Last month Rabbi Yamin Levy (note: I studied with Rabbi Levy when I was a rabbinical student at YCT Rabbinical School) wrote a thoughtful article, The Rabbi and His Board. In the article he details the challenges and opportunities for rabbis and the board of directors of congregations. The relationship between a rabbi and the board can be a delicate and highly orchestrated dance of vision, power and politics. A peculiar aspect of how American Jewish congregational life is organized is that the rabbi is simultaneously a “spiritual leader” of the congregation and an employee of the board of directors. How should congregations organize their leadership? Who sets the vision? Who articulates the synagogue’s goals and direction?
In many synagogues throughout the country it is the board of directors who set the vision. it is the board of directors who lead and articulate the goals and directions of the congregation. The rabbi is sometimes a minor partner in that process but more often simply an executor of the desires of the board. I submit that this system is entirely ineffective. It needs to be turned on its head.
It is the rabbi who studied for years Jewish law, ethics, history and philosophy. It is the pulpit rabbi who has dedicated his or her life to the professional leadership of synagogues. Synagogues term their rabbis “spiritual leaders” but the meaning behind that title is often empty and void. It is time to fill that title with purpose, leadership and direction.
This is not to say that rabbis should act autocratically. It is not in the best interest of the rabbi to be a dictator. All the best research in leadership teaches that the vision and direction of a leader is best implemented when it is done collaboratively and through consensus building. However, the person seeking consensus should be the rabbi for their vision from the board and not the reverse. It is the rabbi who envisions, who sets the goals and who leads. It is the board who empowers the leader they hired to actually lead.
This not only makes the most sense from a practical point of view, the rabbi is the trained professional with the expertise and the board are volunteers representing other professions and different training. It is also makes sense from the perspective of Jewish values. Just as one stands for a Torah scroll there is a mitzvah to stand for a Torah scholar. The Talmud (Makkot 22b) expresses bewilderment of people who stand for a Torah scroll but not for a Torah scholar. The honor and respect we invest in the Torah and its scholars and rabbis is due to the wisdom, values and direction the Torah imparts for us in the way we lead our lives. Would it not make sense to give true leadership to the rabbis, the Torah scholars of our communities, who we invest so much in financially, personally and organizationally? Once again, not as autocrats but let them be the vision makers and articulators of goals and let them build the consensus and actualize that vision.
In an era of increasing challenge for synagogues to remain relevant to a new generation of Jews and boards are struggling with decreasing membership and under-utilized buildings, one piece of advice would be: “Let rabbis lead!”
I recently was reading an article that happened to mention an interesting study. In the study, researchers in the 1970’s had collected New Year’s resolutions from two groups of kids — one of average middle class kids, and another group made up of Amish and Mennonites. They happened to notice an interesting difference between the two groups (which was not relevant to the study they were trying to do). In the “average” group, the kids were focused on goals such as “getting an “a” in class. In the Amish group, though, even though the kids also were focused on goals, they phrased their resolutions very differently. Instead of focusing on the achievement, their resolutions spelled out the process of what they would do to get to the goal. In other words, instead of resolving to get an “a,” the Amish child would resolve to spend more time doing homework. In addition, the Amish kids were more likely to be about things that they were already doing – getting faster at doing chores rather than one of the “average” kids who would be more likely to express a goal of doing something new, such as learning to scuba dive.
As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of another article I had read recently which discussed the seemingly endless research into happiness, and the pursuit of happiness by Americans – and asks whether, in fat, happiness is something that can be pursued at all. The article, drawing on psychological research and the writings of Victor Frankl concludes that rather than pursuing happiness, we should be pursuing meaning. It suggests, “the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.” Continue reading