The Season of Transition

By Rabbi Alan Henkin and Rabbi Steven A. Fox

Ki va moed (Psalm 102:14) The Appointed Season Has Come…

Within in the Jewish community, we are now entering the “season of transition,” as many Jewish organizations and congregations welcome new rabbis into their communities. Just as this is a time of transition for each congregation and community, it is also a time of change and challenge for the rabbinic leadership as well.

At the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we know how important this process is. Nearly thirty years ago, we initiated an intentional approach to rabbinic transition within the Reform Movement, and have added an increased focus over the last ten years with new programs, support systems and written resources. Among others, we offer rabbis transitioning to new positions an in-person, multi-day seminar entitled “First 100 Days: For Every Rabbi in Job Transition.”

The heart of this program is a model we have created called the Seder of Transition – the order of transition. Through this model, we teach about the particular nature of transition in Jewish organizations, and the unique nature of rabbinic transition. We have learned from the best of contemporary literature on transition, transition theory, and management, informed by Jewish tradition and texts. Building on that, we have devised the following seven steps upon which we base our transition programs:

Step One:

L’hitraot v’shalom: Saying Goodbye and Hello

In saying goodbye, it is important for the rabbi to bring closure to the relationships that have sustained both the rabbi and the community. Thus, we use the Hebrew term L’hitraot, which embodies a goodbye for now rather than forever. The process of “hello” involves far more than identifying the constituencies with whom a rabbi must meet immediately, but rather how the rabbi and the new community get to know each other, and how the rabbi integrates into the community and the lives of its members. This practice of goodbye and hello must also address the needs of the rabbi’s family.

Step Two:

Dah lifnei mi atah omeid: Understanding your Constituencies/Stakeholders

In this phase of transition, the rabbi identifies the different leaders, constituencies, and stakeholders in the new community, and the personal investment each of them has in a successful transition. Then the rabbi and lay leadership begin to engage with these groups to articulate their aspirations and their needs.

Step Three:

N’kudat Motzeh / N’kudat Yaad: Defining Success

As a rabbi emerges into the culture and business of an organization, it is important to begin with an “inventory” of the community designed to identify exactly where the congregation stands on a variety of relational, programmatic and organizational matters. With this inventory as a baseline, the rabbi, lay leadership and other staff set mutual goals that will define success in substantive and formative ways. Of course, a rabbi’s family must also come to its own definition of success for themselves.

Step Four:

Hakarat HaTov: Understanding the congregation’s health

We strongly advocate that rabbis and lay leaders should begin with an assessment of the health and strength of an organization, and not limit their focus to those things that need to be fixed. This means appreciating the history of the synagogue and important moments for the community’s members, as well as listening to members’ narratives and paying attention to the way they describe their touch points with clergy and the community.

Step Five:

Yashar Yashar: Mission Alignment

In all transitions, rabbis and lay leadership must remain aligned with the congregation’s vision and mission. All activities, programs, and resources (both financial and human) must remain intentionally aligned towards the highest aspirations of the community’s mission.

Step Six:

Tochechah: Mutual Accountability

The rabbi and congregation need to be open to providing and learn how to provide healthy feedback on how “we” are doing. When rabbis and lay leaders review their development, they should look at both their progress towards achieving their goals (summative review) and the sacred quality of their roles and relationships (formative review).

Step Seven:

Shemor et Nafsh’cha M’od: Self Care

The first year in a new position can be overwhelming and exhausting for all rabbinic and lay leaders. For this reason, both rabbi and lay leaders should partner in making sure that the rabbi practices self-care. It is in everyone’s mutual best interest to do so. This includes honoring the rabbi’s day off, respecting the rabbi’s vacation time, encouraging the rabbi to make time for study and spiritual growth, and maintaining the personal relationships the rabbi has developed throughout their career and life. During this critical moment of transition, the rabbi and lay leaders should come to a clear understanding about the boundaries between the rabbi’s work and personal life. Based on our experience working with rabbis and congregations, if a rabbi fails to take care of themselves, that can contribute to blurred personal/professional boundaries down the road.

This Seder of Transition and the in-depth learning that goes with it during our transition seminars are intended to provide rabbinic leaders with increased capacities, skill sets and tools to create healthy and successful transitions and long-term relationships. Our programs are anchored in Jewish texts which provide guidance and raise issues for conversation. As it says in the Mechilta, kol hatchalot kashot, all beginnings are hard (Yitro 2), but a thoughtful and well planned transition strategy can lead to a long and successful rabbinate.

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.