Young Rabbis Speak

This article by Sid Schwartz originally appeared at Sh’ma.

We asked three rabbis just beginning their rabbinical careers to reflect on their initial impressions of working within a synagogue. Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who has worked with each of these rabbis and dozens more over the past decade, shares some of his thoughts about how to do more to support the next generation of American rabbis.

Rabbi Michelle Dardashti

People, not programs.  I recall distinctly the evening this adage came to define my rabbinate.  I was seated in the beit midrash, as I often was during my seminary years, but rather than studying a folio page of Aramaic, my gaze was fixed upon a large piece of butcher paper with surprisingly profound chicken scratchings.  Before me stood a guy who looked like he belonged in a beit midrash, but didn’t sound like it.  Meir Lakein — a tzitzit-
wearing community organizer — preached the Torah of Congregation Based Community Organizing (CBCO) in a way that made my eyes go wide and my hair stand on end.  He spoke of the malaise plaguing synagogues in a way I’d never heard before.  He identified not intermarriage nor lack of observance as what’s doing us in, but rather an oversaturation of programming.  Radical.  Revolutionary.

Driven by our consumer culture and desperate attempts to retain and increase membership, rabbis too often serve as marketing professionals rather than as the genuine community builders we set out to be.  Over-programming perpetuates a view of synagogues as fee-for-service institutions, it leads to the burnout of its professionals and laity alike, and it distracts from our core mission: making synagogues transformative spaces for worship, learning, mourning, celebration, and the cultivation of Jewish souls in sacred relationship with one another. The mistake lies in putting programs before people.

The training I received through this cross-seminary course in CBCO (sponsored then by Jewish Funds for Justice and currently by JOIN for Justice) significantly shifted the way I understood the business of synagogue life. I was exposed to a model of leadership rooted in relationships and in assessing and leveraging power, not power over others but power with (one’s congregants, colleagues, local congregations and interest groups) — leadership that is collaborative rather than hierarchical.  It taught me how to “listen strategically,” how to hear the voices around me — whether of apathy or passion, frustration or inspiration — and respond in practical ways.  By helping me identify actionable issues to tackle as a community and leaders to spearhead the process, my training in CBCO focused my rabbinic vision and fine-tuned my rabbinic hearing.

In my short time in the rabbinate thus far, I’ve remained committed to serving with CBCO eyes and ears.  I was privileged to serve as a rabbinic fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan and I subsequently “organized” for myself a rabbinic position with “people not programs” as my official motto and marching orders.  While more labor intensive initially, investment in relationships and leaders rather than events and programs produces a yield far more vibrant and sustainable.  We need to leverage our rabbinic power to slowly shift the paradigms at our synagogues.  We’re working on it … one relationship at a time.

Rabbi Ploni

I entered rabbinical school to help reshape the North American Jewish landscape. I had been involved in the independent minyan movement and a range of experimental Jewish cultural groups. I decided to become a rabbi to help our community become one that manifests social justice, love, holiness, and joy. In rabbinical school, I went to conferences and retreats about institutional change and worked in several pioneering organizations.

After ordination, I took a rabbinic job at a large, conventional synagogue in a Northeastern urban center that appeared ready for change. They sought a rabbi to fill a new position: part assistant rabbi and part outreach specialist. I was asked to reach out primarily to young adults, suburbanites, and interfaith families. The several lay leaders with whom I spoke supported the outreach initiative and seemed current on developments in the field. I began my job with high hopes.

I soon confronted many obstacles. Fundamentally, the synagogue was not prepared for the change for which they hired me. They gave me responsibility for outreach but neither authority nor support for directing innovative steps within the congregation. My programs were downplayed and absent from quarterly
newsletters; lay leaders and staff questioned my strategies and ignored the research in best practices that I provided them. My traditional rabbinic and educational responsibilities were increased, and they cut into the time that I could devote to outreach. I began to feel as though the lay leadership expected a magic trick: Increase memberships among the underrepresented demographics without fundamentally changing the congregation itself. At the end of one year, I decided not to continue my work at the synagogue.

