A Powerful Leadership Network: An Examination of Rabbis Without Borders

Rabbis in the first cohort of Rabbis Without Borders learn together; photo courtesy.
Rabbis in the first cohort of Rabbis Without Borders learn together; photo courtesy.

By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

Leaders cannot lead alone. Without a community around them, they would have no one to lead, and no one to turn to for advice. The best leaders seek out places where they can be both challenged and nurtured in order to reach their highest potential. The Rabbis Without Borders Network is a case study which demonstrates how a rich, diverse, challenging, and safe place enables leaders to think, explore, and imagine together, and therefore become more confident, transformative, and relatable leaders.

Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) is a pluralistic network of 200 rabbis who begin their association by being selected to be part of a 20-person cohort. During the cohort year, the rabbis are exposed to a number of different ideas designed to stimulate their own creative thinking on how best to integrate Jewish wisdom with modern life. The cohort group is intentionally diverse, with a mix of ages, denominations, parts of the country, and areas of the rabbinate represented. In addition, the rabbis have many different individual political positions and varying relationships with God and Jewish tradition. As the cohort gets to know each other, a safe space is established. Everyone is encouraged to share their own views and ideas, since only by speaking and listening to one another can we learn from one another. Participants are expected to listen to the opinion of a colleague with whom they do not agree, and are taught through several exercises how to practice this listening technique.

One of the first things that happen in the group is that stereotypes and assumptions are broken down. The rabbis learn that there are right-wing conservative Republican Reform rabbis and left-wing liberal Democrat Orthodox rabbis. They learn that some liberal rabbis are stricter about what they see as within the bounds of Judaism than their more “traditional” counterparts. Once the rabbis are able to see each person in the room as an individual and not just a representative of a particular denomination or a position on the halachic spectrum, they are more open to learning about that person and what is important to them. As the rabbis get to know each other, trust begins to build which carries across the cohort year and into the network. The trust which is established between the rabbis allows everything else to grow. Significant time is used to build relationships in the initial cohort and in subsequent annual RWB retreats.

It is essential to emphasize the importance of this psychological shift in truly seeing the individual in front of them. Once this shift occurs, the rabbis learn how not to prejudge any individual, how to be open to hearing what the person is sharing, and how not to have a knee-jerk reaction to them. After experiencing this session, one rabbi shared how he went home to have a meeting with one of his most difficult congregants. In the past he often lost his composure with this person. However, the rabbi said, this time, he was able to take a step back and see this person in a different light. He understood that this person’s issues had nothing to do with him as the rabbi, and everything to do with her own history. Instead of reacting negatively, he was able to listen to her in a new way, and they made progress on a number of fronts. Another rabbi reported how in the past, she often had a knee-jerk “no” reaction when congregants asked her to consider new ideas, especially those which she considered to be outside the bounds of Jewish law. After her RWB experience, she learned to pause and to truly listen to what was being proposed. She found herself much more open to new ideas. She has now experimented with several new programs and ritual experiences in her congregation, and is surprised how invigorated both she and the congregation feel.

This openness allows tight bonds to be formed between the rabbis as well. After the initial cohort year, the rabbis join the larger RWB Network. Connections between rabbis in different cohorts are ongoing through online and alumni gatherings. Faculty from Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who oversee RWB, are available for ongoing coaching and advising, and often make connections between rabbis who are working in similar areas, either geographically or topically. Because the open, pluralist values of the group have already been well established, the rabbis feel comfortable sharing ideas and challenging each other to think outside the box. Two-thirds of the rabbis in the RWB Network report being in touch with other rabbis in the network at least once a month. 30 percent of those rabbis communicate with each other once a week. This is a leadership network in action, a constant reverberation of connections among rabbis to stimulate creative thinking for each involved.

In addition to the safe, pluralist environment which is created, this network approach stimulates creativity by promoting the value of positivity and optimism. Barbara Frederickson, a positive psychologist, writes about the “broaden and build theory” of positive emotions in her book Positivity. Her research demonstrates what seems like common sense: When people feel positive they are more open to trying new ideas and creating new things. When people feel badly, they get stuck in a small space and fear change.

While many in the Jewish world bemoan shrinking synagogue attendance and other markers of traditional Jewish observance, rabbis in this network see possibility and promise. Reframing the conversation about Jewish life in a positive lens changes the paradigm of how Jewish thought conversations work. In the RWB Network, any rabbi, at any stage of his or her career, can reimagine how they teach, preach, and share Jewish wisdom with others. The overwhelming majority of rabbis from RWB report that the network has encouraged them to experiment with new ideas and programs and not to fear failure. 91 percent of RWB Fellows have created new programs or approaches to programming in their synagogue/organization since participating and 81 percent report an increase in attendance at their services and programs because they have initiated new ideas.

Several rabbis have since founded their own communities or organizations as a result of RWB. One rabbi reported, “I never would have had the confidence to start my community without the support of the RWB Network. I know I can turn to my colleagues to ask questions, to think through big ideas, and get support when I need it. The Clal faculty has been incredibly helpful advising me on visioning, community organizing, and fundraising.” Another shared, “In my own community, “I always feel like I am going out on a limb. That is a scary place to be. Now, I feel like there are lots of people out there with me.” It takes courage to try out new ideas, to experiment with an age-old tradition, to reinterpret classic understandings of text. Very few people can do it alone. Having a space where they can share ideas without fear, where colleagues will take the time to comment, give honest feedback, and support them in their endeavors has given them the opportunity to try new things.

To be clear, the positive energy which is infused throughout the RWB Network does not block out serious disagreements and challenges the rabbis discuss with each other. Several intense conversations have occurred around Israeli/Palestinian issues. Others have debated the pros and cons of intermarriage. Still others have grappled with the changing nature of sexual and gender identity playing out in our larger society. What sets this network apart is that these conversations happen in a way so that everyone feels heard and respected. Using their improved listening skills, the rabbis acknowledge when they’ve heard the truth of another point of view even if they still don’t agree with the larger opinion. No one walks away from the table angry. Though the issues are certainly not resolved, everyone learns from the conversations and in turn is better equipped to have these conversations in an open manner with their communities and congregants. They are practicing and modeling pluralist dialogue within the network so that they can be stronger leaders, breaking through that which divides communities at home.

“It’s lonely at the top.” It is a cliché, but it holds true, especially for rabbis; whether they work in synagogues, schools, campuses or hospitals, they can feel as if they are working alone. Major decisions about how to deal with sensitive situations, how to lead a community, or how to respond to an individual or communal crisis fall to them. Establishing leadership networks and finding a safe space to vision, think creatively, and innovate may be difficult, yet it is essential for successful rabbinic work. Harnessing the power of a leadership network strengthens the leadership potential of each individual and will lead to a richer, more flourishing Jewish community as a whole.

Applications are now open for the next RWB cohort. For more information and to apply visit: rabbiswithoutborders.org/for-rabbis/

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal—the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. To read more articles about the future of leadership, visit www.jtsa.edu/gleanings-a-dialogue-on-jewish-education.