Sunday, February 17, 2008


(This article appeared, probably sometime in the early 1990s, in the Journal of the National Association of Temple Administrators.)

For over three decades, I have been involved – immersed might be a better word – in voluntary organizations, both on a staff level and as a lay leader. But coming rather late into the synagogue milieu, I find myself suffering a kind of culture shock in the face of three phenomena which appear to be taken for granted in congregational life but that have been largely eradicated in the other eleemosynary, civic, and trade associations I’m familiar with.

I refer specifically to three roles of the synagogue trustee (or director or officer) – the trustee as consumer, the trustee as professional, and the trustee as despot. Moreover, despite our seeming obsession with questions of leadership training, board effectiveness, and layman-rabbi-administrator relationships, I have encountered little if any discussion on these phenomena, and the questions they raise.

I have no answers to the problems I present – but hope there may be some value in posing the question.

The Trustee as Client

In the triad of Jewish values expressed in Torah-Avodah-Gemilut Hasadim, it often seems that the contemporary Jewish community is most attuned to the last. In the spirit of voluntarism, we have created the Jewish community’s exemplary network of federations, hospitals, old people’s homes, and social welfare agencies.

Paradoxically, these expressions of our commitment to voluntarism, joined with our commitment to excellence, have created a professional class of outstanding social workers and administrators. These in turn have instilled in their well-intentioned voluntary boards the concept of separation of powers – the difference between governance on the one hand, management and/or administration on the other.

In Jewish hospitals or old people’s homes, community centers and social welfare agencies, the pattern is consistent: the Board, selected largely for its financial (i.e., philanthropic) capabilities, sets policy and approves a budget, consistent with the monies it can raise – and the professionals are responsible for the delivery of service. The trustees function as Lord or Lady Bountiful…they are the fortunate, the affluent, the healthy, arranging care for the under-privileged, the poor, the old, the troubled, the ill. With the sometime exception of the hospital – even the rich get sick – the trustee need never see himself as a potential client. His policy decisions are abstractions, made from a real but impersonal commitment to the needs of the institution and the community. In fact, since it will often be more convenient to hold meetings downtown at lunchtime, trustees may not even step into the institution from one year to the next. The paid staff is there to see that the program is fulfilled.

Volunteers doing “hands-on” work do so under the strict guidance of the paid staff. And the “hands-on” work is limited to useful but non-critical functions – wheeling the library cart, staffing the gift shop, friendly visiting. Although the trustees have the theoretical authority to hire and fire the chief executive officer…they nonetheless know who’s boss. In the institutional sandwich, the layman provides the bread (pun intended)…the trustee as the top slice, and the volunteer as the bottom slice. The meat in the middle of the sandwich is the professional.

And by and large, the system works. The well-meaning but probably not very well-informed Board goes through line-by-line budget review, adds or eliminates services at the advice of the professional, brings a disinterested (but not uninterested) view of institutional and community needs, and generally acts responsibly by abrogating all day-to-day responsibility.

What happens when the balebatim begin to serve on the Temple Board? The principles of governance vs. management that they have learned so effectively at the “J”r the “home” or the federation are forgotten. First of all, in the synagogue, in order even to become a candidate for trusteeship, one must first be a consumer. So the trustee has a built-in conflict of interest, between what’s best for the congregation and what’s most important for him personally. (Unreserved seats for the High Holy Days? I’ve had this seat for 35 years! More money for the religious school? My kids are grown up.)

It gets as absurd as the trustee who voted against offering a 20-minute musical warm-up class prior to the start of Shabbat services, so interested congregants could learn the melodies and participate more. It wasn’t that he didn’t already know the melodies – he did – but that he didn’t want to have to rush through dinner. And since he wasn’t interested, he could not concede that the program might have merit.

Or how about the overturn of the long-standing policy that the Temple library should not be a mixed-use facility? Everybody agreed that a library should be a library, until an adult education class decided it would be nice to meet there instead of in the classroom across the hall, for easier access to reference books. Since a very important trustee was in the class, the hard-built wall came tumbling down.

The resolution of these issues is not the point. The point is that personal convenience is an instigator if not a determinant of policy. It can only happen when the trustee is also the consumer.

The Trustee as Professional

In the Jewish social service network, the laborer is worthy of his hire, and volunteers – regardless of credentials – are rarely welcome to do professional work. Here again the synagogue setting differs.

True, we have learned to pay the teachers of our children. (To teach adults, volunteers are adequate.) And today we are less insistent than we used to be about professionalism in the choir loft. In this era of congregational participation in worship, we welcome the volunteer choir; we’ll compromise on musical quality to save money (but not, of course, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). On the hospital board, a trustee may be selected because he brings a certain professional perspective to matters of evaluation. On the synagogue board level, we recruit trustees whose particular professional skills can be put to use. (Imagine the strain on the temple’s budget if we had to pay our auditors or lawyers.)

But problems arise when we call upon laymen to perform gratis in the area of their own professional competence.

