Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.
For nearly 20 years, I have heard from congregational presidents about how the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Scheidt Seminar prepared them for their presidency and how it literally transformed their approach to synagogue leadership. Last weekend I experienced the “Scheidt Effect” firsthand. It is an example of truly outstanding leadership training.
Although I was president of my congregation before there was a Scheidt Seminar, I have been chair of the URJ for only five months, so like many of the 110 presidents at the seminar, I was prepared (eager!) to learn new leadership techniques, and to hear about “best practices” from workshop leaders and fellow congregational leaders. However, as chair of the organization, a former president of my congregation, and a past leader of numerous URJ and Reform Movement committees and boards, I, like some other participants, was skeptical that there was much of anything new to discover about the URJ itself.
How wrong I was!
I not only acquired great new leadership tools, I also became aware of many exciting URJ offerings. Most important, I met and quickly came to value a cadre of dedicated, smart, and determined Jewish lay leaders that I will call on for their best thinking and support for many years to come.
The biggest surprise for me and others was how quickly the group became a sacred community. The musical leadership of Cantor Rosalie Boxt transformed our conference space. The intentional exercises to introduce ourselves to one another quickly created shared experiences. The wisdom of URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and HUC-JIR President Rabbi Aaron Panken about creating sacred partnership between clergy and lay leaders further set the tone for deep discussion throughout the weekend. Rabbi Panken offered important advice about the key attributes in any successful partnership: honesty, integrity, forgiveness, and transparency. Rabbi Jacobs and I described how important it is to establish trust between the president and the rabbi of the congregation.
My “ah-ha” moment came during the Shabbat morning Torah service, when Rabbi Jacobs called participants for aliyot (Torah honors). First, he called those of us who were raised within the Reform Movement and were inspired and connected to it throughout our lives. The group was surprisingly small – maybe 10 of us. The next group called to the Torah were those who, though raised as Reform Jews, found the experience uninspiring or even negative. The group was larger than the first but still only about 15-20 people. The third aliyah was for all those raised outside Reform Judaism who now found a home within it. The rest of the participants – more than 80 people – surrounded the Torah reader, leaving those of us in our seats quite alone.
What a powerful statement about our Reform Movement’s ability to engage new leadership, to welcome and embrace change and diversity, to encourage fresh ideas, and not to be bound by legacy. At that moment, I was encouraged and motivated to help these new presidents to succeed and to find ways to let them know that we value their input and creativity.
The Scheidt Seminar is one of many URJ initiatives that develops and trains the next generation of congregational leaders. With the guidance and direction of Amy Asin, vice president for Strengthening Congregations, and Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, director of the URJ Leadership Institute, we hope to expand these programs, providing outstanding preparation to all congregational leaders.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Honey and Rudi Scheidt, whose generosity and support of the seminar during the last 18 years has made a lasting impact. In total, more than 1500 congregational presidents have participated in the Scheidt Seminar, with many going on to serve other Reform Movement institutions and Jewish communal organizations. The learning, relationships, and special bonds formed during this special weekend will continue to transform Jewish life throughout North America for years to come.