Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A tribute to the synagogue secretary

Do you know which shul employee is the most important?

It’s not the custodial staff.
It’s not the caterer or the Kiddush Krew.
It’s not the executive director.
It might be the rabbi, but not necessarily.

The most important shul employee is often the secretary, or administrative assistant, or office manager.

[Note: I will be using the feminine pronoun to refer to the secretary - not because the secretary must be female, but because our secretary in Allentown was female. If you are offended, stop reading now. I am also going to use "secretary" for simplicity, but please note that the following comments relate to the part of the job of the "administrative assistant" and "office manager" as well.]

Of course, importance can mean a lot of different things. The secretary doesn’t run davening, teach classes, raise tzedakah, balance the books, help new families settle or coordinate Chesed - but without the secretary, none of those things could run smoothly. More, the shul can't grow without a good secretary.

The secretary is the external face of the shul
If the secretary answers the phone and her disinterested tone of voice says, “Temple-We-Don’t-Want-Your-Call, how must I begrudgingly help you,” that’s a turn-off for the caller. If a potential new family calls the shul and receives that kind of treatment, this introduction may well be their last contact with the shul.

How common is this turn-off phenomenon? I once experimented by contacting a few different shuls, and reached bored voices and robotic voicemail messages more often than not.

I anonymously emailed several different shuls to ask about joining their email list before I moved to Toronto, mentioning that I might be moving to their area in the next several months. I was stunned - none of the rabbis of these synagogues, and none of their hospitality volunteers, followed up to ask about helping me get settled.

A good secretary feels invested in the shul’s growth, and so she answers the phone enthusiastically, addresses people warmly and conveys information to the rabbi or appropriate others for follow-up. It’s no more than any successful business would do.

The secretary is the internal face of the shul
[Note: This part is less true when the shul has an executive director.]

Have a question about your bill? Call the office - where you will first speak to the secretary. Looking for a dues abatement? Want to sign up for a Shabbos dinner? Would you like to send a donation card in honor of someone’s baby? Speak to the secretary, speak to the secretary, speak to the secretary.

In all of these cases, the secretary needs to be courteous and friendly - and smart. It’s after the sign-up deadline, but the secretary can decide whether to accept the RSVP anyway. This family wants a dues abatement - the secretary can send them to the friendly Finance person or the unfriendly Finance person. Someone sends a Mazal Tov card - a good secretary informs the rabbi of the happy occasion, in case he isn’t aware.

A good secretary knows thinks about the extra step she can take, the better to help all concerned. She cares about the people with whom she interacts.

The secretary is the rabbi’s best friend
But most of all [to me], the secretary is the rabbi’s best friend.

The secretary catches the rabbi when he schedules a class opposite an event. The secretary finds typos in the mailing and corrects them. The secretary copies flyers and source sheets for classes. The secretary reminds the rabbi to start planning for the Simchas Beis haShoevah or Chanukah dinner, or to arrange custodial help for the Shabbos dinner.

The secretary compensates for the rabbi’s mistakes. If the rabbi is late for a meeting, the secretary explains that he’s been very busy, and he’ll certainly be there momentarily - even as she calls his cell phone to make sure he’s not just napping. If the rabbi leaves the office early and someone calls looking for him, she knows where they can find him.

A good secretary forms a partnership with the rabbi, and they each look out for each other.

So, yes, I consider the secretary the most important shul employee. If you have a good one, give her a raise. If you don’t have a good one, get one. Your community, external and internal, as well your rabbi will thank you for it.


  1. Definitely true. I've noticed that many synagogues have secretaries that have been on the job for years and years, which, considering the rather low salaries that most synagogues pay, shows some real dedication on their part.

  2. Some shuls can't afford a secretary. After we moved to Long Island in 1978, I phoned a small local shul and there was no answer or answering machine. They didn't have a real office. But when I took a chance and showed up one cold Shabbos morning, everyone was super-friendly and welcoming, and we joined the congregation. Nowadays, voicemail is easy to set up, so every shul should at least have a set of voicemail options that makes callers feel valued. No message except a crank call should be ignored and not followed up.

  3. I call it heaquarters.Your first impression.
    You never get a second chance at a first impression."

  4. SuperRaizy-
    Very true, in my experience as well.

    Indeed; my first shul did not have a secretary. The Rabbi was the one to check the answering machine, and so on.

    Daat y-
    ...And that is rarely more true than in shul life, thanks to the assumptions people make, coming in.