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Action: Rabbi & President: The Path to Partnership

Perhaps the first requirement for success at any congregation is fostering a sacred partnership between synagogue clergy and volunteers grounded in respect, cooperation, and purpose. Only then can Jewish leaders make real the words spoken at the end of each book of the Torah: “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik —Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.”

However, when leaders change and different leadership styles ensue, nurturing such sacred partnerships can be challenging. Here are some of the ways rabbinic and lay leaders have learned to overcome differences and achieve success together.

At Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, California, the strong relationship between its top leaders starts with a hearty lunch. Every week, Rabbi George Gittleman and President Bruce Falstein get together at a restaurant to discuss the business of their 400-member temple, catch up on each other’s personal lives, and enjoy good food.

“It’s a pretty cheap lunch, and we take turns buying it,” says Falstein. “We each come with a short list of items that we want to talk about, and just work down our list of issues.”

Equally important is the kibbitzing that takes place: “How’s the family?” “How’s the fishing?”

“That’s where you build relationships and connection,” Falstein says. “I really care about my rabbi, not because he’s a spiritual leader so much as because he’s my friend. I want him to succeed in his job, and I know that he wants me to succeed in mine.”

Rabbi Gittleman says there is no substitute for these face-to-face meetings. “It’s not, for me, just a business relationship; it’s a covenantal relationship. I expect the president to know who I am and to be concerned about my welfare, and I certainly feel that way about Bruce Falstein.”

In addition to these meals, the two talk on the phone almost daily. It helps them keep a pledge they made to each other from the start: no public surprises.

“Just like good parents don’t spring their spousal struggles on their children, we try to do the same in terms of our issues [with the congregation],” Rabbi Gittleman says. “If we know there’s going to be a disagreement, we try to work it out in private.”

When a controversial issue arises—such as when the social action committee wanted to take a public stance on a local community matter—the rabbi and president discuss it privately to come to an agreement and form a united front. Only then do they take it to the executive committee.

Rabbi Gittleman has two other rules of thumb for working with congregational lay leaders. First: Respect the knowledge and skills that are in the congregation. “If leaders in the congregation are going to give you their expertise, respect their time by taking them seriously,” he says. Second: Always follow the congregation’s agreed-upon process, regardless of whether you think you already have the right answer or want to expedite the procedure. He learned very quickly, he says, “to be hesitant about using my authority and to do my very best to respect the process—and if I transgress the process, I acknowledge my mistake.”

Together, these approaches often provide needed balance. For example, Rabbi Gittleman acknowledges that he tends to be “a little apocalyptic” when it comes to some congregational challenges, especially a deficit.

“I tend to want to announce [the problem] in dire terms,” he says. “The leadership will say, ‘We don’t think this is the best way to bring this to the congregation.’ Nine out of 10 times they have the better perspective. I have lost perspective, and they have kept a more balanced perspective.” 

Some temple boards take annual daylong retreats with their clergy and staff to make sure everyone is on the same page. Andrew Kaplan, president of 1,045-family The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas wanted more than that with Senior Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff when he invited him to spend four days hiking part of the Appalachian Trail. Trekking in the wilderness of the Georgia mountains amounted to a crash course on knowing each other. 

“In the business world, we have come to learn that real working relationships are first and foremost built on friendships,” Kaplan says. “If there isn’t that underlying friendship, it’s very hard to have those deep and meaningful conversations that are born out of trust and mutual respect. And it’s very difficult to get there unless you have some commonality. The question is: How do you find that real relationship? You’ll never get to that place in meetings, because meetingsdon’t allow for that.” 

So the 49-year-old banker took his rabbi to his outdoor sanctuary. “The two of us were on top of a different mountain every night for four nights with nothing to do in our tent but talk,” he says.

Connecting around family, feelings, and faith may be nothing new to a rabbi, but the surroundings were a challenge for Rabbi Nemitoff, 57, who hadn’t been camping in years and found the trail incredibly strenuous. The benefits of the trip, though, have been undeniable, he says. 

“Having been a rabbi now for 30 years, this is probably the most intimate I’ve ever been with a president,” Rabbi Nemitoff says. “I learned about his life, who he is as a human being, how he deals with his own challenges. This gave me insights as to how to be a better partner with him and how to support him.” 

It gave them a unique way of communicating, too. For example, despite all his effort, the rabbi physically could not make it to the top of Blood Mountain. That became a symbol between the pair. Later, Kaplan says, when a temple issue arose where he found himself unable to proceed, “all I had to say was, ‘This is my Blood Mountain.’ The rabbi looked at me and said, ‘I so know what you’re talking about, because I lived it on that mountain.’” 