I wish I had had a community of practice with which to discuss my work and mentors whose experiences might have helped me to turn the initiative around. I am left wondering how established rabbis might help early career rabbis to best use their passion and talent to breathe new life into the Jewish community.

Rabbi Laura Baum

Even when entering rabbinic school, I knew I wanted to build a rabbinate that would create new entry points for people into the Jewish community. When I was hired in 2008 by Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati to build an online congregation, it was the perfect opportunity for me.  Since its launch, has reached more than 300,000 people in 180 countries.  We use technology and social media to bring Judaism to people where they are.  Through live streaming services, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, YouTube videos, educational materials, and our app that makes our liturgy and other resources available on mobile devices, we make Judaism accessible. We use technology as a means to share a philosophy that focuses on empowering Jews and sees Judaism as an evolving experience.

Each week, participants flock to their computers to join us for a Shabbat experience; Rabbi Robert Barr, my colleague at Beth Adam and, and I have a discussion that we video-stream.  During those Shabbat experiences, people participate through our chat feature, which allows us to incorporate multiple voices into the conversation. For our annual online Passover seder, someone from Russia may read (on video) about the shank bone and someone from Paris may read about Hillel’s sandwich; we sing together across continents.

During the High Holidays, we see the power of online community.  I always find our Yom Kippur memorial service especially meaningful, as it includes a slide show with names and photos of deceased relatives of our online participants.  As people watch, they type in the names of those they are remembering.  As well, families can now “attend” services together even if they are separated geographically.  While we don’t use technology for its own sake, we’ve certainly seen its ability to connect people to Judaism.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s Observations

These short reflections come from early career rabbis. Rabbi Dardashti is able to use the framework and organizing strategy of her CBCO training to start rethinking the tendency of synagogues that too often focus on programs instead of people.  Rabbi Ploni (who has adopted a pseudonym for this essay) accepts a newly created position with high hopes for breaking new ground in synagogue outreach only to discover that a few organizational pieces are missing, leading to a big disappointment on the part of the congregation and the young rabbi. Rabbi Baum, who works in a conventional congregation, is given financial support by the synagogue to leverage the reach of social media to pioneer an impressive new model for engaging large numbers of Jews.

Over the past ten years I have worked with more than 300 rabbinical students from ten different seminaries. Here are three observations from that work:

  • To paraphrase the title of a well-known management book: What got us here will not get us there. In other words, the changing realities of the Jewish community cry out for bold, risk-taking spiritual leaders who will rethink how the next generation “does Jewish.”
  • The students who are most innovative are most at risk of failure. There is much more support in place for young rabbis who are prepared to follow in the footsteps of the rabbis who came before them than for young rabbis who want to break new ground and create new models for Jewish life.
  • Young rabbis need mentors and a community of practice to nurture their talent. While seminaries can do more to provide the tools students will need to navigate the professional challenges that they will inevitably confront, there is hardly enough time during rabbinical school to do it all. Each of the rabbis who shared their early career experiences above, could create a list of skills that they could use now.If those same skills were offered in a seminar during their seminary years, it would not have had the same impact. There are far too many rabbis with great minds and hearts who are not successful once they are in the field because they lack timely guidance on organizational development, systems theory, change management, and a wide range of general management skills.
  • Talent and passion are not enough. Any field that aspires to excellence must invest in programs that train the professionals who lead the field. For the Jewish community, that needs to be our rabbis.

Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, a 2010 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is Director of Community Engagement at Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. 

Rabbi Ploni (a pseudonym), is a recently ordained rabbi who wrote anonymously for professional reasons. 

Rabbi Laura Baum, a 2008 graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, Ohio and a founding rabbi of 

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a rabbinic entrepreneur, founded Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., and PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. He is a senior fellow at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where he runs retreats for rabbinical students focused on innovation in the rabbinate. Schwarz is now developing a rabbinic leadership incubator program for CLAL — a two-year, interdenominational program for early-career rabbis. The program will provide mentoring, a support system to encourage risk-taking, and tools with which to lead and manage institutional change.

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