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!”
Membership is lagging, we haven’t been able to convince the preschool families to join the synagogue and sales in the gift shop are down. What are we to do? Blame the rabbi!
Members are not receiving their donation thank you letters in a timely fashion, the receptionist is not always friendly on the phone and the office forgot to print my great-uncle’s yahrtzeit in the weekly newsletter. What are we to do? Blame the executive director!
People make mistakes and that includes the professionals of synagogues, whether the rabbi, executive director or preschool director. A letter can wait in the outgoing mail box for too long. A receptionist might be having a bad day. It is natural to feel frustrated when bad things happen and to want to locate the person who is at fault. When our synagogues attempt to operate as a command-and-structure type of organization individuals will look up the chain of command and point the finger at the highest link they can reach.
However, most of our synagogues nowadays do not operate with strict hierarchies. The decision making of our congregations has evolved to a more a distributive fashion yet the way we communicate about our synagogues has not evolved with it. There are few synagogues where the current mode of operating is the senior rabbi says “jump” and the only question the rest of the staff and board of directors have is “how high?”. Staff, clergy and lay leadership operate in a collaborative and cooperative mode. We know this from experience and we know this intuitively but when things begin to break down and mistakes are made we revert to viewing our system as a solid command structure and view the source of the problem solely in the lap of one individual. Why?
I believe part of the problem is that we have not fully embraced our new way of operating. Is it made clear in the vision statement of the congregation? Is it communicated in board meetings? Is the membership informed of how the synagogue operates? When something goes wrong do board members point the finger at any one individual or do they look at it through a systemic lens?
There are so many advantages to distributive decision making. The starfish, a vulnerable creature to predators, can lose a limb but still function because it does not rest all of its functioning in one place. As we enter 2015 the landscape for synagogues is still a vulnerable one. The case for synagogue membership is a hard sell for many people. Many synagogue facilities remain both under-utilized and in need of major repair work. The place of the congregation in the fabric of modern society is less and less obvious for vast segments of the American Jewish population. Our synagogues are like starfish: beautiful, complicated organisms that are deeply vulnerable.
The time has arrived to not only transition to a more starfish-like way of operating — a distributed, holistic and balanced power structure, but to assertively and clearly communicate that to our membership. When something goes wrong, and something will always go wrong, the challenge is not to look for which clergy, staff member or board member to blame, but to understand how the system as a whole can operate better in the future. A Starfish Synagogue is a healthier synagogue and a healthier synagogue is a more attractive place for people to pray in, socialize in and ultimately become members of.
* Inspiration for this blog post comes from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom
1. Do you have strong ideas and opinions?a. Yes
2. Do you share these ideas with others?
3. Do you expect other people to live up to your high expectations of them?
4. Do you command attention when you enter a room?
If you are male and answered “a” to all of the questions above, then you have executive potential. If you are female and answered “a” to the above questions, then you are bossy and pushy. If you manage to reach the top of your field in spite of these character flaws, then expect to be reviled.
Because she was “the first woman” she is de facto a leader. Her curiosity and thorough investigation of the world she lived in served her well to be a leader of early humankind. But it was these very same traits that caused her downfall. She was too curious; she bit the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and convinced her husband, Adam to do the same. Since then people have been suspect of women’s leadership. Eve led humanity in to a world filled with suffering, pain and disease.Women in leadership positions have always had to walk a fine line. They need to be smart enough, and confident enough to assume a leadership position, but not appear to pushy, bossy, or aggressive. Gender bias is alive and well in 2014, and we have Eve to thank for this. Yes, Eve, the first woman mentioned in the Bible.
How do we undo the damage taught by this story for thousands of generations?
It deeply pains me to love Judaism so much, to love the stories in the Bible, and the artful way rabbis debate laws in the Talmud when this amazing tradition is inherently misogynistic. We have come a long way in both the larger Western culture and the liberal Jewish world to recognize that women can be leaders in a variety of secular and religious positions. Yet, female leaders are still seen as somewhat suspect.
I think this will always be the case until we stop teaching the story of Eve the way we do. Instead of casting Eve as the one who leads humanity in to suffering, why not teach the beauty of curiosity – how sometimes it leads to good things and sometimes to bad? Why not stress that God wanted Eve to eat of the apple. For God put the tree there in the first place and imbued humans with curiosity. By eating the fruit, Eve was living up to her highest potential; in the end she opened the door to all of human ingenuity and progress. Isn’t that a good leader’s job, to help propel things forward?
