Growing A Synagogue Part E – Staff and the Modern Shul
There are kehillot (communities) that have a wealth of talented members who don’t need the guidance of a rabbi or cantor in their congregations. If rabbis are involved, they are teachers in the adult studies program or advisers to the leadership team.
Full disclosure: I am a pulpit rabbi and have worked in and with a variety of congregations that have used my talents in different ways.
There are some today who think that rabbis should no longer be the spiritual leaders of congregations. I disagree with that but I do agree that the basic role of the rabbi in a congregation has changed and continues to change. There are some rabbis who have been able to work in this different environment and some who feel that they need to hang on to the older style of synagogue. Some of my colleagues have told me directly, that they are uncomfortable with new ways of leading a congregation and want to keep things the same for as long as they can. While I understand the need to sometimes be the one who holds the line to changes in halacha, as we have discovered, the issue is not halachaat all; it is the very nature of the organization that is changing. I have tried to show many times that there is still a great respect among Jews for rabbis and for Jewish tradition. Young Jews who create meaningful communities do not reject Judaism; they embrace it in some very traditional ways. I think that issues like egalitarianism and pluralism are crucial concepts in the creation of new communities, and once these communities come together, they retain traditional observances, like keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.
If I were to talk to my colleagues, I would tell them that the halachicissues that are being presented as things that need to be changed are not the crux of the problem, only the symptoms. When people are unhappy with programming and prayer in our congregations they may say things like “Services are boring” or “Why do we have to pay so much for X?” or “Why can’t you talk about current events?” The fact is, many of our current members really don’t know at all what they want, only that they are unhappy with what they have. If we press them to tell us exactly what they are looking for, they usually don’t have an answer or tell us that they want us to do what we are already doing but somehow to do it differently.
I believe that a rabbi must be constantly looking at what successful models of congregations look like and creating new ways to bring the successful models to their synagogues. Naturally there will be those who don’t want anything to change and those who want everything to change. Reality is still somewhere between those two poles. Leadership is not easy. My sister is a hazzanand long ago she told me that a hazzan that is not introducing new melodies and new liturgical configurations and changing up the service is just being lazy. The same applies to rabbis (I know, I know, who am I calling lazy?!) I don’t mean this with disrespect for my colleagues, both those who are my senior and those who are junior colleagues. We have a lot of things that we must do as rabbis. But growing our congregations is one of the most crucial. If you look at congregations that are looking for new rabbis, it does not take long to see that all of them want help with “change”. They want to change and they don’t want to change (“change what I don’t like and don’t change what I do like”) but that, we know is impossible. An executive director once reminded me that “nobody likes all the focus on the Bar Mitzvah boy at Saturday services, except the members of the family. Yet the family makes up over 75% of the congregation that morning, and they want the focus to be on the boy.” So how do you make the regulars happy without angering 75% of the people in shul that morning? When we give blessings at the Torah for those with a birthday or anniversary, everyone tells me that it takes too long, except those who are getting the blessings. (It is always too long unless it involves me.)
Congregations have a history. Congregations like to write their history and invite others to read it. Often synagogue websites have links to the history of their communities. These histories often point back to the wonderful days when the congregations were small, or when they were in their heyday. Sometimes, however, there are darker secrets in the history of a congregation that the members don’t like to recall or don’t want to recall; problems with clergy, financial problems, members and staff who are arrested and the synagogue is implicated, sexual harassment of a employee, sexual abuse of a child in the school, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, the sudden death of beloved rabbi or president. All of these can devastate a congregation and produce years of upheaval. When a congregation faces these kinds of serious issues the officers and members of the congregation want to quickly get past their problems and return to the way things used to be. But going backwards is impossible. Things will never be the way they used to be because we only see the past through the rose tinted glasses that will not let us acknowledge the problems and difficulties that we also endured. In synagogue life, the past is interesting, but we can’t live there. We need to constantly have vision and focus on what lies ahead.
One colleague reminded me that this is the reason that cars have a large windshield and a small rear view mirror, so we can see more of where we are going and less of where we have been. What would success look like in the twenty-first century? It will not be the same as it was in the twentieth century. Life does move on and we must not let our history cloud our vision of the future. The questions we need to ask are what are we doing now that we want to continue and what needs to be changed/updated/renewed or created? This is not a challenge just to synagogues. All modern organizations and businesses have to look to the future or face difficult consequences that come from living in the past. As rabbis we need to encourage these questions and we must be prepared to answer them.
Jack and Suzi Welch in the article I mentioned earlier, write, When a team is infused with trust, people play to their better angels. They share ideas freely. They help their colleagues when they are stuck and need an insight. What they do every day then becomes about the group’s success, not their own. They’re not worried about not getting the credit for some big win; they know a teammate will say something like “Hey, don’t thank me. Cary was the one with the eureka moment that set the whole thing in motion.” and Cary will say, “Thanks. I may have had the idea, but you executed.” The candor-trust connection has another benefit: it promotes an environment of risk-taking. Who wants to try something new if they sense they’ll get a stick in the eye (or worse) should they fall? Leaders of winning teams encourage their people to take on huge challenges and let them know that they’re safe no matter what happens. And then they make good on their word.
