Synagogues need to be accountable


In her courageous blog post for WJW’s online Forum, “Women need to speak up about Mikveh,” alleged Freundel victim Emma Shulevitz highlights the need for changes in synagogue governance and an increase in “rabbinic oversight.”

Synagogue governance is complicated. I remember listening to a sermon about the Tower of Babel. The rabbi quoted the text, “Let us … confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.” The rabbi asked what this meant, and one guy said, “God is describing a shul board meeting!” The analogy was apt. Try asking a congregant what the primary purpose of a synagogue is, and you will hear a veritable babble of opinions!

There are many synagogues that take governance seriously. Unfortunately, too many don’t. Our world is becoming more transparent. We must make sure that all practices conform to the highest ethical and legal standards and are subject to appropriate oversight.

I have spent the last 20 years working as a leader in the Jewish community, primarily in day schools but also dealing with leadership and governance. When worst-case scenarios hit the news, we start asking the what-if questions and highlighting doomsday scenarios. Then, we forget about it until the next issue arises. Once inertia sets in, the willingness to make changes disappears. I work to capture the motivation for change, and then help organizations act on that motivation so that the change happens. In the spirit of action, here are some suggestions for synagogues to consider.

Establish a governance model that will allow the rabbi to be successful and accountable for the duration of his/her tenure. It is often assumed that success and accountability are conflicting concepts but the reality is that they are in fact, complementary. A rabbi could have good reason to be cynical about this concept. In order to be effective, the rabbi needs stability and consistency over an extended period of time so that he or she can develop and steward a vision for the community. Contrast that with the fact that many synagogues change presidents every two years often with a new style and a particular agenda. There is a strategy that mitigates a significant amount of the impact of this dynamic while at the same time creating a stronger interplay between lay and professional leadership. Known as the “Support and Evaluation Committee” it is recommended by BoardSource, the premier experts in not-for-profit governance. The committee of four is established at the outset of the tenure of a new rabbi. It is made up of established synagogue lay leaders who will serve across multiple future lay administrations and also includes the current president and one other senior leader. The committee is charged with partnering with the rabbi to develop and implement goals, monitor progress, advocate for the rabbi in the community and organize a structured supervision and evaluation process including a formal and confidential feedback loop.

Ensure that a workable organizational structure is in place. It is usually advisable to have a stiff drink before asking a synagogue to explain the reporting structure for its employees. Does everybody report to the board? Is the rabbi the CEO? Is the executive director the CEO? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then you are a typical shul. Ideally, any organization should have as few employees as possible reporting directly to the board (optimum is one). All other employees should report within the professional structure. The members of the board should not give direction to people who do not report to them. For this to be effective, expert leadership development at a high level needs to be part of initial rabbinical training and be required as ongoing professional development for the pulpit rabbi as well as his or her board leadership.

Include provision for executive coaching at least in the early years of a contract. The success of a community is almost entirely dependent on a rabbi being able to demonstrate leadership skills that will allow him or her to prioritize the workload and lead a team to accomplish outcomes. Executive coaching is widely regarded as a most effective way of keeping the leader of an organization focused on strategy and big-picture issues so that they do not become entirely consumed with day-to-day issues.

Of course, each community has a different size, location and culture and there is no one size fits all. However, given all we are seeing and learning, every community, without exception, should be asking itself probing questions about its governance and the support and accountability for the rabbi and other professional leadership.

Jonathan Cannon is a leadership consultant in the Jewish community and a former head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.

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