But when you’re getting professional services free – how do you deal with the situation where they’re inadequate? Would the congregation tolerate an inadequate voice in a volunteer cantorial soloist? (we’re the clients – we have to hear him.) How do you cope when your volunteer lawyer has to let your matter languish because a paying client has come along? And if the policy is not to pay, we either lose continuity, or some good guy lets us take unmerciful advantage. And we may embarrass other professionals who may not be in a position to volunteer but feel the finger pointing. Moreover, as a public relations professional, I listen carefully when my wife reminds me that I mustn’t criticize the Temple Bulletin, unless I’m prepared to take over as its editor.

What would happen if we decided to “get professional” and purchase our services? We’d hire the best lawyer or the best accountant in town, or at least in the congregation. He’d treat us as a “cash customer” rather than as a good-guy accommodation. And very likely, he’d be a mensch, and then or later, would turn around and give the money back!

So I pose these questions: Is it right to ask a trustee to perform professional services gratis? Is it effective? Does it really serve the best interests of the congregation?

The Trustee as Despot

The nature of synagogue governance is heavily impacted by the diffusion of authority among board, rabbi, and administrator – a fascinating topic in itself, but not the province of this paper. Nor is it my purpose to examine the Golden Rule – he who has the gold makes the rule. The moral authority that attaches to the individual who underwrites the deficit is hardly unique to the synagogue.

Rather my third concern is with one particular kind of despot – one who isn’t the Boss – not the president, not the rabbi, but the assertive nudnik who deals in trivia. He’s the self-appointed enforcer, often of rules he makes up as he goes along. Those in the know don’t take him very seriously, with his obsession for counting out paper clips. He gets away with his despotism because everybody realizes that there are more important battles than fighting with Mr. Nudnik. Unfortunately, nobody keeps count of the good people he drives off the Board, or even out of the synagogue. There’s a Gresham’s Law of Trusteeship, wherein the bad trustees drive out the good. But in Reform temples, still governed by the Halacha as codified by Emily Post, good manners decree that Mr. Nudnik be tolerated. Thus policy is determined by erosion; the Mr. Nudniks stick around; their potential opposition is gunned down or worn away.

In reviewing these three aspects of trusteeship, we are looking at a number of inherent conflicts – the self-interest of the individual vs. the best interests of the congregation; the self-interest of the congregation putting unfair pressures on certain individuals; and the danger inherent in not stamping out petty nuisances.

But as I said at the outset, I’ve been in the volunteer business for thirty years, getting frustrated, aggravated, annoyed, angry, and coming back for more. Maybe it’s the conflicts that make it so much -- fun?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Presidential-Rabbinic Relationships

(A few years after I completed my term as president of Temple Sholom in Chicago, I was invited to discuss presidential-rabbinic relationships at a meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now URJ) Chicago Federation, co-presenting with Rabbi Marc Belgrad of Beth Am Congregation, Buffalo Grove IL. My remarks were later published in the Journal of the National Association of Temple Administrators, circa 1994, and are transcribed below. I don’t know that I would make any substantive changes if I were writing this article today, but I can assure you that the language would be less sexist and more gender-sensitive.)

It’s the custom in our congregation for services to begin on Erev Rosh HaShanah with a few words of welcome from the president to the congregation. When it came my turn to deliver these words of welcome, I speculated aloud that the origin of the minhag lay in the ego trip or desire for koved of one of my long-ago predecessors.

However, I continued in my speculation, it seems appropriate within the framework of Reform Judaism to re-invest old customs with new meanings, so I articulated the symbolism of the president as the first in a parade of lay members who would be briefly on the bimah during the High Holy Days, in religious services that still would be largely dominated by the clergy.

It seems appropriate, I said, that we begin with the laity, because it is with laymen that congregations begin…and we then call a rabbi to lead us. In doing so, it is the responsibility of lay leadership to define the kind of rabbinic leadership we want. How fortunate we are at Temple Sholom, I went on, to have achieved our desire for scholars, for teachers, and for visionaries in our rabbinic and cantorial leadership, and how fortunate our rabbis and cantor are to have a congregation which encourages and fosters those qualities.

In recycling those remarks from three Rosh HaShanahs ago, I sense that, in those few words, I first gave this speech. In large measure, that is my Torah on rabbinic-presidential relationships. All the rest you hear from me today is merely commentary.

In commenting about the relationship between the congregational president and the rabbi, it’s difficult to isolate the discussion to the two individuals. As I speak today, recognize that in many instances the roles blur between the president and the board, and between the board and the congregation. Similarly, and particularly important in as large a synagogue as Temple Sholom, my remarks apply specifically to the senior rabbi, more generically to the entire Temple staff, and extend onward to the Temple as an institution.

My ideas about the relationship between lay leadership and professional leadership have been forged over three and one half decades. I have sat on both sides of the fence, since in business I have served as public relations counsel to innumerable voluntary associations, and communally I have been an officer and trustee of various fundraising, social service, and educational institutions.

