By Dr. Steve Weitz
At its best, the synagogue is a sacred space and a spiritual home for all who enter its doors, a place in which everyone in the community – members, lay leaders, clergy, and professional staff – acts according to Jewish values. However, when individuals engage in inappropriate or unethical conduct, they harm others and damage the community itself.
For these reasons, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) strongly encourages congregations to develop and implement a code of ethics that everyone understands they must adhere to if they wish to participate in the community.
Such a code demonstrates that the entire community aspires to act according to the highest ethical standards, gives your congregation an opportunity to examine its values, and preserves and reinforces the integrity of the synagogue as a sacred – and safe – institution for all. It also informs members of acceptable standards of individual behavior and provides clear guidelines to help them determine if their actions and synagogue decision-making are, indeed, ethical.
Here are five specific actions to consider as your congregation develops and implements a code of ethics:
1. Obtain leaders’ buy–in.
Lay and professional leaders should clearly articulate and endorse the need for such a code and support its development and implementation. When possible, leaders should establish a dedicated team or task force – representative of the congregation’s composition – to construct the ethics code, engage key stakeholders, and report regularly on the process and progress-to-date.
Once it’s been developed, synagogue leaders should inform and educate the entire community about the code in a way that reflects the congregation’s culture. Ultimately, the board should ratify the final document – with an understanding that it’s a “living document” that, based on experience, periodically will need to be reviewed and revised.
2. Determine the breadth of the code.
Consider whether the code of ethics will apply only to volunteer leaders and professional staff or to every member of the synagogue community and whether certain provisions need apply only to partners with financial responsibilities.
Complaints of ethics violations against individuals who are members of professional organizations – such a the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, American Conference of Cantors, Association of Reform Jewish Educators or National Association for Temple Administration – should be referred to the specific organization’s ethics committee.
3. Select values to highlight.
The foundation of your code of ethics should rest on a set of well-articulated Jewish values. To determine which values your congregation wants to highlight, you may wish to reference your existing values statement and/or conduct an evaluation with lay and professionals stakeholders to determine your community’s top values. Whenever possible, ground the supporting values in Jewish texts.
4. State desired behaviors.
Your ethics code should go beyond describing unethical conduct and include desired behaviors as well. For example, regarding financial management, you may note an unethical behavior that is prohibited such as, “Misappropriation of synagogue funds for unauthorized use.” A corresponding desired behavior might be “Scrupulously and transparently handle synagogue assets.” In addition, be sure your code of ethics complies with local, state/provincial, and federal legal statutes.
5. Position the code as a brit or covenant.
Framing the congregational code of ethics as a brit, or covenant, will remind those to whom it applies of their responsibility to maintain a sacred relationship with their synagogue community. You might consider including the ethics code in new member membership packets and post it on the synagogue’s website.
For more on this topic, members of URJ congregations can join the conversation and access the URJ’s new guide, template, and brit on creating a congregational ethics code in The Tent. Non-URJ members can request access to this resource by filling out this form.
Dr. Steve Weitz is a past president and current trustee at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. He is a URJ vice chair and chair of the URJ Ethics Council. He serves on the Oversight Committee and the North American Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism.
This piece was originally published on the URJ’s Inside Leadership blog; republished with permission.