Action: Leader Readiness Training
by Ryan E. Smith

Ron Green and Mark Bresnick work on ideas
to finance a vision for Temple Beth Or,
Everett, Washington.
Photograph by Eileen Hinds 

It’s a common saying that leaders aren’t born; they’re made. But it doesn’t happen easily or overnight. Synagogue leaders wishing to “Raise up many disciples” (Pirke Avot 1:1) who will be able to tackle congregational issues thoughtfully, knowledgeably, and effectively need to devote themselves to identifying, cultivating, and training the volunteers of today and tomorrow.

What happens when many of your most active members don’t yet have the depth of knowledge of congregational life and the larger Reform Movement to work effectively? In 1990, temple vice president Paula G. Milsten was disconcerted to discover this very situation at 400-plus-member Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In response, she and her rabbi, Charles Sherman, took action, creating LEAD TI (Leadership, Education, and Development for Temple Israel), a series of five monthly classes for 10-20 people that encompass what it means to be a Reform Jew; the nuts and bolts of congregational operations; the roles of temple auxiliary organizations; and how to be a good, ethical, Jewish leader. Graduates—136 to date—are honored at the annual congregational dinner, and the temple bulletin acknowledges their accomplishments—“which is important,” Milsten says.

Rabbi Sherman says that LEAD TI has both facilitated a new pathway to becoming a temple board member and strengthened the leadership skills of members who never make it to the board but serve the congregation in other ways.

Temple president Terry Rosenthal says it’s also streamlined board operations. “Because we share a common history of our temple, we don’t have to stop before every board action to explain why something is the way it is. Sometimes we can resolve a matter even before it needs to become a board action item.”

Perhaps most importantly, LEAD TI is ensuring leadership succession at the temple. “Part of my job as president is making sure there will be good leaders to replace me,” Rosenthal says. “Through LEAD TI, we have a plethora of people we can look to, not just for right now but even five to 10 years from now.”

How do you manage a budget when there’s a projected deficit? What strategies will maximize the effectiveness of your committee meetings? How might monitoring the temple bulletin help you evaluate whether your synagogue is fulfilling its mission (performing acts of lovingkindness, learning daily, welcoming the stranger, etc.)?

In White Plains, New York, 450-member Woodlands Community Temple offers all members a free leadership development course covering such practical and spiritual matters. Created by temple member and URJ Senior Congregational Advisor Dale Glasser with Rabbi Billy Dreskin’s help, Derekh (“the road” in Hebrew) has taught 143 congregants essential skills and “has led to a different committee experience here, because of our populating committees with people who’ve learned how to participate and lead,” Rabbi Dreskin says.

Joey Pinzon had wanted to be more active at temple when he received an invitation to join Derekh. As part of his leadership training, the father of three also sat in on meetings of the religious school board and the youth committees, both of which he joined after completing the program. He credits the larger Derekh experience in “teaching me how to be a better listener. Often we are so quick to speak and react to only part of what we hear. I’ve learned to wait and listen and respond to a bigger picture.”

Rabbi Dreskin also credits Derekh for hastening the pace at which members join the leadership. And, he says, “there’s nothing like having a 143-person list from which to draw. Before Derekh, every time the temple president and I needed someone to serve in some capacity, we had to work our way through the entire temple membership roster. Now, there’s always a place to begin our search for new committee members.”

Rabbi Ron Segal of 1,300-member Temple Sinai in Atlanta likens the synagogue’s leadership recruitment process to “a football team with talented players who have studied the same playbook before going onto the field—it’s quicker and smoother.” Step one in the leadership training program known as Atidaynu (meaning “our future”) is to draw up a list of potential invitees from a cross-section of congregants who have demonstrated a commitment to synagogue life. Next, those who join the program attend a weekend retreat in August, followed by eight monthly leadership sessions. Afterwards, graduates complete a survey to match their interests with leadership opportunities.

One participant, Jeff Crow, was so energized by Atidaynu, he later volunteered to create Temple Sinai’s logo, marketing line, and communications strategy. His goal: “a branding initiative designed to succinctly and effectively communicate the feelings the retreat developed in me.”

Now a vice president of Temple Sinai, Crow thinks of Atidaynu as the equivalent of a college degree in temple management. “Could I have been vice president without being part of Atidaynu?” he asks aloud. “I don’t think so.”

In 2003 a very busy Mark Bresnick accepted an invitation to participate in the Atidaynu leadership development program at 120-member Temple Beth Or in Everett, Washington. Seven years after completing the program, he finally had time to volunteer and agreed to become the temple’s vice president of finance—a decision he attributes largely to Atidaynu.

