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?

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