Finding Conservative Judaism’s New “Trim Tab” Leaders

by Kathy Elias

Next month, about 60 incoming and current synagogue presidents will go on retreat with United Synagogue staff in our Sulam for Presidents program. (Sulam means “ladder” in Hebrew.) Coming from all over the continent, their congregations will differ in size and pressing issues, but as individuals, the presidents will be very similar. They’ll be excited, honored to be taking on this sacred responsibility, and not quite sure how to prioritize the changes that need to happen in their synagogue communities.

One former Sulam president summed it up this way: “My congregation has given me a conflicting message. They’re saying, ‘Please change everything, but don’t change anything.'”

Where would you begin?

Franklin Covey took on that question in 2009 with the sailing metaphor of a trim tab. (Buckminster Fuller also famously has “Call Me Trimtab” inscribed on his headstone.) For those of us who know nothing more about a ship than that the captain goes down with it, here’s all you need to understand for now: A rudder turns the ship. With a very large ship, picture a rudder the height of your house, and try to imagine the energy that needs to be exerted on it in order to change direction. A trim tab is a tiny rudder attached to the big main one. Maneuvering the trim tab will turn the large rudder, and the whole ship, with more ease and less resistance than trying to turn it directly.

Covey encouraged each of us to become organizational trim tabs, making small but strategic changes in the areas in which we are most able. “Your small actions, your work in your circle of influence can create, over time, a big impact on your organization.” If aligned with an overall vision, the changes from a few trim tab leaders can affect the whole system.

But here’s the challenge in synagogues: Presidents aren’t likely to be trim tab leaders. Even with the best intentions and carefully crafted short term goals, once they take their place, synagogue presidents are barraged with the three B’s of operations: Buildings, Budgets, and Business-As-Usual. For that reason, we teach presidents how to set the structure and process that would allow small, strategic changes to be made by others, and to keep the ship going in the right direction.

Then the question becomes, where do presidents find the people who will be their trim tab leaders? It’s fair to say that a new generation of leaders is not eagerly lining up for their turn at the helm of our shuls. For the last three years we at United Synagogue have been working on this challenge with a group of 50 synagogues looking for a way to bring potential leaders forward. The results are more than encouraging. In fact, I believe we are watching a new generation of trim tab leaders emerge from the nearly 1,000 participants we expect to go through the program by the end of the year.

The approach we’re using to engage this new cohort is called Sulam for Emerging Leaders. The essential element of the program is that synagogue leaders actively identify and recruit people they think have leadership potential, not once these folks are on the leadership ladder but before they’ve even stepped on the first rung.

To participate in SEL, synagogues must have a rabbi or cantor and a lay leader who commit to leading the program for a year, as well as a cohort of about a dozen potential leaders who agree to participate. (The target age range for participants is 35-45.) United Synagogue then trains the clergy and lay leader teams to use our six-session curriculum with their groups. SEL takes place in their home communities, and focuses on building relationships through Jewish learning, personal reflection, and shared experiences. Hosting Shabbat dinner, for instance, is a simple and powerful requirement of the program. The SEL curriculum is designed to help participants face head-on the forces that compete for time in their lives, especially “sacred time.” Then the lens progressively moves from the personal to the communal.

Drs. Steven Cohen and Ezra Kopelowicz are independent evaluators who have studied Sulam for Emerging Leaders and its impact from its inception. The results have been remarkable. The first report in 2012 showed that the program reached the target age group and positively affected the participants’ feelings of connection with their clergy and one another. The second year evaluation, just completed, tracked the engagement of the participants immediately after the program. Here is what surprised even those of us with high hopes for the concept: 80% of participants increased their engagement with the synagogue, but 52% stepped right into leadership roles.

What kind of leaders will these emerging leaders be? How can we know they’ll ask the right questions and focus on more than just the three B’s of synagogue business as usual?

We’re getting clues that they will. This year, the training teams in SEL synagogues are asking their groups a simple, yet critical, question at the end of every session, and sharing the answers with us. Participants are being asked, “What questions emerge from our discussion today that you’d like to know more about?” Here are the types of things this year’s emerging leaders are curious about, after only one or two sessions:

  • How can we be most inclusive?
  • How do we fulfill the needs of the community when needs are so disparate?
  • Who are the rule makers and gatekeepers?
  • What are the ramifications of our decisions?
  • What compromises do we make?
  • Where does Judaism fit in?
  • How can we set a good example?
  • What if setting examples is not enough?

These questions reflect a shared language that comes straight from the curriculum. The idea of gatekeepers, for instance, is from the first session’s text study, and I can already see that these emerging leaders are not only looking at community through the lens of openness and inclusion, but also questioning how their own actions can make a difference. This is the essence of a trim tab leader, as described by Covey: “Simply by focusing on what you can do even if it’s outside of your job description and make small adjustments and improvements along the way.”

Our Sulam team’s goal of continuous improvement of the program led us to add a seventh session this year to the SEL curriculum. It will give each group that chooses to continue to learn together a chance to explore answers to their questions and understand more about the dynamics of their home communities. How each group approaches this learning will shape the shared values and vision that will prepare them for every rung of their Sulam leadership ladder.

Here’s the question I’ll be asking during the next five years: As the number of emerging leaders in Conservative kehillot moves into the thousands, how will they turn not only the ship of Conservative Judaism, but the Jewish Community as a whole?

Kathy Elias is Chief Kehilla Officer at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.