You Are What You Learn

By Barbara Merson

“You must be crazy!” This was the universal reaction I received when I announced that I was going to pursue a PhD while continuing in my job as the executive director of a large synagogue. My response was always that I would be crazy not to take advantage of the opportunity to learn and grow. And I am pleased to report that based on the survey* and interviews done for this article, many other executive directors agree with me. Learning is transformative – it allows us to move beyond our usual frame of reference, break our usual pattern of thoughts, and explore new ideas. Learning is collaborative – our peers can be our best teachers. And learning is enjoyable – especially since we can pick the time, place, and subject matter.

Before we look at some of the specifics of what why, what, and how executive directors are learning, it is interesting to look at some of the literature on this subject, both Jewish and secular. A very relevant text can be found in the Talmud: “Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me have I gained understanding’” (Pirke Avot 4:1). And certainly it seems like executive directors are taking this to heart. The depth and breadth of the educational endeavors described by the over 100 respondents to our survey are very impressive. What happens when we learn? Why can it be such a powerful experience? Possible answers are provided by two well-known theorists of adult learning, Jack Mezirow (1997) and Peter Jarvis (2015).

We all have a comfort zone which includes our usual “habits of mind” and “points of view” (Mezirow, 1997). In order to move out of our comfort zone and grow, there needs to be a disruption that causes us to reflect. For adults, education often provides this disrupting experience by providing new ideas, new people, and a new setting. This is why some of the most powerful education experiences take place at conferences – all forces are working together to create optimal conditions for mental transformation.

As executive directors, we often rely on our own often extensive experience to help us do our jobs. But sometimes this isn’t enough. In the words of Peter Jarvis (2015), “Time does not stand still and our own experiences are only valid for a while and then we are confronted with a problem because our previous experiences do not help us a great deal in new situations” (p. 83). The experience of not knowing creates a “disjuncture” which is resolved by combining new learning with previous experiences to form a new mindset. In addition, much of what we know from experience is intuitive – we didn’t consciously set out to learn it. When we learn in formal settings, we can both validate our intuitions and expand them to encompass situations that we have yet to experience.

To summarize the wisdom from the literature, education has the power to transform us and we should therefore learn as much as possible from as many sources as possible. This leads us to a more explicit exploration of why and how executive directors learn. Not surprisingly, the reason to learn most often cited in the survey is to gain new skills, mentioned by over 90% of respondents. However, there are a number of additional reasons why people learn, including bonding with colleagues, increasing Jewish knowledge, and Torah lishma – learning for its own sake. In fact, over 80% of the survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I participate in educational experiences because I love to learn” and a number of respondents commented that in addition to formal educational programs, they learned through self-study including books and articles.

Both NATA and NAASE foster a culture of self-improvement through sponsored study experiences. Many survey respondents mentioned the NATA institute as not only a primary source of education but also a great chance to reboot and refocus. The following statement is representative of the general sentiments, “The NATA institute provided an opportunity for focused learning and great networking with peers. It was a chance to be away from the office and the day to day activities in a beautiful place with warm weather during the winter.” NAASE partners with the Jewish Theological Seminary for a week of Jewish learning. “We want to be well-rounded Jewish leaders,” states NAASE president Bernie Goldblatt. “Not all learning needs to be related to professional skills.”

Education can also help us appreciate different perspectives. One survey respondent reports, “Recently I attended a one day workshop on classroom management – even though this is not my area of expertise. I enjoyed the nature of the class which was taught in an experiential manner rather than having someone lecture.” Another respondent mentioned, “I was proud to be part of the first ever gathering of Northern California Jewish professionals focused on child sexual abuse in our community. I learned a great deal about this subject from a wide array of experts.” My own experiences as an executive director in both MA and PhD programs in educational leadership have given me an enhanced understanding of educational issues and how they relate to the life of the organization as a whole.

