roundtableBy Barbara Merson

It was a terrible winter in Westchester County, New York this year. Roads were impassable and parking lots have been impossible with huge mounds of snow everywhere. Programs had to be cancelled, rescheduled, and cancelled again. All in all, this was a winter that would lead most executive directors to stay inside in our heated (we hope) buildings and deal with the next crisis. But although it was nasty out there, the executive directors of Westchester had a secret weapon to help beat the cold – we had the warmth, comfort and support of our Westchester Synagogue Executive Directors Roundtable.

The Roundtable was started many years ago by the Westchester Jewish Council (WJC-The Jewish Community Relations Council for Westchester), an organization whose mission is to connect Westchester’s Jewish communities and strengthen relationships among Jewish organizations. According to WJC Executive Director Elliot Forchheimer, WJC recognized early that there are three types of synagogue leadership: spiritual, lay, and executive and created round tables for each as a way for local colleagues and volunteers to work on local issues. “Roundtables are about relationships,” says Forchheimer. “We share interactively to make sure that we learn from everyone’s experiences. We don’t replace national organizations, we supplement them.”

According to organizational theorist Etienne Wenger, groups of people will collaborate effectively if they “share a concern or passion for what they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” This describes the Westchester Synagogue Executive Director Roundtable perfectly. The participants care about Jewish life in Westchester, their synagogues, and each other. In spite of the horrible weather this year, the group met regularly and meetings were well attended as always, a testament to the value in which the group is held. The Roundtable provides a safe space for the executive directors, a place where they can have honest dialogues about pressing issues and know that the information will be used for the good of all. This is particularly remarkable as Westchester is dense with synagogues and it would be easy to view the other executive directors as competitors rather than colleagues. It is also remarkable in that the group is interdenominational, with active participants from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and non-denominational synagogues. While each synagogue has different practices, the common bonds of geography and position over-ride sectarian concerns.

So what do we talk about and how are our meetings structured? First, while the meetings are under the auspices of the WJC, they are chaired and organized by the executive directors. The Chair is rotated every two years, with the new chairs being nominated by all those who have previously served. The agendas are set based on the interests of the participants. Sometimes this is determined by a survey; sometimes suggestions come in by e-mail prior to the meetings. Over the past few years, the group has realized that our most valuable discussions come from within the group. For this reason, outside speakers are kept to minimum unless a topic is requested with which the group has no expertise, for example, recent not-for-profit legislation. One of our most interesting discussions this year focused on one our colleague’s involvement in his synagogue’s movement to voluntary dues. Of course, this is a topic of great interest to all of us and we had read some of the many articles on the subject. However, it is very different when a colleague that you know well gives you the insider picture of both the joys and challenges of the process.

Another aspect of the Roundtable that all of the Executive Directors greatly appreciate is the connections to other Westchester organizations. Because the WJC is connected to all of the local organizations, a seat at the Roundtable provides instant entre to the organized Jewish community of Westchester. Like many synagogue executive directors nationwide, many of us are new to the synagogue world and sometimes new to the Westchester area as well when we begin our jobs. The Roundtable provides the area contacts that help us do our own jobs better and also be resources to our congregations. Participation in the Roundtable also enables executive directors to publicize events broadly in the region either through our connections to each other or through the WJC Westchester community calendar. In addition, a representative of Synergy, UJA-Federation of New York that focuses on working with synagogues is a welcomed guest of the Roundtable and also provides valuable research and connections to the greater Jewish community.

There are many examples of how the Roundtable helps the Westchester executive directors bond, but perhaps the most significant is how we welcome new executive directors and recognize our colleagues who are retiring or in need of comfort. Although it was eight years ago, I remember my first months in the job very well. They were a blur of faces and names and buildings, some welcoming, some not. I also remember how good it felt to come to my first Roundtable meeting and meet people who immediately understood my confusion and offered to help. Under the WJC’s guidance, the Roundtable provides a welcome respite from the constant demands of our jobs and a place where everyone feels welcomed and valued.

In addition to welcoming new colleagues, we also honor those who are retiring. We recognize them with a presentation and short remarks, and give them a chance to talk about the highlights and challenges of their tenure, sharing their wisdom and accomplishments. While they are all honored by their synagogues as well, the appreciation of colleagues is very meaningful for all involved.

In Pirkei Avot (1:6) we are asked to “choose for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and view every person in a favorable light.” This is the essence of the Westchester SYNAGOGUE Executive Directors Roundtable. We become each other’s teachers and friends and create an atmosphere in which everyone is seen in a favorable light. It is a true example of collegial collaboration, and we hope it will be around for many years to come.

Barbara Merson is the Executive Director of Temple Shaaray Tefila of Northern Westchester New York and a PhD candidate in a joint program of Lesley University and Hebrew College. She currently serves as the chair of the Westchester Synagogues Executive Directors Roundtable.

This article was previously published in the NATA Journal, Spring 2015; reprinted with permission.