Courageous conversations: ten years on

In Short

Talking tachlis about transitions

It was ten years ago (eJP, May 2011) that I first took to this platform to call for congregational lay leaders and rabbis to take up a “Courageous Conversation.” In a word, our congregations were, I suggested then, threatened; the antidote I proposed: dialogue and listening to one another. At the time, collaboration was proffered as the most advisable way to address our circumstance.  And for a while, there was collaboration – largely at the margins – but we soon reverted back to norm.

The more things change …

Ten years on, our situation is even more dire – this was true pre-COVID; and now, having familiarized ourselves with the enormous disruption and uncertainty this pandemic has wrought, more than ever before, congregational leaders need desperately to dialogue with one another … Yet, for historical & institutional reasons, as well as the folly of human pride, dialogue remains easier described than undertaken.

The Reform Movement was originally founded, as a collective of independent and autonomous congregations, so that rabbis could be trained and prayerbooks could be published. In time, this collective of Reform congregations helped a new generation of immigrants become loyal Americans, while city-dwellers, now suburbanites could remain connected to traditions of the old country while embracing their identities as Americans. Always the promise of Reform Judaism was that, by virtue of this network of Movement-affiliated institutions, any Jew could readily recognize and be assimilated into any Reform congregation anywhere in the country.  

There was strength in our numbers; but over time, it became clear that, excepting national programs such as our support of the Hebrew Union College, URJ Biennials and camps and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, the Reform Movement is, in truth, a loose confederation of independently minded and idiosyncratically governed entities that speak of their connections to one another, but day-to-day each operates as a stand-alone entity.   

And, now, in the midst of the greatest disruption to American Jewish life our generation has ever experienced, our long-encouraged emphasis on congregational autonomy and individualism has become our Movement’s albatross and our respective congregations’ greatest stumbling block.

This helps us to understand why, in the face of the altogether new challenges ravaging every congregation in non-Orthodox Jewish America, liberal Jewish national thought leaders remain committed to this out-dated individualistic approach: namely, we are all in this together (bound by our history and national agenda) but, at the local level, every congregation should continue to do what their respective lay/rabbinic leadership believes is in their own self-interests.  

There are, to be sure, well-publicized examples of various congregations engaging these difficult discussions one-on-one; and there are, to be sure, novel overtures being made between neighbors here and there, usually as a result of overt need on the part of one of the two. But, frustratingly, in the face of seismic disruptions to every sector within our society and aware of the tremendous anxiety experienced by every congregational lay leader and rabbi, when an altogether new strategy is required, the Reform Movement’s leaders continue to rely upon and push a one-size-fits-all, go-it-alone playbook.  

In essence, when congregational rabbis and lay leaders need guidance from national leadership most, the message from above is simple: You be you. Take care. Good luck!

Indeed, the message coming out of the Movement’s national offices regarding helping congregations plan for the future continues to be that which defined the approach years ago, namely to encourage congregations to think of their own needs and, then, to work at solving those challenges in isolation. In this national yet narrow approach, the powers-that-be among the Reform Movement’s leadership can have it both ways: as a national union, all Reform congregations are united in their values & goals but, as independent entities, each is encouraged to act alone in realizing them. So it is that, even in an existential crisis, when everything is different for every single liberal Jewish congregation in our country, the message from leaders and representatives of the Reform Movement to local rabbis and lay leaders has not changed.  Alas.

What do I propose?  I return to where I began a decade ago.  

In the absence of our Movement’s national leadership offering any rhetorical cover or guidance by way of offering a new modus operandi for congregations as they meet this moment (ie. encouraging rabbis and lay leaders from near-by congregations to actually talk to lone another), these Courageous Conversations must be held at the local level among every Reform congregation’s rabbis and laity and their counterpart-neighbors.  

