Where Synagogue Leaders Learn

When Rabbi Mark Diamond asked seven Westside rabbis last summer to nominate emerging lay leaders for the Board of Rabbis’ new Synagogue Leadership Institute (SLI), many of the rabbis countered with another request. Rather than potential leaders, they wanted to send current leaders — presidents, executive board members and committee chairs.

"Several rabbis called and said, ‘My people need this right now. Our current leadership would greatly benefit from this immediately, and we can’t think five or 10 years into the future,’ which is a very telling statement about the state of leadership development," said Diamond, executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "We don’t do enough training of emerging synagogue leaders to nurture them to address their needs. Too often we see people rising to positions of leadership very poorly equipped to handle the challenges of the synagogue of the 21st century. We see tremendous burnout among our volunteer leadership. And we also see people who frankly don’t have the Jewish background."

Through the SLI, 32 participants from a cluster of seven synagogues west of the 405 have been meeting monthly since November, strengthening skills in such areas as finances and fundraising, board development, strategic planning and making sure that plan has an underlying vision and value system.

The program has been so successful that the Board of Rabbis decided to extend the group for another year beyond what was supposed to be their graduation this June, and is starting another group in the 2004.

"It’s given me a lot more confidence," said Sanford Rosenblatt, who is on the executive board at Kehillat Maarav. "It’s opened me up to ideas about how well we can do things, the mistakes we can make, and the way we need to depend on a lot of people to get things done. It’s really been great."

Students paid $100 each to participate in the course, while the remainder of the $35,000 was funded by the Board of Rabbis, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation and the regional offices of the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements.

The joint sponsorship of the program, as well as the inclusion of participants and teachers from the Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements, made the experience one of pragmatic pluralism, where differing doctrines and observances fell into the background amid such issues as how synagogue size affects programming and services.

"It’s very important to meet Jewish lay leaders from other synagogues, from different movements and different streams of Jewish life and share the common challenges and the common vision of leadership as a whole," said Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, president of the Board of Rabbis and rabbi of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, which sent a delegation to SLI. "It has helped them to see themselves and what they are doing in the bigger context, so their own work has that much more value."

Carole Stein, an SLI participant who is on the board at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, said she hopes the new connections will help further her synagogue’s efforts at joint programming. At the same time, she is grateful for the new ties the program has helped forge with the Conservative movement. After a session in which the United Synagogue’s Rabbi Moshe Edelman talked about leadership, "I asked him to come and speak to our board, which he did, and which helped us start a conversation about what are our true priorities," Stein said.

A highlight of the program was a daylong retreat in March at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. As in sessions throughout the year, the retreat included a significant portion of Torah study in addition to workshops, music and bonding. At the retreat and throughout the year, teachers from all the movements tried to imbue students with the idea that all synagogue work is holy work.

"The whole reason you are there is a religious reason, so try to bring your values into everything about a board meeting," said Sarah Austerlitz, a Westwood Village Synagogue past president.

For participants who met the profile of emerging leaders, SLI has been an eye-opener into not only what it takes to run a shul, but the vast resources that are available to leaders.

"Part of me wants to go to shul and sit and daven and not be bothered with the operation of the shul, and another part of me realizes that in order for this shul to be here now and in the future we have to take an interest in the day-to-day operation and management of the shul," said Phil Raider, who is on committees — but not yet the board — at Mishkon Tephilo. "It has enabled me to cross that bridge, realizing that working for the shul really is a mitzvah."

The public is invited to mark SLI’s completion of its first year with a siyyum celebration Wed., June 11, 7 p.m. at Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. For security reasons, please R.S.V.P. to the Board of Rabbis at (323) 761-8600.