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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Resilient Congregations and Organizations

Responding in Ways That Encourage a Sense of Hopefulness, Calm and Direction in Difficult Times

Rabbi Edythe H. Mencher, LCSW
Caring Community Specialist for Jewish Family Concers
Dale Glasser, M.S., M.A., MSW
Director, Congregational Leadership and Planning

In uncertain and challenging times, it is comforting to remember that Judaism has always provided perspectives about how we are to behave and how we are to help one another and remain faithful during times of joy and success as well as times of sorrow and stress.

For example, the birkat hamazon, the prayer for thanksgiving after a bountiful meal, recognizes that it may be in times of great success that we think we did it all on our own and might forget upon whom we depend and owe gratitude. In want and in plenty, in fear and festivity, we need to remind ourselves of the orientation of heart, soul and behavior that will offer resiliency, the ability to manage our circumstances with faith in ourselves and others intact and unshakeable. Because that is what resilience really is---the ability to face life with courage, optimism and determination, knowing that there will be good times and difficult times, but that we can get through them all because we have what it takes and because we are part of something of great meaning and importance.

How does this translate into how we manage our congregations? These are times when what we convey as we speak to our boards and our staffs, to our families and friends and even how we speak to ourselves in our own hearts can either encourage resilience or stir panic. Our first impulse may be to share and mirror the prevailing sense of uncertainty and to warn those around us that hard times are upon us. We may be tempted to say ( and in fact we may have already conveyed) that our institutions are in jeopardy, and that change must happen---even if jobs are lost, lifestyles are radically altered and previously held dreams must be given up or delayed. If we have said these things, well, that is only natural because we have been worried and have wanted to be honest.

But let us first of all ground ourselves in our tradition and history so that we who are in leadership positions can move forward with the very confidence and resilience we want also to encourage in others. We are poised at a moment that is not new. Moses did not lead a band of affluent, agreeable, confident folks on a clear and straight path to the Promised Land---he led a group of frightened, grumbling, and panicked people who had no certainty that they had not left something better than they were headed towards!

In the bleakest of times we have maintained our congregations and study even in secrecy; we have established orchestras and orphan asylums even in ghettos. In short, our synagogues are part of a tradition of sustaining faith and caring for one another precisely when our financial resources were limited and even when political and social realities felt very threatening. Our hope and our strength have come from believing in our mission and in our worth.

What will encourage resiliency and the positive functioning of our congregations?

  1. Assure staff and lay leaders of their worth and value as individuals: Our lay leaders, clergy, professionals, and staff need to hear messages reminding them that they have been involved in important work—that of building and sustaining Jewish community-- and that they continue to be needed. Each staff member and lay leader’s participation has always mattered and matters even more now; they are the ones who encourage hope, ethical behavior and responsibility towards others. As always, our leaders set the example and the tone. This is not the time to suggest that it has been societal greed, staff inefficiency or subtle forms of mismanagement that have led us to this situation or that the organization and it’s goals are in jeopardy—this leads to a sense of futility and self-doubt.
  2. Encourage staff and lay leaders to share their perspective and validate their feelings and point of view even when we may not agree. Ask about how others see the economic situation as it pertains to the congregation. Encourage them to express their concerns and ideas and then-- really listen. Whether what is expressed is that the synagogue cannot survive or that the solution is doubling dues or suspending them, first it is important to validate that this is how it seems to the person speaking. When people go through tough times being able to express themselves and have others listen it restores a sense that they have something to contribute that is needed.
  3. Seek memories and information about how individuals and the organization faced difficult times in the past.Whether it was a period of personal financial hardship, a time when the financial resources of the organization were strained, there was a change in clergy or challenge to leadership, seek memories of how difficulties were managed to enable survival of the congregation and its values. This can generate some real solutions and encourages everyone to locate this time in the context of history---we and they have prevailed before.
  4. Offer some new possibilities of how this situation can be managed.Assess the current situation realistically. What are our concerns and how can they be addressed? The responses to cash flow challenges or reduced financial support may include belt-tightening, seeking the help of every member, seeking support from those who are still relatively financially secure, and gathering together with other congregations and communal organizations to seek solutions. There is no need to propose concrete plans when we haven’t yet found them but there IS a need to suggest that the Jewish community will work together so that the congregation and its members are supported.
  5. Locate this time and this challenge in the context of Jewish history and values.So much strength, courage, and determination are affirmed when we remind ourselves that the Jewish people and Jewish organizations have responded to challenges in the past. We help one another and our congregational staff and leadership when we remind them that even in the darkest of times congregations have helped our people to remain true to our values. As Jews we do not and will not stand by idly as our brothers and sisters suffer, we do not and will not abandon the widow or orphan; we have and will behave ethically, generously and responsibly and our faith and congregations will continue to guide us to such behavior, even in challenging times.


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