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Synagogue: Selecting a Rabbi via Community Organizing
by Jeffrey Govendo

 
Rachel Gurevitz, the
spiritual leader of
Congregation B'nai
Shalom, Westborough, MA.
Photo by Michael Hyde

To find a new rabbi for 400-member Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA, our search committee decided to apply the community-organizing principles of the URJ’s Just Congregations initiative. Identifying and articulating congregants’ strongly-held beliefs in small group settings and mobilizing them to take action on shared concerns—hallmarks of Just Congregations—had proven successful in the social justice realm, so, we reasoned, why shouldn’t we use the same methodology to identify and articulate our members’ beliefs, passions, and priorities in selecting a rabbi? After all, the two major objectives of any rabbi search are 1) identifying the “right” rabbi, the one who best fulfills the needs and culture of the congregation; and 2) gaining the confidence of congregants and the Board of Directors both in the selected candidate and in the selection process. If our search process was comprehensive, and if the qualities of the selected candidate reflected congregants’ heartfelt needs and wishes, members would more strongly endorse our choice.

We began the process with intimate 90-minute meetings, mostly held in congregants’ homes. At each gathering, about six to eight temple members shared stories about experiences with spiritual leaders that impressed them and reflected on what mattered to them most about our synagogue. A separate meeting was held for youth. One search committee member made sure discussions kept flowing and all parties were able to air their views; a second committee member took careful notes. To stimulate the conversation, we posed three open-ended questions and two follow-up prompts:

  1. Tell us about a spiritual leader in your life (past or present) who has had an impact on you or your family.

  2. Can you think of a time when you were especially pleased—or proud—to be a member of Congregation B’nai Shalom? What were the circumstances? Were you personally involved; if so, how?

    Follow-up: What does your example say about what Congregation B’nai Shalom should stand for, or what the “ideal” CBS would look like?

  3. How can the rabbi help move CBS toward your ideal?

    Follow-up: In what ways can the rabbi help you experience belonging to the synagogue, or even being a Jew, in a way that’s most fulfilling for you? (Note: appropriate variations of this question were asked when non-Jewish spouses were in attendance.)

Committed to leaving no one in the congregation out of the process, our search committee also conducted personal phone conversations with every member family, created a page on the synagogue’s website, spoke with members at a table in the synagogue lobby, and publicized a dedicated email address to reach the committee co-chairs with a promised response. Like the founders of Just Congregations, we chose not to conduct a congregation-wide survey, because we felt it would be difficult differentiate casually-expressed responses from fervently-held beliefs. Personal interactions, we realized, would allow for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what our congre gants wanted in their next spiritual leader.

After five months of outreach, we distilled all the input we’d received into seven core competencies or qualities our congregation sought in our next rabbi:

  • Connecting—the ability to make deep personal connections with and facilitate connections among congregants

  • Passion for Judaism and the ability to convey this and inspire it in others

  • Engaging the congregation to be a caring community

  • Tradition—being aware of the balance between the familiar and the more innovative in ritual practice, and sensing what is right for the congregation at any given time

  • Teaching—the ability to inspire and enable lifelong learning for a diverse congregation

  • Music—valuing the role of music in services and the ability to integrate it to foster rich spiritual worship

  • Leadership—the overall ability to move, inspire, and guide the congregation in partnership with members, lay leaders, and professional staff

Now we were ready to speak with candidates. We began by phone, and in some cases followed with in-person interviews on-site. Our interview questions were based entirely on congregational input. The congregation was kept apprised of the process throughout.

Employing the Just Congregations approach inspired confidence and trust among the search committee, board members, and the congregation-at-large. The search committee felt secure in the knowledge that we were asking the right questions of our candidates. And when we provided assurances that a favored candidate’s skills and experience reflected the heartfelt wishes of congregants, it carried considerable weight with the board and the rest of the congregation.

In addition, the candidates themselves were impressed. Before applying, most of them had visited our temple website, where they discovered and studied the Rabbinic Search Committee’s detailed summary of its many findings (which a subcommittee had compiled into a delightfully readable narrative entitled “A Look in the Mirror”). A majority of the candidates mentioned this as one of their most compelling reasons for pursuing the B’nai Shalom position. They were clearly assessing us as well.

Our process was the reverse of what many congregations do in their rabbi searches. Whereas others tend to make “educated guesses” regarding the qualities that matter most to congregants and then construct detailed surveys based on these assumptions, we engaged congregants in telling heartfelt personal stories. In this way, we received much more than a list of rabbinic qualities; people painted a rich, detailed, and sincere portrait of the kind of person they wanted as their spiritual and communal leader.

The result of this process was the selection of Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz as our next spiritual leader. Among the many fine candidates we interviewed, we believe she best represents the qualities in a rabbi our congregants are looking for.

While many variables are at play in determining how successful a rabbi’s tenure will be, thanks to the Just Congregations model, we at Congregation B’nai Shalom believe we’ve improved our chances of making the right match.


Jeffrey Govendo served as co-chair of the Rabbi Search Committee at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Massachusetts. To learn more: jgovendo@verizon.net.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.