Rabbi Nemitoff had another realization while hiking in the mountains: Whenever he slowed the pair’s progress, Kaplan graciously met his pace. “I learned that each of us needs to be able to travel with each other as leaders in the congregation at each other’s pace,” Rabbi Nemitoff says. “When one of us isn’t there yet, we stop and wait for the other.” 

Rabbi Nemitoff, who is now planning a second trip with Kaplan—this one of his own devising—says he is determined to follow Kaplan’s lead with future presidents. “He was brilliant in saying we need to find something that will allow us to get to know each other.” 

Leaders do not have to head to the hills in the hopes of building this sort of partnership, says Kaplan. “Find something the two of you can do that is not a two-hour event. You have to go away to a place where you can spend quality time together, and start to develop a real and meaningful relationship.”

At 3,400-member Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, MI —the largest congregation in the Reform Movement—the key to a successful relationship between the clergy and lay leaders isn’t just the people; it’s the system. 

“We’ve created the environment of a partnership,” says Rabbi Harold Loss. To that end, there is no hierarchy among the clergy: no senior, assistant, or associate rabbis—just rabbis. All of the clergy attend the lay leadership’s executive committee meetings and general board meetings, and the president is part of the clergy’s weekly staff meetings. No one is left out of the loop, and no one’s voice is dominant either. 

“Everybody pretty much leaves his/her ego at the door, and is respectful of everybody else,” says Stanley Finsilver, president. “When we have a disagreement, we work it through. We talk it through.” 

He remembers a board meeting years ago when a debate arose about what food was proper to serve at a catered event held within the synagogue. Everyone spoke his/her mind; even the clergy espoused different views on the matter. 

“I changed my mind five times because of what people said,” Finsilver recalls. “Forty percent of the people didn’t agree, but everybody had a chance to say something, and nobody left mad because we’d talked it through.” 

Being part of the staff meetings has also revealed to Finsilver just how much the staff does. He’s invited every member of the executive committee to attend a meeting so he/she can walk away with the same understanding. 

Temple Israel has also structured the board process to be grounded in relationships. Before a leader can become president, he/she must serve nearly a dozen years on the executive board. Time breeds familiarity and trust. “By the time I became president,” Finsilver says, “I’d already been working with the rabbis and the cantor for about 11 years. My relationship as president has expanded upon what we’d already established.” 

It’s hard to argue with the results. Temple Israel’s clergy work without contracts, and every rabbi in its 70-year history either retired there or is still working there; only one lay leader has quit the executive committee, and that was for health reasons. To some extent, their success is about finding the right people, but Rabbi Loss is convinced there is more to it than that. 

“Fundamentally it starts with the view the congregation brings to the clergy you are hiring,” he says. “Let the person know that you’re not hiring him/her for two years or three years or four years. And hire the person you think you want to share the rest of your life with.”

The relationship between clergy and a temple president is like marriage, says Rabbi Scott Shpeenof 820-member Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York. His recipe for success is the same for both: open and respectful communication. But it can get complicated at a synagogue, where the lay leadership is ever-changing. “Sometimes I feel like I’m getting married every two years,” he says. 
To help build relationships quickly, team-building exercises take place after the installation of every new president, facilitated by professionals such as URJ lay leader-clergy relationship expert Rabbi David Wolfman; Rabbi Samuel K. Joseph, professor of Jewish education and leadership development at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati; and Rabbi Steven E. Kaye, author of Create Success . An annual retreat, golf outings, powwows at the rabbi’s house, and receptions for board members—also at his home—forge strong bonds. “Then,” Rabbi Shpeen says, “when we get to temple issues where we might not always agree, there is a respect for the relationship.” 

When Garry Sanders assumed the presidency in June 2010, he talked to Rabbi Shpeen and decided to give the congregation the gift of a consistent leadership team that extended beyond his term. He asked his other officers to think of initiatives that would continue over four, five, even six years—projects that might bridge several presidencies. In doing so now—with programs to boost volunteerism and grow the temple endowment—the congregation is involving officers who are expected to lead for years to come.

