The Synagogue Executive Director: A Changing Role for Changing Times

By Cantor Adina Frydman

“I really do love the work. But I think the biggest challenge is the lack of clarity around the position.”
– Response from a Synagogue Executive Director

Synagogues are engaged in sacred work, and in the ideal world, the synagogue team is dedicated to furthering this sacred purpose by effectively executing their unique roles. And yet, we sense that key members of the professional and lay team feel stymied by inefficiencies and confusion over roles and responsibilities – especially that of the executive director or administrator (ED/A). A new study by UJA-Federation of New York finds the executive director/administrator (ED/A) role is increasingly critical to helping synagogues manage mounting challenges to fiscal and operational stability. Yet, less than half of the nearly 2,000 synagogues nationwide have one in place. The Synagogue Executive Director: A Changing Role for Changing Times, prepared by UJA-Federation together with principal researcher Livia Thompson, past president of NATA (National Association for Temple Administration) looks at the role of the synagogue ED/A nationwide and across movements, including Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Orthodox, and unaffiliated congregations.

Overall, as of October 2017, just 950 individuals serve in paid ED/A roles which are often poorly defined and hampered by competing demands, a lack of clarity around function, governance, management, and leadership authority. In addition, ED/As are pressed to manage many of the key functions in the synagogue, including technology, facilities management, general operations, and administrative tasks.

The synagogue ED/A typically comes to the role with experience and a deep commitment to the Jewish community. Most ED/As love what they do but are often overwhelmed by the amount of work, competing demands, and complicated relationships with senior leadership as a result of confusion over their functional roles and authority.

A professional and skilled executive director/administrator with a well-defined role is vital to a thriving congregation, particularly in today’s rapidly changing landscape. At its best, the executive director role allows synagogue leadership to focus on their core functions, ensuring that the synagogue continues to adapt and evolve as needed to further its sacred purpose. Clergy, educators, administrators, and lay leadership must work effectively together to meet these challenges.

This study presents:

  • Useful data and observations, and raises important questions for congregational leaders about the executive director role and how to maximize it.
  • A deep exploration of the role of the executive director as part of the synagogue leadership team.
  • Practical tools, including hiring guides, job descriptions and organizational charts.

Key Findings:

Changing Times. Many factors that affect synagogues, forcing a reconsideration of roles, include:

  • Changing membership demographics, with different expectations of community, Jewish engagement, and organized religion.
  • A shift in focus from programs to engagements, with a greater emphasis on creating deep relationships.
  • Economic stresses and limited resources, forcing ED/ As to spend more time being creative about revenue resources and managing facilities.
  • Inadequately trained or insufficient staff to meet synagogue needs.
  • Technology needs that are expensive to keep up with.
  • Inefficient and sporadic volunteers that add to the responsibilities of the ED/A.

Changing Roles. As the ED/A role evolves to meet changing synagogue needs, so does its core responsibilities and relationships with synagogue leaders.

  • In response to changing times, ED/A functional responsibilities require different competencies and technical skills. While the ED/A should be responsible for basic operational and practical business management functions, it’s not clear how much ED/As should also be responsible for strategic, leadership, and engagement functions.
    •Positive synagogue relationships with the rabbi, president, educators, and other senior lay and professional leadership are crucial to the ED/A’s success but may be waylaid by a lack of clarity around the team’s roles and boundaries.

Synagogue Management. Synagogue management models are not consistent across organizational charts and ED/A titles, contributing to a lack of clarity.

  • Ultimate decision-making authority, titles, and supervisory relationships are not clear.

Professional Develpoment. Training and mentoring is necessary to the success of the ED/A.

  • Synagogue leaders affirm that while ED/As have significant and diverse volunteering credentials, education, and professional experiences, they need ongoing professional development to thrive in an ever-changing environment.
  • Many ED/As are not able to find the time or funding to pursue professional development opportunities. When they do, many report that programs do not provide the professional development they need to be successful.

In the report’s last section, we suggest next steps and ways that leaders can better support the ED/A role to help synagogues thrive.

Among the most important considerations, synagogues should:

  • Establish realistic and transparent parameters for the ED/A role, including common language to address core functions and whether ED/As should have a minimum set of hard and soft skills.
  • Provide professional development training and support for the ED/As to develop minimum skills and develop responses to changing responsibilities.
  • Explore creative approaches for congregations with fewer resources that might not have access to a full-time executive director.
  • Develop healthy relationships between ED/As and key lay and professional leaders.
  • Create a career path for Jewish professionals who may become ED/As.

The complete report is available for free download (registration required).

Cantor Adina H. Frydman is the executive director of SYNERGY at UJA-Federation of New York.