I have seen boards that are so risk adverse that they quash every new idea that should arise. I have seen rabbis and directors tell excited lay leadership that what they propose can’t be done. Anyone who has ever served on a synagogue board or who has served on the professional staff has heard the phrases that kill new ideas, “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” “Who will you get to chair that project?” “That may work in big cities but in our town it would never fly.” “That is not what our congregation is about, if you want to do that, you should join a different synagogue that does stuff like that.” We have thousands of ways that leadership, both lay and professional, can kill new ideas. What we need is a culture that encourages new ideas, new programs and forward thinking. It is not about who gets the credit, but what is for the good of the congregation. If we try something and it fails, then we have learned something and, if we think the idea is still good, we can try again with an eye to overcoming the obstacles. If it just doesn’t work, well, then we will try something different. The payoff of an idea that does work is worth the previous failures that have helped set the foundation for the success. We can find new ideas in the talent that we already have, and in searching for ideas that have worked elsewhere. All we need to do to make these ideas our own is to be open to possibilities.
I therefore believe that the best approach is for both rabbi/staff and lay leadership to create a working dialogue. Often the rabbi only hears good things and the president hears all the complaints. That needs to change. Both rabbi and president need to share their points of view with one another. Together they need to identify the real needs of the congregation (not just the personal needs of those who complain all the time) and then look into how other congregations deal with these issues; what may be working and what clearly is not working (and what would never work here!). Complaints about things being too long (services, religious school) are symptoms of programs that do not engage the participants. “Boring” (services, programming) is the symptom of the lack of change. Dropping membership is the symptom of people who are voting with their feet to find something meaningful somewhere else. It means we have missed their needs. If young Jews are not joining, it is because they don’t see anything for them in our congregation. And that is why you are reading this book.
Cantors have an even harder time. New hazzanimare trained to be not just singers, but auxiliary staff members. They are often trained to be teachers, education directors and even executive directors. Older hazzanimwere trained to lead services with classical cantorial melodies. The problem is that many of those melodies are anywhere from 50-150 years old and are not appealing to most contemporary audiences. In the documentary, “100 Voices: A Journey Home” the hazzanimin the film understand that these old classic melodies, many of which came from Europe, are not meaningful to younger Jewish audiences. I recently wrote in my congregation’s bulletin, “I still love the song that Michelle and I danced to at our wedding. Sometimes, if we are out dancing, and I feel really romantic, I ask the band to play it for us to dance to. I would never expect my radio station to play it anymore. Music has moved on and while there are still some of us who like “oldies” it is not the way for a radio station to stay on the air. Even my favorite station that played music from the 1950’s, now plays “oldies” from the 60’s and 70’s. My music is now older than the “oldies”!” Musical styles change. That is a fact of life. A cantorial concert can be the showcase for classical hazzanut, but the liturgy deserves more modern influences. Hazzanimwho can’t keep up may find themselves left behind.
It is crucial that the rabbi and hazzanwork together to create a meaningful service. There should be no reason for rabbis and hazzanimto be feuding or working at cross purposes. While each needs to respect the role of the other, and must treat each other as colleagues, there will not always be agreement on everything. What is important is to try new things, and then come back and assess how it is going. What is important is to talk each week as to what will make that service unique. Sometimes it may be a reaction to something in the news. Rabbi Sharon Braus said after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the countries of the eastern Indian Ocean, “If your service before the tsunami is the same as the service after the tsunami, then something is very wrong.” We have to be sensitive to what is happening in our world and how it affects those who are worshiping with us in our sanctuary. Our service has to reflect whatever is important and on the minds of the congregation.Sometimes a service may be built around a moral issue in the community; sometimes it will be built around getting more participation from the congregation. When the rabbi and hazzanwork together, it creates a better atmosphere for really good things to happen.
If we are to change the focus of learning in the synagogue from school for children to educating adults, this will mean a change in education staffing as well. Rather than an “education director” what will be needed is a “director of life-long learning”. Certainly we will need to oversee the Jewish education of children, but the main focus has to be on adults. There will need to be a movement away from lectures and more to “hevruta” learning. There will need to be more texts and more discussion. There will have to be higher level learning and ways for those who are just beginning to “catch up” without dragging the whole program down. Education programs must also reflect that some learning will be in people’s homes and perhaps in the work environment as well. Coordinating study groups can be a full time job alone once the program takes off. There can be ongoing study programs that feature evening learning for those who work during the day. There can be special week long programs of learning based on the “Limmud” program that takes place each winter in England. There can be weekend programs and Shabbaton programs that can offer a wide range of topics to give everyone a chance to try something new. These shorter programs should kick off a longer program if enough people show an interest in the topic.
Teachers can be the rabbi and cantor and any other staff member with an educational background. Often the same teachers who do so well with our children may be able to teach adults. Many congregations are blessed with lay members who have solid education backgrounds or strong Judaic backgrounds who can also lead these study sessions. Many communities have colleges and universities with a Judaic Studies department that can be the source of teachers and the students in the program may also be able to lend a hand. All of this, of course, takes investment of money as well as time. Just as the religious school for children has school fees, so too adult education, if it is to be credible and challenging, will also require fees from the participants. It may be possible to find outside money from foundations and funders, and a fund raiser in the community on behalf of adult studies could involve a patrons’ program, where people with an interest in adult studies can help fund the program. There are opportunities for endowments and legacy gifts as well. There may even be corporations who would sponsor events in exchange for publicity that could help raise money for the adult studies program. The key to the program is to create it with high caliber talent so that adults will want to join in the study program. Clearly we need educators who are up to the task of creating serious adult learning.
Finally, we need to insure that the entire synagogue staff are involved in the overall program and are adding in their own way to the goal of engagement of the membership. We are no longer in an age where peoplesay, “you should hear my Rabbi/Cantor,” etc. In the future, we will want to hear: “This is what Ilearned/taught in shul this week. It is important that our professionals be able to put their own egos aside and let the learners learn and the members sing.It is not about the staff; the purpose of the synagogue is to teach Judaism, spirituality and how to find God and meaning in life.

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