This country-wide Courageous Conversation must founded upon: (a) a shared esprit de corps among like-minded, local lay leaders, (b) a sense of “we are all in this together” among rabbis and staff from erstwhile “cross-town rivals,” and, crucially, there must be (c) a willingness among all parties within the (two or more) congregations to work in full collaboration to address the challenges every non-Orthodox Jewish congregation in this country faces simultaneously today (budgets, personnel, property, program, membership and boards/lay leaders) in order that in three to five years’ time, we will be in an even  stronger position to address the new challenges life will bring.

Where might such a Courageous Conversation start?    

Anywhere, of course; inertia and inaction are our greatest enemy. However, by way of a single example, let’s consider the organizational chart … but let’s move beyond a discussion of combining back-office activities and sharing youth-group hires (these laudable moves are worth embarking upon and are a good start, to be sure, but, given the existential crises our congregations face, I fear, such feel-good overtures risk being too little too late).  

So, let’s imagine we are discussing rabbinic transitions, successions and searches.

Rabbinic transitions are inevitable yet predictable facts of congregational life. But only in the last two decades or so have they been approached as a leadership issue that can be planned for and effectively managed.

Years ago, the ways in which congregations within our movement planned for the future was fraught with risk. The roles of retiring clergy and the retaining of a new rabbi left much room for what can only be called “transitional turmoil.”

Oft times, retiring rabbis behaved badly; new rabbis failed to launch; congregational-rabbinic matches went south. Much of this tumult was mitigated against with the introduction of interim rabbis some twenty years ago. A good many colleagues now specialize in this work; and this truth is to the good. But it is now clear the perspective and expertise gained in these interim processes – that which guided rabbinic transition processes for so long – are no longer sufficient. After all, that was then. This is now.

To suggest that we ought blithely carry on with our Movement-approved transition plans, for example — all of which are well-thought-out, yet written in a yesteryear that never anticipated such a cataclysm as we are experiencing — is to argue that the Reform Movement and its congregations and rabbinate are no different today than was true pre-COVID. Or, if you will, for Reform congregations and their leaders to proceed into 2021 and beyond with the exact same rabbinic transitions playbook as we were using in the years prior to 2020 is, at once, to ignore the larger trends in Jewish life, all the while preparing a congregational community for a religious landscape that no longer exists.

It’s not that rabbis won’t retire and new colleagues won’t take new positions. They will, of course; life continues.  And congregations (those that survive) will, of course, always need to appreciate their departing/retiring clergy, all the while on-boarding new hires.  

What’s more, it may well be that hiring an interim-rabbi is the smart move to serve as a bridge between past and future.  But beyond that stop-gap measure, filling rabbinic vacancies in the age of COVID requires that we approach our task with a new clarity of vision that acknowledges and responds to the exigencies of our circumstance.  

And the truth is: The solutions to the rabbinic/personnel challenges every one of our congregations are facing may well be discovered in dialogue with our neighbors. Now, it would seem that encouraging congregational leaders in one place to be in dialogue with their peers in another would be the patently obvious (and uncontroversial) move, but amazingly no one among the Reform Movement’s leadership – and certainly not among those in the interim rabbinate today – is even encouraging, let alone calling for, this type of conversation.

As a result, as congregational rabbis, boards and search committees address their real world concerns – without any encouragement from the URJ or CCAR to do otherwise – most Reform Jewish congregational leaders fail to participate in this simplest of opportunities: talking with one’s neighbors about the challenges we all face and the solutions we can only realize in partnership. What a pity when the possibility of an entire community exploring and realizing a shared future is frustrated by a failure of any of the parties who rightly should be encouraging such behavior to do so.  

There is, after all, no reward for ignoring reality; indeed, arguably, doing so is at best a malfeasance, at worse an ethical breach, and surely a road to our own demise.  

Further, at present, given the enormous uncertainty in the system, the tremendous (and undeniable) inefficiency and duplication of efforts between neighboring congregations, as well as the shared existential challenges nearly all of our congregations face, it should be obvious that congregations on the local level ought be in regular, ongoing dialogue with one another – especially about matters as significant as rabbinic transitions and the future of lay leadership.  This was true ten years ago and is all the more so today.

