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.

1 comment:

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