strong emotions expressed by people who feel their views have been unheard or ignored; it's natural, given such circumstances.
Be persistent. Don't give up when it appears you've hit a brick wall. That's when many breakthroughs happen; but they require hard work, patience, and optimism—the belief that things can get better.
Ensure that the meeting's closing includes a summary, clear next steps, some movement toward healing, and a blessing for the community. For example (from the URJ booklet Brit Kodesh—Sacred Community): "Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tizivanu la'asok b'tzorchai hatzibur. Praised are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who sanctified us through mitzvot and has commanded us to engage in the needs of our community."