One of my influential teachers in the business of institutional governance was Dr. David Weinstein, when he was president of Spertus College. Early in my tenure on that board, he called the trustees to a retreat, to share his vision for the future. In his opening remarks, Dr. Weinstein quoted from another college president, who had written that any meeting of the Board of Trustees should have only two agenda items, the first one a constant, the second one contingent. The constant item for college trustees is, “Shall we fire the president today?” If the vote is Yes, then as item 2, the Board forms a search committee and adjourns. If the vote is No, the Board spends the rest of the meeting deliberating on how to help the president enact his program for the institution.

Obviously we do not begin each meeting of our Temple boards deliberating on whether or not to replace the rabbi. Contract considerations, CCAR Guidelines, and above all our sense of derekh eretz, civilized behavior, are all preventatives. Certainly our history and expectation at Temple Sholom is that any senior rabbi we bring to our congregation will be in our pulpit as our teacher and spiritual leader until he chooses to retire. In the interim, however, we have the opportunity to let him “shep nakhas”, from his calling or to make his life a misery.

And I do believe that the choice between the two rests largely on the attitude and skills of the president. Not that his presidential choice is necessarily a conscious one. During the years I have been active at Temple Sholom, we have never had a president who didn’t want the best for the congregation and for the rabbi – but nonetheless, it has been my perception that not all were successful in creating a climate of hineh ma tov uma naim shevet akhim gam yakhad, behold how good and pleasant it is for president and rabbi to dwell together in unity.

Tension between the president and the rabbi begins when wither has a need to demonstrate to the other who’s boss. The Boss issue is different in the synagogue than in the college setting, the hospital setting, the trade association setting, the corporate setting or the other milieus in which I’ve been involved. The rabbi is the undisputed authority in his realm; the Board of Directors has primary authority in its realm. And the president, whether he wants to admit it or not, has absolutely no authority except that which his Board allows him to have and exert.
And thus, perhaps the crux of my commentary is not to discuss the relationship between the president and the rabbi, so much as it is to define the role of the president.

A maxim I have learned from my teachers in voluntary associations is to remember that presidents come and go; staff is forever. Typically the president has two or three years in which to make a difference. That difference may involve speeding things up or slowing things down, accelerating the process of change or stabilizing a volatile situation.

The president must be the forger of consensus…consensus on the Board and consensus between the Board and the rabbi. Whether the issue is refurbishing the social hall or changing confirmation from 10th grade to 12th, the president has to bring about a meeting of the minds of the lay leadership and between them and the rabbi. This not only requires that the president understands where the rabbi is coming from; equally it requires that president know where the Board is, and where it is likely to be willing to be taken.

Actually, harmony is easy in a stable situation. Conflicts arise in congregations over only two issues: instituting change and balancing the budget. The rabbi may or may not be central to issues of balancing the budget; he will always be central to issues of instituting change.

I learned about instituting change from another of my great teachers in the operation of voluntary agencies, Ben Grossman, zikhrono levrakha, for many years the executive director of Drexel Home, taught me how best to bring about a potentially controversial or divisive major policy change. It was his practice to discuss his new idea individually and informally with his directors, until he found out from where the strongest opposition was likely to come. Essentially, the issue was brought before the board, not when the primary opponent had been neutralized, but when he had been converted, so that was the one who would introduce the resolution…which then would usually pass unanimously.

I do not suggest that unanimity is a prerequisite for the relationship between the president and the rabbi. If two people always agree, the saying goes, one of them is superfluous. But the president and the rabbi should share the same vision of the congregation and its program, and should commit themselves to a partnership in fulfilling that vision. Disagreements between the two of them should take place behind closed doors. Each has to recognize which issues are worth fighting about and for, and are not; when to compromise, when to put an issue aside. Both must be able to exert leadership, which is to say that they can convince others to share their vision of where the congregation should be, and that this should represent an advance over where the congregation already is. Achieving change will often require the president to explain the congregation to the rabbi, just as it will entail the president explaining the program and hence the rabbi to the congregation.

If the president is seen by the board as Charlie McCarthy to the rabbi’s Edgar Bergen, he will be less than fully effective; but if the rabbi and the president are seen as always being in opposition to one another, the congregation will be less than effective. The president has to be perceived as a strong articulator to the rabbi of the Board’s and the congregation’s strongly held beliefs…and a strong proponent to the Board for implementing the rabbi’s program.

My wide acquaintanceship with rabbis has supported me in kibud rav, respect for rabbis, so I start with the supposition that the rabbi is a mensch. While that’s in his or her job description, it’s not necessarily in the job description of the President. May I suggest that we put it there…that it be a prerequisite for both positions? As presidents, we are role models for our boards….and our menschlikhkeit will hopefully rub off and set a tone of harmony in the congregation.

In my opening remarks, I referenced the ego trip inherent in the president’s prominence at our Rosh HaShanah services. My own need for koved did not and does not require me to be visible. I don’t need to be publicly praised or appreciated…which is not to say I don’t enjoy it. I do need to be able to look back at what was done on my watch, and feel that it made a difference.

If I was an enabler – enabling the congregation to move forward, to implement change – it was because of a shared vision of what’s really important and a partnering relationship in making it happen. The goal is not for the president to win…or for the rabbi to win…but for the congregation to win. Then and only then can we truly say hineh ma tov uma naim shevet akhim gam yakhad.