“Some people need to be encouraged to be leaders,” says former temple president and program creator Sonia Siegel Vexler. “When you identify them as leaders, they sit up straighter and often step up to the plate. With a leadership program, you do a little nudging, and you also give them the confidence and the skills they need to be a great leader in your temple.”

Siegel Vexler, who has a master’s degree in education, constructed Atidaynu’s curriculum by integrating congregational program ideas recorded in the URJ's Communicate! database. Her highly interactive class—comprised of about a dozen carefully selected congregants—covers such practicalities as temple demographics, personal communication styles, reading a budget, and delivering a d’var Torah. Oh, and there’s homework. If the next class is about principles of Reform Judaism, students might have to respond to a speech by Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie.

Bresnick says that Atidaynu has made him a better leader than he otherwise would have been. He now understands Temple Beth Or history and politics; board members’ strengths, weaknesses, values, and approaches to problems; and the relationship between the temple and the URJ (which furnishes Atidaynu with expert speakers free of charge).

Notably, of Atidaynu’s 25 graduates, three have become temple president, and almost all the others have served on the board, taught in the religious school, or chaired a committee. Plus, Siegel Vexler says, “they serve with many new skills and strategies under their belts.”

How should synagogues best identify, recruit, and train future leaders? Here are seven expert suggestions:

  1. Always look for potential leaders. Identifying knowledgeable, active, and experienced congregants should be a year-round task for clergy, board members, and staff, says Rabbi David Fine, Small Congregations Network Rabbinic Director for the Union for Reform Judaism. “To search for potential leaders only when the nominating committee gathers is shortsighted. Instead, pay attention to who is involved, who is speaking up, and who is showing up. Develop leadership radar.”

  2. Make a personal request. Rabbi Fine recommends sitting down with a potential board member to explain why you think s/he would be a great leader and a good match for the synagogue. “Otherwise,” he says, “the potential leader might think, ‘If you want just anybody, then you don’t need me. I’m not a space filler.’” Just having this conversation can strengthen a congregant’s connection to the temple, he says, “and that’s important in and of itself, because ultimately a congregation is about relationships.”

  3. Inform leaders about the congregation before they take office. “Don’t assume leaders can learn on the job,” says Judith Erger, former URJ lead governance and leadership development specialist. “Leadership is not intuitive.” She advises that, prior to assuming office, all leaders be educated about the congregation’s history, its purpose and mission, demographic information, finances, by-laws and procedures, facilities, and URJ resources. Many congregations have developed a “Leadership Brit,” a covenantal agreement between leader and congregation which articulates expectations and underscores that leadership is a sacred responsibility.

  4. Consider multiple avenues for leadership training. “Knowledge can be delivered in a myriad of ways,” says Marcy Balogh, president of Ba-Lo Consulting in Denver, “including a webinar, a book group, a retreat, a Skype coaching call….” Congregation Emanu El in Houston organized a day-long leadership training conference featuring high-powered experts from the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds—and a number of the 125 attendees have since signed up for committees and temple auxiliaries, such as Sisterhood and Brotherhood.

  5. Keep it Jewish; keep it holy. Rabbi Norman M. Cohen of Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota begins each Bet Shalom Leadership Development Program session with a relevant Torah selection, such as when Jethro counsels his overworked son-in-law Moses to delegate responsibility so that he can spend more time with his family. Rabbi Fine says that whatever type of program you choose, “be sure to communicate that being a temple leader is something to aspire to—it’s holy, important work.”

  6. Charge leaders with succession planning. Balogh advises congregations to have today’s leaders grow their replacements. “If, for instance, the chairperson of the religious school committee is responsible for identifying and training at least one person to take over the position,” she says, “then throughout his/her term, s/he can partner with the future leaders, providing them with the tools needed for a successful transition.” Valuable skills picked up this way involve everything from communicating better to partnering with staff. “Ongoing leadership cultivation provides a congregation with stability and new energy—a great combination,” she says.

  7. Utilize Union for Reform Judaism leadership training resources. At take advantage of free downloads of L’Dor Vador: Creating a New Generation of Temple Leadership, which offers examples and tips for creating leadership development programs, and Building Sacred Community: Volunteers in Your Congregation, which includes suggestions on recruiting and training volunteers. Watch archived URJ webinars, such as “How to Expand Your Active Volunteer and Leadership Core,” at, and connect with other temple leaders interested in leadership development through If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email  

Be in touch.

—Ryan E. Smith, journalist and member of Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, California

Union for Reform Judaism.