December 16, 2018

Federation re-evaluating Board of Rabbis

When Rabbi Mark Diamond was honored for his 12 years of service to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California during a farewell lunch a few weeks ago, colleagues from synagogues from across the city and spanning denominations hugged and chatted, catching up on everything, both personal and professional.

“One of the strengths of the Board of Rabbis is that people know each other,” said Rabbi Denise L. Eger, immediate past president of the region’s only cross-denominational rabbinic professional organization and spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. 

When Diamond left the Board of Rabbis in October to lead the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles chapter, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which fully funds the Board of Rabbis, took the departure as an opportunity to reassess the purpose and function of the board. 

Jay Sanderson, Federation’s president and CEO, said the re-evaluation is part of a larger process of reassessing all programs Federation has historically funded, seeing if they still advance its priorities and whether goals are being accomplished as effectively and efficiently as possible. 

“We are the only Federation in the country that fully funds a Board of Rabbis, so how do we make sure that it is the best use of our dollars? These questions haven’t been asked for a long time, and now we have to ask these questions with the rabbis at the table,” Sanderson said.  

In mid-December, Federation and the leadership of the Board of Rabbis agreed to appoint a task force to determine the future course of the Board of Rabbis. Meanwhile, Jonathan Freund, previously director of education and interreligious programs at the Board of Rabbis, has been named interim director. 

Some 320 rabbis from synagogues, communal organizations and chaplaincy positions throughout Southern California make up the membership of the Board of Rabbis, a 75-year-old organization. The Federation funds the Board of Rabbis’ $400,000-a-year budget and Diamond, who was the board’s executive vice president, was on Federation’s top management team. But Diamond reported to the president of the Board of Rabbis — not to a Federation supervisor.  

That chain of accountability and semi-autonomy are some of what is up for discussion, and that has caused some concern amongst the rabbis.

“Some of us worried whether there would be a Board of Rabbis at all, and some of us are still worried that there won’t be a Board of Rabbis with any independent voice at all,” Eger said.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, current president of the Board of Rabbis, said that in meetings over the last few weeks, rabbis and Federation leaders have heard one another’s concerns, in hopes of fully understanding the value each can add to the other.  

“We need to work in partnership with Federation and learn how to support Federation,” HaLevy said. At the same time, she said, “The rabbis need to feel supported. We need assurance, which we now have, that the Board of Rabbis will continue to exist and be strong,” HaLevy said.

Sanderson pointed to the creation of a new Synagogue Outreach and Partnerships department, staffed by a senior vice president, as evidence of Federation’s strong commitment to synagogues and rabbis.

In addition to being a place where rabbis with very different backgrounds can confer on common issues, the Board of Rabbis offers professional development through seminars on topics like chaplaincy, social media and its annual pre-High Holy Days sermon seminar. Rabbis study together bimonthly, and two or three times a year teachers from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem come to Los Angeles to teach the rabbis. In addition, the Board of Rabbis sends some members to study at Hartman each summer, and it sponsors fellows in a three-year program there.

The board also fields frequent calls from people looking for a rabbi and works closely with funeral homes to fill needs as they arise. It supplies chaplains to hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. Leaders of the Board of Rabbis often represent the Jewish voice to the wider Los Angeles community and are deeply involved in interfaith programming.

Sanderson said he would like to see the organization more fully represent the diversity of Los Angeles. While the board has some Orthodox members, mostly from Modern Orthodox circles, many Orthodox rabbis choose not to interact with the interdenominational body precisely because of its diversity. In addition, rabbis of some of the city’s largest synagogues have long been absent from active involvement in the board, Sanderson said.

The task force will examine how the Board of Rabbis might become better integrated into Federation’s work. For instance, Federation’s Engaging [in] Our Community department involves interfaith programming, an area in which the Board of Rabbis is deeply invested. And Sanderson would like to see synagogues more engaged in reaching out to the unaffiliated, a top priority for Federation.

How the board fits in with Federation’s newly created Synagogue Outreach and Partnerships department is another topic for the task force to explore.

Beryl Geber, the senior vice president who directs that area, said that while she works closely with rabbis, her department doesn’t cover some of the essential functions of the Board of Rabbis, such as professional development or offering chaplaincy. 

Geber has spent much of the last 10 months, since she was appointed to the position, talking with more than 50 synagogues to determine how Federation can best support their programs and endeavors, and thus reach more of the Los Angeles Jewish community. She is working to set up programs to improve operational issues at synagogues, including financial sustainability, administration, membership and leadership development. 

“It’s a matter of being the fulcrum around which things can happen in a collaborative way, across denominations and across the city,” Geber said. 

Her department, in collaboration with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, has already implemented Caring Communities, which places social workers in synagogues. Each bar and bat mitzvah child in the city will receive a copy of “Israel Matters” by Mitchell Bard, thanks to the synagogue initiative, and earlier this year Federation sponsored 1,000 Shabbats, a citywide program to encourage people to have Friday night dinner together.

HaLevy says such programs could benefit from a more integrated approach with the Board of Rabbis. She hopes the task force will have completed its work and hired an executive director by the end of her term in May.

Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El in Valley Village is next in line to take over as president, and he said any goals he might have had likely will take a backseat to making sure the process is open and the transition is smooth.

“I’m excited about this process,” Bernhard said. “The meetings so far have given me a greater sense of the different possibilities that are out there and the different ways of working together. I’m very excited about what might unfold, even if I’m uncertain what exactly it is going to look like.”