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by Jonathan Cheris
After two years as executive vice president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, I am about to become president of this sacred place that is my home away from home. Thanks to the work of the incredible leaders in whose footsteps I follow, our membership numbers are growing and our programs are thriving – all evidence that a brick-and-mortar religious institution still matters in a digital world. With the encouragement of my rabbi, Michael White, I recently attended the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar for incoming congregational presidents, a weekend-long retreat held at a suburban conference center outside Atlanta, GA.
For two years, I’ve been outlining the High Holiday speech I plan to deliver this fall. For two months, I’ve been engaging more deeply with temple elders, seeking an easy and rapid transition into the temple presidency. For two weeks, I’ve been feeling increasingly stressed as I begin to deal with some major issues that will need to be addressed during my two-year term.
A member of the congregation since 2001, I was drawn into the temple’s leadership shortly after the death of my father in 2003, grateful for the support the temple community had provided to me and my family during his illness. Joining the temple’s leadership ranks was a natural extension of other volunteer activities I was already pursuing. Since then, I’ve served as brotherhood president and held other posts related to the congregation’s membership, administration, and marketing. Ten years ago, I helped to rebrand the temple as “My Sinai,” and worked to empower staff and other leaders to brand around this wonderful name. My family, too, is happily engaged with our Temple Sinai family: My now 17- and 20-year-old children benefitted greatly from their religious education and the temple’s incredible teen programs, and eight years ago, my wife became an adult bat mitzvah.
On the way to the Scheidt Seminar, the private shuttle bus from the airport to the conference center overflowed with conversation as we began to get to know each other.
“Where are you from?”
“How big is your membership?”
“When do you become president?”
“How many rabbis do you have?”
Once at the conference center, I continued introducing myself to some of the 92 other participants who’d traveled from congregations throughout North America. I also met members of the URJ staff, and immediately felt their warmth. Now was the moment I’d been awaiting – I was at the Scheidt Seminar, meeting new people and ready to learn.
That evening, Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), spoke brilliantly, sharing leadership concepts that apply to congregational presidents and beyond. As he spoke, the stress of the previous two weeks began to lift as I realized I was among peers – a leader among leaders – and an actor on a stage larger than my own congregation or my own Long Island backyard. To gain the most from this opportunity, I decided to limit my social media usage and fully embrace the URJ training and the Judaism that came with it.
On Friday, we were grouped based on synagogue size. My group of 18 – yes, there were 18 of us – came from large synagogues and quickly bonded as friends, coworkers, warriors, debaters, scholars, all things Jewish. The day’s sessions featured wonderful teachers, leaders, warm human beings, and a lot of learning centered on leadership, financial stability, engaging young families, and real-world case studies.
URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs joined us as Shabbat began for the first of a few memorable worship services. During the aliyot on Saturday morning, attendees were called to the Torah in three distinct groups: those who had been active, engaged Reform Jewish youth leaders; those who were raised in the Reform Movement but never imagined being a congregational president; and those who were raised outside the Reform Movement. I chose the second group for myself and was surprised that the third group was the largest, which provides a glimpse into the tremendous opportunities that exist for the modern Reform Movement.
Throughout the weekend, we continued to bond – as Jews and as presidents, sharing the similarities in our lives and in our congregations. During our final session, as we locked arms and swayed to Jewish songs, I was grateful for the many sacred connections I’d made, and I embraced each one. Like the others in my Scheidt community, I returned home more confident, empowered, and ready to lead my congregation, which I now understand is an essential link in North America’s Reform Movement. I look forward to seeing many of them when we meet again in Orlando at the 2015 URJ Biennial this November.
Jonathan Cheris is the incoming president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, Roslyn Heights, NY. He tweets at @LeadingWithGuts.