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Synagogue Governance as a Sacred Trust


Three years ago, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) launched a series of innovative workshops to help affiliated communities clarify their mission and communicate about themselves and Reconstructionism to the larger Jewish community.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit with participants
in the May 2001 Sacred Trust workshop. 

Rabbi Shawn Zevit with some Sacred Trust "seminarians"

In the course of these workshops, we identified a number of additional issues of concern to our member congregations and havurot. These included the creation of values-based approaches to the development and management of financial and human resources and to the processes of communal leadership and governance.

JRF responded with a three-year series of repeatable workshops and resource books — about the challenge of growth, the role of money in congregational life, and the sacred nature of Jewish leadership and communal governance. More than 350 rabbis and lay leaders from 70 or more JRF communities coast-to-coast have attended these workshops, which seek to cultivate strategies based on shared Reconstructionist values of inclusivity, democratic participatory process, gender equality, study of traditional and contemporary Jewish sources, and conscious spiritual growth. (See RT, Summer, 1999 and Winter 1999/2000, for coverage of the first two of the workshops.)

A Sacred Trust: Values, Jewish Communal Leadership, and Congregational Governance, the third of the workshops, was designed to be responsive to the wide range of governance structures in Reconstructionist communities. Many of these communities are seeing tremendous growth — increased staffing, more physical space, and more programs and services generally — which requires an increase in funds, effective governance structures, skilled leadership and staffing. As a result, we are now grappling with our own biases about authority and organizational structures while striving to maintain our fundamental communal values and cultures.

In the "Sacred Trust" workshops, study, effective listening and open discussion helped bring forth the hard-earned wisdom of Reconstructionists, both lay and professional, about these matters.

We used text study to review the evolution of Jewish leadership models throughout history: Kohanim (priests), Leviim (Levites), the first born, the elders, Anshei Knesset Ha-Gedola (the "Great Men of the Assembly"), Sanhedrin (Council of Sages) and related courts; the geonim (leaders) of Palestine, the exilarchs of Babylonia; and, during the past three centuries, scholars, politicians, entrepreneurs, financiers, Hasidic rebbes, social activists, Zionist intellectuals, and so on.

From the beginning, religious and political authority were intimately connected in Jewish life, and communal leadership assumed two overlapping but distinct forms. On the one hand were religious judges or rabbis whose expertise in Torah gave them special authority. On the other hand, communal control over non-halakhic public affairs devolved upon the "elders" whose authority derived from their age, wealth, family lineage, gender, and personal qualities. They maintained public order, collected taxes for the local authorities and for the support of Jewish social services, and served as liaison to the Christian or Moslem rulers. By the 13th century, Jewish communities had so grown in size and complexity that these leadership roles were quite distinct, and a paid rabbinate gradually emerged.

Rabbi Moshe Idel and Mortimer Ostow note that even when Jewish authority was exercised collectively by the rabbinical judges, parnasim (Jewish civil authorities) and elders, the community was not a democratic body but an oligarchy run by the consensus of the elite. Yet in most lands it was a covenantal bond more than legal power that underlay the Jewish community board’s authority. In both Spain and Ashkenazi communities, Idel and Ostow write, the culture of leadership included: emphasis on Torah knowledge over aristocratic lineage, and on artisan and commercial trades over "court culture" and political connections; the subordination of communal leaders to the rule of the bet din (rabbinic court); demonstrated concern for the poor and the vulnerable; commitment to Jewish education at every level; outspoken opposition to greed and excessive luxury.

From the 17th century on, Jewish leadership was often augmented by a measure of political power ceded by non-Jewish rulers. This included tax collection and greater control of business conduct (especially dealings with non-Jews), social behavior and religious observance. Fines, imprisonment, pillory and religiously sanctioned bans were used as tools of enforcement.

As modern Jewish life evolved from the 19th into the 21st century, Jews have experimented with different models of leadership and governance. Yet certain patterns internalized throughout the centuries can make contemporary leadership of Jewish groups a difficult task. Jews have relied heavily on their leaders’ intervention with outside authorities and have often seen their leaders killed by, or forced to cooperate with, the most oppressive of those authorities. This has contributed to anxiety about "getting it right" at all times, and about the real or perceived dire consequences of our leaders’ actions. Blaming authority, scapegoating, externalizing or denying problems, and focusing on marginal issues to avoid confronting major ones, are some common behaviors that have made leadership challenging in Jewish communal life.

The need to support and affirm leaders, not only to criticize them, is crucial to the overall health of a communal system. Both leaders and the community must encourage honesty, creativity, and the maintenance of healthy boundaries and structures that help avoid burnout and ineffectiveness. Leaders need to understand the defense mechanisms of congregational systems and help people learn from their resistance and reactivity. Leaders must also develop their own support systems inside and outside the community.

The "Sacred Trust" workshop built on perspectives offered in the recent report of the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi. We advocated a "systems theory" approach to governance that examines the totality of the congregational system rather than looking only at individual roles and functions. From a systems perspective, while specific individuals may be responsible for exercising leadership in a community, leadership is an activity of the congregational system rather than the job of only one person. This concept broadens the traditional boundaries for leadership roles. Systems theory is fundamentally similar to what Mordecai Kaplan called the principle of "organic reciprocity" — that the whole acts upon the part, and the part in turn acts upon the whole. For Kaplan, this principle mandates mutual responsibility and ethical conduct. "What has been said of words in relation to their context," he wrote in The Future of the American Jew, "is true of human beings in relation to their communities; they are not ‘pebbles in juxtaposition;’ they have only a communal existence; the meaning of each interpenetrates the others."

