Posted on March 8, 2019 by Jay Lavroff
Shortly after I became president of Temple Beth-El, I had an opportunity to meet with one of the leading officials of the URJ to talk about visions and goals. I had never met this rabbi before, and because he is from Seattle, I assumed he knew little of a community in Hillsborough, New Jersey. But after we introduced ourselves, the first thing he said was, “Temple Beth-El is one of our strongest congregations.” He didn’t say one of the biggest. Or wealthiest. Or fanciest. He said “strongest.” This made me very proud, but not surprised. We are strong in many ways. That strength has enabled us to grow and flourish and to be a cornerstone of the Jewish community of New Jersey and beyond.
Where does that strength come from? This is a complicated question, and I don’t think it has a single answer. Being a faith-based community, there is, of course, our devotion to God. We are all familiar with the words of Psalm 121: “I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains. From whence shall my help come? My help comes from God, Who made heaven and earth.” But a modern congregation requires more. It requires the work of people who are fully invested in the progress and advancement of the institution, what we do and what we stand for. It requires the ability to look backward at the principles and wisdom of our ancestors and founders, while at the same time looking forward to the hopes and aspirations of future generations. It requires clergy and professionals whose talents and insights make the mitzvahs of worship and learning not another chore to be completed as part of the daily routine, but a centerpiece of our individual and collective growth and development. And perhaps most important, it requires leadership that is willing and able to step forward to provide the necessary guidance and direction. The historical strength of our leadership at all levels is, in my opinion, the glue that holds all of our moving parts together and enables us to not just achieve but excel.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve interacted with presidents of Reform synagogues nationwide. Unfortunately, the majority of them have do not have the same happy story of strong leadership that we enjoy. Some leaders cannot identify their successors. Some have held the position for an inappropriately long time, either because no one else will do the job or they won’t give it up. Many have no organized, systemic method of cultivating and identifying leaders for the next year, let alone the next five, seven or 10 years. Against this backdrop, you may rightly ask, what is the phenomenon that has resulted in our ability to recognize potential leaders and get them involved? It’s not an accident or dumb luck. The answer is our leadership development program.
For more than 20 years, Liz Cohen and Amy Rubin have chaired a multi-part symposium, which was established and led for many years by Ellen Davidson. The purpose of this symposium is to develop congregants into the next TBE officers, board members, committee chairs and other leaders. This year Robin Osman has joined Liz and Amy in this critically important endeavor. Recognizing that leadership development is a dynamic, ongoing process, every two years or so they devote many hours to educating and equipping our future leaders. The leadership pupils learn about our temple history, vision, organization and relationships with the greater community. They broaden their horizons and develop their skills. And when they complete the process, they are ready, with open eyes and full understanding, to do this crucial work. This year another crop of future leaders is taking the steps down the path that ensures our success. I had the opportunity to attend the first session, and it was truly inspiring. The students represent a wonderful cross-section of our congregational family, and Amy, Liz and Robin provide not only extraordinary “classroom” instruction, but also the best example of the values our leadership stands for, and the different methods and styles through which leadership’s goals can be met. We are in very good hands.
On more than one occasion, I’ve participated in a group discussion among temple presidents that includes the issue of leadership development. Regrettably, a high percentage of congregations have no leadership development program in place, and most of those that do have nothing that resembles ours. When they are asked to describe their “dream” leadership development model, I usually hear something very much akin to what we are so fortunate to have already. This strength from within, which allows us to replenish leadership regularly, prevents the atrophy that can ultimately result in failure.
So if you should happen to mention to someone that you are a part of the Temple Beth-El community and they respond, “That is one of our strongest congregations,” think to yourself, “I know. And I know why.”
Originally published in the March-April 2019 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.