I love the characters of the Bible because they are all flawed human beings, just like us. However, when a story portrays a gender stereotype that has been passed down for generations and has been woven in to the very fabric of culture after culture, it is time to tell a different story.
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World leaders today have assembled to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela. As tributes are paid to Mandela’s towering legacy and monumental impact in ending apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but feel the absence of any Mandela-like leader today within the Jewish community.
This is not to say that we lack impressive Jewish leaders today. To the contrary, there are a number of individuals, rabbis and non-rabbis alike, who do extraordinary work at the local level—at synagogues, JCCs, and local NGOs. But we don’t seem to have a leader, or series of leaders, who can rally apathetic masses to support moral causes at a systemic level. We lack the towering leadership of a Heschel, a Soloveitchik, a Wise, a Kaplan. And my question today is: do we need one?
On the one hand, from the perspective of community organizing or democracy building, the answer ought to be no. Real change, from this paradigm, starts from the ground up, at the local level. Leaders are effective when they know what the local issues are and can engage relationally with those in their communities. I, for one, think this model has an incredible amount to offer, and indeed carries the best prospects for the future of an engaged and committed American Jewry.
But, on the other hand, I feel a sense of absence by the lack of national moral leadership. I can only begin to imagine how it might have felt to stand with Heschel and King during the Civil Rights Movement. I recall fondly–though I was only a few years out of diapers–the successful efforts of the Jewish community to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s. And, more recently, Jewish leaders were at the forefront of the Save Darfur effort. But who and where are the Jewish leaders rallying national support for social or economic justice today? From raising the minimum wage to enacting a cap and trade program to stem climate change, I can’t think of a single figure or group of figures who are at the forefront of these efforts, who are working to catalyze the public at a national level and have the moral resonance and strategic savvy to make such change plausible.
So my question to you today, as we fittingly pay tribute to the legacy of Mandela, is whether we still need Jewish national moral leadership to bring about the change our tradition calls us to pursue. What do you think?
One should not be surprised the Pope is not coming to my seder. Truth is, we do not know each other and I seriously doubt he would come. But what is more striking is that I will not be inviting Moses to join me either and it is not simply because he is dead. After all, each year I invite Elijah to join and even open the door for him to enter.
Why is Moses not present at the seder? How do we account for the fact he is virtually erased from the traditional Haggadah? If we are to be recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how can we ignore a crucial character of the story? Would we tell the story of the founding of the United States and leave out George Washington? Do we really transmit the Exodus properly to our children by hiding Moses?
I would like to suggest that Moses is not present Passover night because despite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, he cannot have a seat at the table. Moses represents the opposite of what the seder is intended to convey.
In Exodus Chapter 18 we read of the encounter of Moses and his father in law Jethro after the Exodus but (according to most) before Sinai.
1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;
2. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,
3. And her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land;
Notice that he brings Moses’s wife Tzipporah with him and her two children. Tzipporah was not in Egypt during the Exodus. Moses had sent her away before that fateful night. According to some he even had divorced her. One passage in the Zohar says that the reason the children are called her’s is that while Moses fathered them, she had brought them up.
In an earlier blog post I discussed a Midrash that says Moses after the Revelation at Sinai never returned to his tent, which is understood to mean he never resumed a conjugal relationship with his wife. He remained celibate, always on call to God.
Moses, the great leader and teacher he was, is the absent father and absent spouse. His family is sacrificed for his leadership. He is our hero, but not our model to be remembered at the seder. Indeed at the very first seder in Egypt, Moses was alone and had no children present who could ask him ma nishtanah, the Four Questions. Moses is the opposite of the very experience we strive to have at the seder. He represents the negation of family. His leadership might require the sacrifice of family, but the seder is still not his place. He has no seat of honor there.
I am aware that many people this Passover may be at a seder where there may be no children or where everyone is single. I am not being critical of this. It should be pointed out that tradition dictates it still be in a style of questions and answers. While people who gather may not be related, a family of sorts is created at the seder.
But then why do we invite Elijah to the seder? You can discuss it then.
