The Rabbi and His Board

Jewish-StarBy Yamin Levy

It’s been a quarter of a century since I joined the rabbinate. I’ve earned my battle stripes, and I still believe that a good pulpit rabbi can accomplish more for the Jewish people in the rabbinate than in any other career. And yet, even in the best of circumstances – in synagogues where the rabbi is well-trained and conscientious and the lay leadership is engaged in a professional manner – oftentimes, the relationship between the clergy and board of directors ruptures, causing pain to both the rabbi and his family and splintering the community. And nothing can describe the torment a rabbi experiences when his contract is being negotiated and ratified by a community vote, often giving a platform to every dissatisfied critic.

Today a rabbi is expected to be a teacher and a posek as well as a social worker, lifecycle coordinator, mediator, writer and master of ceremonies. [See “The Changing American Rabbinate,” Jewish Action, fall 2013.] He must be a great public speaker, creative darshan and captivating storyteller; being funny is a plus. He must be able to deliver a shiur in Gemara for yeshivah-trained ba’alei batim, a seminar in Tanach for congregants with a literary bent and a lecture on philosophy or Jewish history for those with an academic orientation. Besides mastering halachah, he needs to be an expert in politics, but he can’t be a Democrat or Republican, hawk or dove. He needs to be charismatic with the adults and charming with the youth. He is expected to be a caring husband, father, son, friend and overall role model to the entire congregation. He needs to pursue his own studies and personal growth, always seeking to make himself a better person. The rabbi is expected to be wise like Shlomo Hamelech, but he must stay out of shul politics.

I know many rabbis who are all of this and more, so why is it that we hear so often about soured relationships between rabbis and congregations? Recently, a young rabbi who served a prominent community for more than ten years was told, “We are moving in a different direction; we need a different kind of rabbi.” He was crushed, his family was baffled. He wondered what happened to all the human capital he had accumulated over the years.

As many rabbis who have been told “We are moving in a different direction” know, succeeding as a rabbi is complicated. In order to understand the unique challenges a rabbi faces, let us analyze the structure of “healthy” organizations and see how the synagogue organization fits in.

In a healthy organization, there are generally three spheres of operation. The recognized leader or founder, whose vision is the raison d’etre of the organization, assumes the first sphere. He is the leader or CEO not only because of his academic credentials and work experience, but because he can articulate the organization’s vision and depict its future most lucidly. His role is to point the way. In fact, he epitomizes, in the way he lives and the choices he makes, the very ideals and core values of the organization. His role is to answer why – why is this organization in existence and why should people invest in it? By passionately articulating the vision and purpose, he becomes a magnet for the organization.

The second sphere constitutes people who figure out how the vision is to be implemented. Generally known as “management,” these individuals answer the question how: How are we going to realize this vision with the resources we have? Those in this sphere set goals, prepare budgets, plan programs and hire staff. They research feasibility of programs, identify needs, advertise, publicize and implement. While the leader points the way, management navigates the ship.

The third sphere consists of the employees who respond to the what question: What do we do next? Their success is defined by how well they follow directions. They are told what to do and when to do it by the management.

The fundamental question is, in which sphere do we place the rabbi? Most synagogues in North America place the rabbi in sphere number three. The board of directors assumes the role of visionary. It creates committees to set policy (management) and it instructs the rabbi regarding what he is expected to do. Blessed is the community whose rabbi and board are completely in sync. When they are not, some rabbis have red lines that they won’t cross, but sometimes if enough pressure is placed on the rabbi, even the reddest of lines don’t help.

In some congregations, the rabbi might be in sphere number two, working alongside committees, assuming the role of manager whose purpose is to execute the vision of the board. In this scenario, the rabbi presumably shares the synagogue staff with the president and committee members. Recently, I conducted an unscientific survey and asked ten shul secretaries, “Whom do you work for?” Each said she works for the board of directors or the president – not one said she works for the rabbi.

If this analysis is correct, the breakdown between rabbi and the board makes sense. When a company hires a new CEO, it is the CEO and not the board of directors who dictates the future direction of the company. The CEO was hired because of his or her credentials, experience, understanding of the company’s past and ability to articulate a successful future for the company. Once he is hired, the board hands over the reins to the hired professional. From here on, the board’s task is to assess the CEO’s performance and, in many cases, to raise money.

But the rabbi is not a CEO. CEOs justify their means with a bottom line while the rabbi’s is speckled with intangibles. I have heard many capable rabbis wonder if they attended rabbinical school to make flyers, write newsletters and plan dinners.

Let us assume a board of directors is necessary for a shul and needs to be active in order to comply with not-for-profit laws and regulations. If this is indeed the case, then which sphere is most appropriate for the rabbi?

Who sets budgetary priorities? Who determines how the congregation interacts with various local, national and international causes? Can a woman be president? How high is an appropriate mechitzah? The manner in which these and other such matters are decided reflects the deepest values of the synagogue. Should it be the rabbi who decides or the board of directors? Is the rabbi an independent entity or a reflection of the popular vote? Are core issues decided democratically or does the organization’s spiritual leader represent the congregation?

When the rabbi teaches Torah, he teaches in the spirit that reflects his deepest beliefs. If he espouses college education, he will introduce secular sources in his shiurim; if he is a Zionist, he will make sure to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut; if he is a mystic, he will weave kabbalistic material into his derashot and if he is a rationalist, he will sidestep superstitious practices. Does the board dictate how and what the rabbi teaches? If not, shouldn’t core institutional issues reflect the rabbi’s teachings?

Regretfully, I don’t have any good answers. Ba’alei batim build synagogues for many good reasons and rightfully don’t want to give up control of its direction, flavor and policy. Our most talented rabbis are visionaries whose visions might not always be in sync with that of the synagogues’ founders. It’s a shame so many talented, competent rabbis feel burned out and disappointed by their profession.

In addition to consulting, Rabbi Yamin Levy is the rabbi of Beth Hadassah Synagogue in Great Neck/Kings Point, New York, and head of the Long Island Hebrew Academy. He is the founder and director of the Maimonides Heritage Center in Tiberias, Israel.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of “Jewish Action,” the quarterly publication of the Orthodox Union. Reprinted with permission.