To make the most of your congregation’s clergy-lay leader relationships, consider implementing these six guidelines:

  1. Start at the beginning. Problems in clergy-lay leader relationships often take root because a proper transition from one rabbi to another never took place, says Rabbi David Wolfman, lay leader-clergy relationships and transitions specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism and director of the URJ-Central Conference of American Rabbis National Commission on Rabbinic-Congregational Relations (NCRCR). “Too many times when a rabbi comes into a congregation, either the congregation or the rabbi wants a quick change. The new rabbi is entering in the middle of a conversation. Board members need to give him/her time to learn about the congregation’s history, vision, and culture. And congregants need time to learn about their new rabbi and his/her own vision for the congregation. The key is to first establish a solid relationship, and then to nurture it.” 
  2. Set mutual goals. For clergy and lay leaders to work together effectively, they have to be moving in the same direction, says Shirley Gordon, immediate past chairof the URJ-CCAR NCRCR. “It’s essential that, together, the lay leadership and rabbi set and take action on goals, recognizing that there is mutual responsibility for understanding the congregation’s needs, and measuring everything in relationship to these goals.” 

    Gordon recommends utilizing a process called “mutual ongoing review.” The president and rabbi establish goals at an annual sit-down; the executive board discusses the goals; and, once there is agreement, the board of trustees reviews the goals and plans their implementation. The leadership team of the president and rabbi, in concert with the board of trustees, monitors progress. “In the president’s and rabbi’s regularly scheduled meetings,” she says, “it is their mutual responsibility to ask each other, ‘How are we doing?’” And it doesn’t end there: “Bringing their review back to the board encourages open conversation—what is working and what isn’t—so that joint problem solving and brainstorming can continue. The goals and plans for implementation constitute a living document that requires ongoing evaluation and evolution.” 
  3. Connect face-to-face. Don’t let the ease of communications technology substitute for meeting in person, says Rabbi Wolfman. “It doesn’t replace human contact. “When you can look into somebody’s eyes, you can tell how he/she is feeling. You can tell joy. You can tell pain.” 

    Rabbi Wolfman recommends scheduling weekly in-person meetings. “Yes, everybody lives busy lives,” he says. “Nonetheless, president and rabbi are the two most important roles in a synagogue, and one of the president’s responsibilities is to make the time so the sacred endeavor of the congregation can unfold. So, get together weekly—and not during the oneg Shabbat, not in the corner in between religious school, and certainly not in the hallway.” 

    Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman of 800-member Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY meets with the congregation’s current president, Meg Fienberg, for about an hour every week in his office. “Anything that develops in congregational life which is new or potentially alternative, I run by the president,” he says. “There are no secrets.” 

    Rabbi Sirkman believes that modeling this kind of covenant with lay leaders radiates out to the larger congregation. “Ours has become a mutually nurturing community,” he says. 
  4. Don’t make it personal. “Just because leaders disagree doesn’t mean they can’t have a strong partnership,” Rabbi Wolfman says. “Having a difficult conversation includes saying, ‘This is not about us. We’re good.’ Be respectful, listen, and make sure that both parties are mindful of the congregation’s mission-based goals, not just their personal ones.” 
    Also, he advises, “Remember that the issue [on the table] is not sabbatical or contract negotiations or vacation. The issue is: ‘How do I have a difficult conversation with someone I care about?’”
  5. Put your framework in writing. Writing things down can prevent misunderstandings between lay leaders and clergy and strengthen a congregation, says Robert Leventhal, senior consultant at the Alban Institute in Virginia, which specializes in consulting with religious institutions. “Written job descriptions, goals, and clear lay-staff boundaries as to who does what will mitigate role confusion,” he says, “and writing down a congregation’s major strategic goals—such as engaging the parents of religious school children or expanding participation in adult education—will enable the staff team and the board to track and pursue the same goals.” 
  6. Bring in the help you need. “If you see that you are having a clashing relationship,” Rabbi Wolfman says, “look to the other human resources in your congregation to help create a safe dialogue.” If a temple president and rabbi do not get along, he advises them to invite to their meetings a vice president who can act as a buffer and mediator. 

    In addition, he says, “Use resources from the Union for Reform Judaism.” Download “ Brit Kodesh: Sacred Partnership,” a free guide that includes essays on models of leadership and how to create sacred partnership in congregations. Webinars on such topics as “Rabbinic Transition Management in Congregational Life: Building Partnerships that Work” and “The Partnership Model: Establishing Mutual Goals & Expectations” are available here. Congregations with new rabbis may send representatives to the Shallat Rabbinic Transition Program and Retreat designed to strengthen partnerships between rabbis and presidents through reflection and consultation with URJ professionals. Read Reform Judaism magazine articles about strengthening congregational life. And be sure to consult with Rabbi David Wolfman or your region’s Union rabbi.

You don’t have to do this alone. After all, isn’t that the secret to being a good partner in the first place? 

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