But perhaps the best evidence for why very busy executive directors make the time for education can be found in their own words:

“When I was a new executive director, I remember meeting friends right after attending NATA institute and they so enthusiastic about the experience. I wanted to feel what they were feeling, which led me to the institute and ultimately to getting my FTA.”
Harvey Brenner, VP of Professional Development, NAASE (former NATA member)

“We should always be learning. If we want to be the best person we can be, there is no option – we have to keep learning. It’s like a Bar/Bat Mitzvah – your personal educational background should be the beginning, not the end of your education as an executive director.”
Abigail Goldberg Spiegel, VP of Education, NATA

“When I came to this job, I did not have an MBA or a great deal of experience. The Columbia Business School certificate program for Jewish Professionals was serious and high level, and gave me many tangible takeaways that changed my work patterns in positive ways.”
Erica Leventhal, NAASE Member

“Being a participant at the NAASE convention last year, especially since I was only three months in my job, was a fascinating and important experience. It was good to hear from some of the true veterans and learn that many of my suspicions were correct – few outside our group would believe some of the questions we are asked or the requests made of us.”
Survey Respondent

“I still have fond memories of NATA institute. It was wonderful to be so totally immersed in education, and bond so closely with the colleagues with whom I attended.”
Survey Respondent

Executive directors find educational opportunities through many sources. 92% of our survey respondents have attended a webinar over the past year and 78% have attended a conference/multi-day seminar. NATA and NAASE both offer educational opportunities leading to professional certification. In addition, a number of academic institutions offer degree, certificate, and non-degree educational opportunities for Jewish professionals. “As we continue to work our vision gets bigger and we can’t only rely on our own experience,” states Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire, Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew College. “Jewish professionals need to continue their education and there are now options to do so through on-line programs that combine both Jewish and professional topics.” Rabbi Dr. Shire was instrumental in creating a partnership between Hebrew College and Lesley University so that Jewish professionals could have the opportunity to participate in a PhD program which combined Jewish and secular learning. As a member of the first cohort of this program, I really appreciate the depth of learning and expanded resources that education provided by two excellent academic institution. Yes, participating in a PhD program is a great deal of work, but I have found that the returns to me personally and to my organization are equally great.

In selecting programs, the executive directors in our survey look at topic and convenience first. Cost and who is teaching are lesser factors in making a decision as to what programs to attend. However, another more intangible decision factor in whether to participate in an educational program is whether or not the congregation appreciates and recognizes the effort of the executive director to continue their education. In some cases, educational programs increased the credibility of the executive director by giving them additional credentials. However, in other cases executive directors felt that their efforts were not appreciated, which made motivation difficult to sustain. While some of this comes from the congregation, there are definitely ways in which the executive director can encourage appreciation. Suggestions from interviewees and survey respondents included speaking to the Board about major takeaways from conventions, giving back Jewish knowledge gained to the congregations by teaching classes or giving sermons, and including writing articles about educational topics for Temple publications. In short, it is a good idea to make sure that your educational funders (whether the funding is time, tuition, or both) see the returns from their investment.

The theme of this journal issue is “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I hope that this article has made the case that one of the best ways that executive directors can be for themselves is through education. There is a whole world of knowledge out there that can help us do our jobs better and can help make us better people. Whether we want to acquire specific skills, bond with colleagues, gain perspective, grow Jewishly, or just take a break from the daily routine to reflect, everyone can benefit from continuing their education. See you in class!

*Survey was sent to the membership of the National Association of Temple Administrators and the North American Association of Synagogue Executives in December of 2016. There were 117 respondents.

Mezirow, J. 1997. Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5-12.
Jarvis, P. 2015. Learning expertise in practice: Implications for learning theory. 2015. Studies in the Education of Adults Vol. 47:1, 81-94.

Barbara Merson, RJE, is Executive Director of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, NY.

This article originally appeared in the most recent issue of The NATA/NAASE Journal. Reprinted with permission.