Reading Anne- Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has caused me to wonder, what would “having it all” looks like. As I was letting my imagination go and dreaming big, a teaching from the Jewish wisdom book, The Ethics of Our Fathers came in to my head. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
I began to think about the wisdom of that statement. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. We each have our lot in life, and if we can make peace with it then we could indeed lead happy and fulfilled lives. We would not want for anything. On the other hand, if we all accept whatever we have, then there would be very little drive to make the world a better place. Human ingenuity is sparked by an individual desiring something to be better than it is. Without this drive to make things better we might all still be living in caves and hunting and gathering for our food.
The article sparked an internal debate about this delicate balance between being happy with what I have and striving for more. If I may be chutzpadick enough to compare myself to Mrs. Slaughter, I see many similarities in our personal stories. Like her, I have entered a field previously dominated by men, and I am very thankful for the women before me who led the way. Like her, I have a spouse who shares parenting and domestic duties equally. And like her I have a wonderful job which affords me flexibility when I need to attend an event at my daughter’s school or take her to the doctor. When I look at the big picture I feel rich. I am happy with my life and my work.
And yet…I have a desire for more. Like most women, I too make compromises to balance life and work. To rise in my field to a position of national prominence I would have to travel much more than I am willing to do. I choose to be home with my husband and daughter. By making this choice I am limiting my career trajectory. In addition, I work in a field still dominated by men and a male definition of what a leader looks like and sounds like. I don’t have a long beard or a deep voice. My leadership style is not always recognized as “leadership” because I have a quieter style which focuses on relationship building rather than being the center of attention.
There is so much I want to change both in my field in particular and American society as a whole. I want a world where men and women have the ability to reach the height of their career success and have time to be with those they love.
But my guess is that even when that happens, life will still be a balancing act. It might be easier to balance work and home life, but it will still need to be done. And we will always need to balance being happy with what we have and striving for more. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human.
Hope is a Jewish value. The Psalmist says “Hope in Adonai and be strong.” The national anthem of Israel is Hatikva – the Hope. Yet, in the Jewish community today I hear more complaining and lamenting than I hear expressions of hope.
This past week I spent a day with a group of women Jewish non-profit professionals. We gathered under the auspices of Advancing Jewish Women and the Jewish Community. Over the course of the day we identified obstacles to women’s advancement in the Jewish non-profit sector, and brainstormed ideas to overcome these obstacles. The women at the gathering were smart, articulate and creative in their ideas. But the highlight of the day for me was when we all had a chance to share our personal journeys. We were asked to create a collage the represented two points of challenge in our lives and how we chose to overcome those challenges. Each woman took a turn relating the events that formed their adult identities. Stories of deep challenge were shared: deaths of family members, job loss, painful transitions, and sexual harassment. Each story brought tears to the eyes of those gathered in the room, and we sat with each other in our pain.
But we did not wallow in the pain. In each instance, I was amazed at the courage and perseverance the women showed. Not a one of us was knocked out by our painful experience. Instead we rallied and rebounded. Family relationships were reformed, new jobs were found, and difficult transitions turned in to wonderful new opportunities. The collective and individual strength of the women in that room awed me and filled me with great hope.
These women are the next generation of Jewish leaders. Each is poised to take the helm of a Jewish non-profit in the near future. I can assure you that the future is in good hands.
These women have the wisdom to steer the Jewish community through this current period of malaise caused by the economic crisis and shifting religious affiliations. They will not moan about the state of the Jewish world as so many of our leaders do today. They will take the reins and with courage, creativity and perseverance lead us in to a new era.
“We can do it!” was the slogan pasted on posters of Rosie the Riveter during the Second World War encouraging women to help in the war effort. This poster has always been one of my favorites. Roise is strong, powerful, and above all hopeful. The job can be done and we can do it! Women should raise a new version of this poster across the community today.
I am profoundly hopeful that the very real obstacles women face in the culture of leadership in the Jewish community will be overcome. We have slowly been moving towards more inclusion of women in leadership roles in the Jewish community over the past 30 years. More must be done. But I see it happening. The income inequality gap will close. Parental leave and flex time policies will be instituted, and women will rise as leaders in established Jewish Institutions and as founders of new projects yet to be launched.
The women I sat with this week are my hope. They go to work each day fighting for a better world for all. The psalmist asked “I turn my eyes to the mountain from where will my hope come?” My hope comes from the stories and leadership of these women. We have a lot to look forward to!