Monday, June 14, 2010

Of Synagogue Presidents, Part II

I mentioned in Part I that one of the main problems for synagogue presidents, and for their relationships with their rabbis, is the fact that the president's job is not well-defined.

There is a second problem, though: The Overlap Issue. (See, for example, ProfK's comment on Part I.)

Think about how annoying it is when you work hard on a project, and then someone comes along and tells you how YOU should have done it. Particularly when it's a ridiculous nitpick:

The dinner was amazing, the program was good, the babysitters did a great job with the kids, the music was perfect, the decor was nice... but wouldn't it have been better if you had picked invitation stamps that matched the colors of the tablecloths?

The class was great, it was lucid and clear, it answered all of my questions, what a shame you started it at 8:00 instead of 7:45. My neighbor could have come if it was at 7:45, but because it started at 8:00 it conflicted with his TV show. But I can see that you needed to do it at 8:00 because minyan ended at 7:55, so don't let it bother you, Rabbi. It's just something that he would have really liked. And I would have really liked. And he would probably have joined the shul, too. Which is good, because he has a lot of money. And I almost had him convinced to TIVO the show so that he could have made it to the class. Rabbi, you would really like him. He isn't Jewish, of course, but who's prejudiced? This isn't like the old days, you know. So if only the class had been at 7:45...

Some suggestions are annoying because they are about irrelevancies, they come in after the fact, or they are presented in a particularly upsetting fashion. But the truth is that our major problem is not with the annoyitude of the suggestions; human beings really don't like having people step on our toes with advice, in general. We want to do our jobs, and we'll ask for your input if we want it.

And that's where the Overlap Issue kicks in for rabbis and presidents, as it does in many work environments. There is no way around the fact that certain issues are, in fact, in both bailiwicks, and without clear lines of whom should handle what.

To illustrate - I once gave a new president of mine the following list of rabbinic jobs:
Grief and Illness Counselor
Family conflict Counselor
Officiator for funerals and happier occasions
Prison Counselor
Administrator / Scheduler
Errand Boy (an ignoble name for the noble task of running to Office Depot to pick up copies)
Personal Posek (posek=legal authority)
Institutional Posek (Vaad haKashrus, Eruv, Mikvah, Chevra Kadisha)
Representative of shul to the Jewish community
Representative of shul to the general community
Political and religious columnist for newspapers
Program Innovator
Recruiter for programs (staff and attendees)
Services organizer
Youth director
Amiable friend
Membership "chair"
Outreach to gain new members
Welcoming committee as people move to the community
Uniter of the institution’s many parts
Facilities Manager
Patient listener

(For more on the Rabbi's Job Description, click here.)

The point of the list above is to show that while there are certain jobs that must fall exclusively to the rabbi, such as the posek and mashgiach positions, other jobs really do cross into presidential territory.

Example 1: A minyannaire complains about the heat at morning minyan. He may well go to the rabbi, particularly if the president doesn't come to minyan (despite the fact that he darn well should!). But facilities management certainly should involve the president, and generally should be directed by the president other than for halachah issues.

Example 2: The rabbi should be hands-on in the youth program, whether as the actual personnel or as a director. But who runs the youth budget? That certainly enters the president's area.

Example 3: The annual fundraiser needs honorees, and the committee sits down to select people. Surely the president should have a major role in selecting honorees - but might not the rabbi need to make sure that these are people the shul should honor?

So what happens if an insecure president starts to feel uncomfortable that people are bringing budget, facilities or membership issues to the rabbi? And what happens if an insecure rabbi starts to feel uncomfortable that people are bringing halachic issues to the president?

So now we have two problems: The president's job is not clearly defined, and the president's job overlaps that of the rabbi. A recipe for disaster.

So how do you solve the problem? Stay tuned for Synagogue Presidents, Part III...


  1. I would imagine that the size of the shul would determine how many of the jobs on your list would be the rabbi's and to what degree the rabbi would be involved. In a very large shul with more congregants needing specifically pastoral care there would be no time or perhaps no need for the rabbi to take care of many of the other items on the list, for instance facilities management.

  2. Doesn't virtually every aspect of a shul involve halachic decisions? Yes, the president should be the one to deal with the thermostat, but when there is a machlokes about how high or low the temperature should be presumably the Rabbi needs to decide. Should people fighting over the temperature go to the president, or to the Rabbi?

    And yet, I suspect that there are very few shuls in which the Rabbi has effective veto power on all decisions.

  3. Your portrayal of the complaint about the 7:45 class and the neighbour is precious. Unfortunately, I can't tell if it is parody or an accurate portrayal. All too plausible... ;-)

  4. ProfK-
    Somewhat, but in my experience it's more about the extent of rabbinic resources in the community. The two do not always go hand-in-hand.

    There is halachic and there is quasi-halachic, and the rabbi tries to avoid micro-managing the latter.

    R' Mordechai-
    I first wrote that down 3 or 4 years ago. It might have been imagined, but I'm pretty sure it was actually based in reality.

  5. Be assured that the community volunteers tend to get their own "suggestions" from the rest of the congregation as to what they should do differently. Especially from the ones who never volunteer. Very frequently those "suggestions" include complaints they want to make to or about the Rabbi, only they want the President to do it for them...

    Working in either position can be awfully thankless, I think.

  6. Very true, Rachel. I have another post in me about Volunteers and what they are forced to endure, but for now you might enjoy "President as Uber-Volunteer" here.