In Reconstructionist communities, when we ask, "Who is a leader?" we are asking not only about personality traits but about values that inform feelings, thoughts and actions. We hope for leaders who hold and embody values that we respect. In contrast to the traditional leader who influences a community to follow his or her vision, a Reconstructionist leader is also defined by how he or she helps a community grow, face its problems and develop solutions. Reconstructionist leaders, in other words, help elicit and manage a community’s vision, as well as inspire it. Mordecai Kaplan put it this way (in The Future of the American Jew): "Governance which is based not merely upon the consent, but upon the active participation of the governed, is in a position to verify the deepest insight of religion that every human being is created ‘B’Tzelem Elohim,’ in the image of God."

The governing documents of congregational life were an important topic of focus in the "Sacred Trust" workshop. These documents reflect dynamic processes of communal decision making and values clarification. They are, in essence, sacred texts that represent a covenantal relationship.

Mission/vision statements are the articulation of the shared values and goals of a community. A mission or vision statement is an ideal and unique image of the future. The more your articulated goals elicit and reflect emotional commitment, the more they are likely to qualify as part of your mission/vision.

Bylaws are documents by which a community is governed. Laws are institutionalized values. It is vital that the bylaws of a congregation reflect the sacred intent of the community and all of its articulated values, as well as necessary legal requirements. Among the questions we examined in the workshop were: How are Jewish values and terminology reflected in bylaws?

Minutes of board and committee meetings are very useful congregational documents that help create day-to-day continuity for a community and create a sense of organizational history. The ideal minute book is one with prenumbered pages, none of which can be replaced or substituted.

Finally, growing out of the mission statement and bylaws come the articulated policies and guidelines of the board. These should be developed in concert with the rabbi and the membership in general. Guidelines and policies should be the product of a process that includes communal study of traditional sources and special, intensive study by topical subgroups and committees. Sub-groups are empowered to formulate draft statements of principles and more detailed guidelines. Members are invited to provide input throughout the process, which may take a year or a number of years — as in our movement-wide commissions.

The next step in the "Sacred Trust" workshop was to look at how the documents we claim to live by are actually embraced by the community in making decisions and meeting change. This brought us to governance structures.

The ultimate governing authority in every congregation is the membership. The synagogue board and committees are comprised of individuals from the membership who are elected (or volunteer) to fulfill and preserve the stated goals and values of the community. Along with the paid professional staff, these governance bodies sustain the life and vitality of the synagogue. At the "Sacred Trust" workshop we examined a wide range of Reconstructionist governance structures. We noted that service on the board should also represent an opportunity to be spiritually nurtured and to grow in leadership abilities. Boards should not generate policies or micromanage committees; policies should come from committees to the board. The board’s real work is to ensure that the vision of the congregation is being fulfilled.

Committees in congregational life ideally function like staff members in non-profit organizations: Once they have their mandates, they do not need to go back to the board unless they are asking for money, making interim reports or recommendations, or seeking additional information. A committee has relative autonomy as long as it is following congregational policies and acting within its mandate.

All of this work relies heavily on the effectiveness of meetings, which are often viewed as a "necessary evil." Unlike prayer services or adult education classes, meetings too often take on the air of the mundane and the secular, if not the painful and boring. Why should meetings be the one area of congregational life in which fun, joy, excitement and a sense of the sacred are absent?

The effectiveness of congregational leader ship and governance is often revealed most clearly in the relationship between lay leaders and professional and non-professional staff. Among the issues that our workshop explored, using theoretical articles and documents gathered from JRF congregations, were: the balance of power between lay and professional leaders; the importance of confidentiality, discretion and effective communication; the use of job descriptions; how to incorporate Jewish values into the management of staff and volunteers; the roles of the rabbi, executive director and other paid staff in the congregation; how to deal with conflict between staff and lay leadership.

Finally, we spent a good deal of time discussing the long-term planning process, through which communities prepare for growth and change and overcome a "crisis management" mentality. Planning for change requires consideration of the variables in congregational life and anticipation of future needs or goals. It means making things happen for the congregation instead of letting things happen to the congregation.

Most synagogue communities want to grow in ways that do not compromise or sacrifice the reasons and desires for coming together to form a Jewish community. Growth brings into the community greater diversity, additional resources, and more participation, but it also challenges intimacy and strains capacity. Many Reconstructionist communities struggle with growth management. Planning can be an effective antidote to the stress, fear and uncertainty that accompany issues of growth. (Even when a community desires to remain small, change is still an ongoing process and planning is crucial.)

The planning process involves more than establishing a committee. Ideally, the following steps should be discussed: a process of self-evaluation; development of the plan in a group or committee that represents the diversity of the community in age, class, gender, family structure, length of membership and other variables; implementation of the plan; and ongoing review of the plan’s effectiveness, with measurable goals.

Planning should be vision driven, based on the mission of the community and supported by covenantal governing documents. In a participatory, democratic culture, the community simultaneously shapes and is shaped by its values.

The amount of commitment, energy and time that participants gave to the JRF leadership workshops is awe-inspiring. Over 70 percent of our affiliated communities have participated in at least one workshop, many in more than one of the series, and some individuals have been to all three. Many communities have purchased additional resource books from JRF to aid them in their approaches to conscious growth and financial, leadership and governance issues. Some communities have begun budgeting to send as many representatives as possible as part of their own commitment to leadership development. This level of participation deserves deep appreciation.

The process we go through to realize a common vision, and The Source we connect with along the way, have profound impact on where we end up. The conscious attempt to integrate process and practical outcome is what drives the programs and resources that the JRF is developing — and what attracted more than 350 people to take the time together to examine ways of making our Reconstructionist communities as healthy and as holy as they can be.


Type: RT Article

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