Making the First 100 Days Count: Rabbinic Transition

100 DaysBy Rabbi Steven A. Fox
and Rabbi Alan Henkin

“You say Goodbye; and I say ‘Hello, hello, hello’
I don’t know why you say ‘Goodbye,’
I say ‘Hello, hello, hello’”
Paul McCartney and John Lennon

“Hello, Goodbye,” the famous song by The Beatles, evokes the duality of rabbinic transition. One says “goodbye” and one says “hello, hello, hello…”. And it is the same voice saying both goodbye and hello, just as a single congregation/organization says both almost concurrently when a new rabbi transitions into the temple and a different one departs.

When a rabbi leaves a congregation and begins elsewhere, the importance of the transition period – properly saying goodbye and hello – cannot be overemphasized. Indeed, successfully integrating and preparing rabbis for their transition role is a challenge faced by every synagogue and by every rabbi. As the rabbinic leadership association for the Reform Movement and the oldest, largest rabbinic organization in North America, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) operates the Reform Movement Placement office. The CCAR has been working on Rabbinic Placement since 1889 with thousands of rabbis in congregations and communities large and small, and we are well attuned to the inherent sensitivities present in the transition process.

One result of this cumulative experience is our “First 100 Days: For Every Rabbi in Organizational and Congregational Job Transition” program – designed to prepare Rabbis – and, through them, their communities – for transition.

Why do we teach transition to rabbis, and why the first 100 days in particular? The reality is that neither rabbis nor congregations can be expected to simply flip a switch and become instantly comfortable and in tune with new rabbinic leadership. Especially not when a community has spent years – perhaps decades – with another rabbi leading them. It’s equally important that rabbis new to a congregation not feel pressured to replicate or to reject their predecessor’s work but instead are free to bring their own spirit to their services. Maintaining continuity where essential while allowing for change where needed is a delicate balance. Rabbinical transitions are inevitable; a well-managed one is not. It comes only with careful deliberation and planning,

As with a presidential administration, the first 100 days in a rabbi’s tenure with a synagogue set the tone for the duration of his and her tenure with the congregation. Get it right, and everything else will be much smoother as a result. In the first 100 days of a rabbi’s tenure, anything is possible – which is why those days are so critical. Take, for instance, the time of year when most rabbis start their tenure: July 1, which coincides with a new fiscal year, programmatic year, and preparations for religious school, day school and adult learning. This year, Rosh Hashanah falls a mere 93 days after July 1. Given the importance of the High Holy Days to congregations, we work closely with new rabbis to ensure that this first phase of their transition acknowledges the importance of the committee’s past, recognizes the anxieties of the present transition, and primes the congregation for a joyful future.

Within the First 100 Days Seminar, we encourage rabbis who are transitioning to another congregation to carefully consider many questions, including:

  • What does success at the end of your first 100 days in your new community look like? (Remember, this question goes to the rabbi and the congregation alike in order to have a shared understanding.)
  • What do you, the rabbi, and you, congregational leaders, need to do to move towards those 100 day goals?
  • What is the most effective way of an “information transfer” to the new rabbi to take place?
  • Who are the some of the most important individuals and constituent groups with whom the rabbi should meet personally in the first 100 days?
  • What are some of the strengths or anxieties or healing in the congregation or congregational systems that need to be addressed quickly?
  • How to handle saying goodbye to your current community?
  • How do we approach longer term issues, especially the first twelve to eighteen months which is part of the transition period?

During the First 100 Days seminar, rabbis exchange numerous ideas on how they may personalize the work to achieve these goals in their new congregation. For example, while some will use Shabbat dinners, Oneg Shabbat, or one-on-one meetings, many now see Sukkot as a wonderful opportunity to connect. During each day, the rabbi and congregational leadership invites a different group to share a meal under the Sukkah, including congregational leaders, B’nai mitzvah students and families, people who may have expressed interest in joining the synagogue, and, in a bold move, people who have left the synagogue in the past year.

Importantly, we also emphasize the rabbis’ self-awareness of their own transition. We spend time in the First 100 Days helping rabbis understand what they are going through emotionally and spiritually. We talk about the rabbi’s monitoring of his or her internal self, about the rabbi’s acknowledgment of his or her sense of loss in leaving behind a community and friends, about the rabbi’s anxieties in moving to a new community and starting a new position, and about the stress the rabbi’s entire family is under during the transition.

Nearly a decade ago, we created the First 100 Days seminar because rabbis and their communities alike understand that tricky transitions are inevitable. Rabbis move on, and managing and accepting that change is the best way for a community to remain emotionally healthy and open to another rabbi’s leadership.

That’s why, both before and after the search process, we work closely with rabbis to lay the foundation for their congregational relationships, goals, and vision for the future.

Rabbi Steven Fox is the Chief Executive and Rabbi Alan Henkin is the Director of Rabbinical Placement for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Fox created a number of transition programs for the Reform Rabbinate and Reform Movement including the First 100 Days Transition Seminar and a comprehensive Interim Rabbinate Training Program.