The reality of congregational life augurs that in 2021 (and beyond), discussions about rabbinic transitions, for example, must move beyond the ways in which we have so long thought of doing things. Change of this scale is a challenge, of course; it is also fraught with fear, but the alternative is far worse. Thus, it is no longer acceptable for congregations to be told by our Movement’s national organizations and representatives on the ground that personnel decisions (especially as regards clergy) need not be reviewed, rethought and updated.  

Indeed, I believe rabbinic transitions ought be informed by the following three axioms:

(1) Aware that not all congregations will (or should) survive, all discussions re staffing and rabbinic contracts and succession planning must begin in every congregation before they seem necessary. Though such conversations are uncomfortable, to be sure, they are essential and long overdue!  We tarry at the entire Jewish community’s peril.

(2) From pre-transition SWOT analyses and self-study surveys to the drafting of job descriptions to the consideration of rabbinic candidates, all discussions about filling our pulpits must include lay leaders from other local liberal congregations (each of whom share similar internal and external challenges and all of whom are vested in realizing the same shared outcomes). This shift would be an essential break with the insular and out-dated processes wherein a congregation’s lay leaders (encouraged by national entities & led by outgoing and/or interim rabbis) talk exclusively among themselves, a closed set of self-selected, loyal fellow congregants! Though easier said than done, if we believe the liberal Jews in a given community are, in fact, all in this together, we can do no other than converse and collaborate!  As the old saw teaches, either we all hang together or we shall surely all hang separately.

(3) Finally, our respective congregations’ discussions about the future of the synagogue must focus not on recreating what yesterday’s leaders loved best about what “was” nor on identifying the “perfect match” who will soon charismatically draw-in an influx of new members (as did the outgoing rabbi). Rather, today, we must focus on bringing in a wider range of voices to help our current leaders re-cognize and re-imagine what their entire community will require in the next decades and beyond. This is about realizing our shared future together!

Truly, we are all in this together… and we need one another to realize our successes.  

Indeed, it was never the intention of our respective founders to ensure that our various congregations remain forever as stand-alone entities. It is time for us to dispense with the polite fiction that every congregation is sui generis and particular unto itself, for no single congregation can solve its own challenges so long as it insists on working solo!  

Today, rather than privileging every congregation’s independence and trumpeting every shul’s self-reliance and “unique” culture, Jewish leaders (rabbis and laity) need to embrace the very best ideas wheresoever they may be found within our communities, so that united our congregations may together realize the novel solutions our unprecedented circumstance demand.

Indeed, we must insist that our congregational leaders hold one another close and work as full partners to ensure our community’s collective survival. Sadly, yet appropriately, some individual congregations will inevitably close, rabbis will retire, and new entities and hires will emerge, but absent a willingness among us to engage in truly courageous conversations within our board rooms and among our communal neighbors, the story of liberal Jewish congregations in 21st century America will be an all-too-predictable tragedy of the commons, by which our entire community will suffer.

Suffering solo, however, need not be our fate.  

We can reject the idea that neighboring congregations are competitors and other rabbis are threats – vying neither for members nor hegemony. And we can choose, instead, to embrace one another, holding tight to both the ideals we share in common, as well as the shared goals we have for our children and our children’s children. In this way, our successes will be realized collaboratively and collectively and, ideally, with the support and encouragement of our Movement’s national leaders and their interim emissaries.  

As congregational rabbis and laity, this we do on behalf of Liberal Judaism writ large, for our having decided to work in concert for the entire community, as opposed to each and every congregation, lay leader and rabbi fighting to the end to preserve their own individual identity, parnassah and bragging rights.

After all, as Peter Drucker taught, “If you’re trying to save your own job, you’re probably solving the wrong problem.”

Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno holds the Frances F & David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.