Lessons Learned as Synagogue Executive Director

By Elyse Hyman

I have worked in the Jewish community for 30 years. Having worked in the federation world, adult education, policy studies and security, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to begin a new career as a synagogue administrator. How much more could there be? I was sure that I could do it part-time. Six years later, I am still learning and working 60+ hour weeks. How is this possible?

Work Hard and Smart

The synagogue world is a world unto itself. It is hard to describe, and sometimes hard to figure out. Now that I am entrenched in the day to day operations, I realize there are times when the workload is so overwhelming that I don’t know where to even start. At times, it is more important to stop, think and plan each task before just plowing through. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, sometimes the tasks we undertake in one area can be utilized over and over in slightly different ways for many of our long-range responsibilities.

Takeaway #1: Being a synagogue executive is a lot of work and it is easy to be reactive, it is important to take a deep breath and take time to plan.

Revamping Governance

I want to share two significant changes that have taken place in which we used a similar method, had successful results and are among the accomplishments of which I am most proud. Just before I stepped in as Executive Director, the synagogue had a Board of Directors with about 80 people, comprised of past presidents, chairs of committees and elected trustees. The first meeting I attended included twenty 8’ tables set up in a giant circle in our social hall. We didn’t accomplish anything, except one important item. Based on their recently accepted strategic plan, the president appointed a task force charged with changing the governance structure.

In order to create a working governance body, change was absolutely necessary. The Board was too large. There was no consistent attendance and no real authority invested in the members. The executive committee had been doing all the work and the Board became a rubber stamp of approval. It wasn’t working. Over a period of a year and a half, a lay led and staff supported committee met, studied and created a recommendation for a new structure. We had a strong and knowledgeable chairperson, assignments and goals for each meeting, and kept our overall goal manageable. We did the upfront work together. and then when it was time to figure out how to implement and educate, we brought in a consultant. Below is an overview of the process.

Original Governance structure overview

  • Board of Directors – 80+ People, generally viewed as ineffective
  • Executive Committee – 13 People, 25 People (includes past Presidents), makes all key decisions
  • Committees (24) – all treated as Board committees
  • No real leadership development, nominating, training or succession planning
  • Board Term – 3 year term, no more than 2 full terms for Board members
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Culture of philanthropy immature

Necessary questions that needed to be answered

  • Understanding the roles and responsibilities associated with Board membership
  • Reviewing the size of the Board and its effectiveness
  • Understanding the composition and term of Board members
  • What the role of past Presidents should be
  • Will need to figure out how to tie the financial committees into the formal structure
  • What the current structure of decision making is and should be
  • How does the work get done and how are decisions being made

It was decided that the task force needed to find consensus on the following:

  • Should Board members have a portfolio
  • Should Board members make the Temple a financial priority for donations
  • Board members need to be informed and make decisions and vote from an educated perspective, no more rubber stamping
  • Do Board members need to be present at Board meetings in order to make a difference
  • Do we want a smaller Board
  • What are board member expectations
  • What is the role of a larger advisory group


  • December – June           Task force meetings
  • June                                 Annual Congregational meeting
  • July – October                Finalize responsibilities, draft new by-laws, send notification to congregants of special meeting of the congregation
  • December                       Host special meeting of the congregation and vote on new governance structure to take effect at the June Annual meeting
  • November – April          Transition team interviews potential nominees for new board
  • June                                 Vote in new by-laws and new Board

A few years later, the new model is working. Each of our 25 Board members has a committee oversight portfolio, and clearly understands their fiduciary responsibility and governance roles. As a whole, the Board works as a cohesive and decision-making body.

Takeaway #2: Without a functional board, the temple will never achieve its fullest potential. Best practices need to be studied and implemented to increase board functionality. It is worth the investment of time and resources.

Building a Culture of Philanthropy

Once we re-designed and started implementing the new governance structure, I knew that we next had to tackle development. Fundraising had been done episodically and had taken a back seat at the synagogue. The annual campaign was raising minimal dollars and the thought of a capital or special campaign was not in the cards. We didn’t have a committee, nor anyone who would step up as chairperson when I started. Back to basics. Along the same premise as the governance changes, we needed to identify the problem, assemble a small group committed to making a change and start to build a culture of philanthropy. The major difference in the planning and educating was hiring a consultant from the beginning.

Below is an overview of the process that we undertook.

  1. It definitely made a difference having a formal development training process and then a campaign to test the training. We invited six proven leaders and the Rabbi to join the training sessions.
  2. Once the first cohort completed their training, we started a smaller second group. Then we invited them to join the development committee.
  3. We talked about immediate needs such as building an infrastructure or a database and tracking touch points and developed a comprehensive message. We formally went through the process of prospecting and rating and reviewing potential donors.
  4. We set a manageable goal for a special campaign. It was very important to succeed. Before each scheduled meeting with a donor, we met with the team of two to practice, answer questions and go through the message personally with our new solicitors. Having an outside coach/consultant lended expertise and gave members confidence.
  5. We looked at our membership, young and senior, new members and veteran members and set our target at $500,000 from major donors. Happily, we raised over $650,000 and the development committee was proud of their efforts.
  6. It was crucial to steward our new donors as well as our veteran contributors. We hosted a thank you event for our Board (notable, we received 100% participation from the Board) and major donors.
  7. Our Annual Sustaining Campaign was strengthened with ongoing work and phone calls from the development committee. We made it a priority. The Board gives 100% every year and our Annual Sustaining Campaign has grown from $40,000 to over $130,000 thanks to transparency of how the funds are spent and stewardship of donors.
  8. This past year, we had an opportunity to run another campaign in honor of our Rabbi’s 20th year on the pulpit. After careful consideration, we drafted our case for support for capital improvements to the building. Once again, we prospected, set up meetings and researched information about our congregants. We educated and answered questions and to date, have raised over $2.4 million dollars. We will conclude the campaign in the next couple weeks and expect to raise $3 million. Construction on our new function space will begin in the fall.

Takeaway #3: Peer to peer fundraising is the most effective method. This requires building a group of lay leaders who are comfortable fundraising and engaging the congregation in the vision and needs of the temple. Treating both the staff, clergy (the Rabbi), lay leaders and congregants as partners and investors has proven to be the best approach. To be honest, once we got the Rabbi on board and he realized how important it is to be able to ask for funding, he quickly became our best solicitor.

When I reflect on the changes we have instituted, I realize the key to our success in both scenarios was taking the time to plan, to educate and train volunteers and staff and provide them with support and coaching. We had immediate needs which could not have been funded through our annual budget. Explaining this to our donors has given all of us a more shared responsibility for keeping our congregation current and vibrant.

Being an Executive Director of a synagogue is a tremendous amount of work, watching these two significant changes take place has been very gratifying. One more important note, it was imperative to have a strong trusting relationship with the clergy, lay leaders, and especially the President and executive committee. Communication is crucial. We created a true working partnership and it made all the difference.

From my experience as an Executive Director of a synagogue, here is what I have learned:

  1. Have patience and listen to all options
  2. Plan and choreograph meetings in advance – know what you want to achieve before the meeting begins
  3. Partner with lay leaders, get everyone on the same page so that each stakeholder is working toward similar goals
  4. Don’t worry about immediate success, keep trying different ways to make a difference

Enjoy what you do. We spend so much time at the office. Our synagogues are still the centers of Jewish life. For them to survive and thrive, we need professionals and lay leaders to strengthen and evolve the organization and to provide congregants with services and programs to meet their spiritual, life cycle and educational needs.

Elyse is executive director at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, MA. She worked previously at CJP, Boston’s federation, and Hebrew College.