How the URJ Can Help Congregational Leaders Inspire Sacred Action

January 5, 2016Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, RJE

The path to leadership is an individual journey that requires guidance along the way. In the Jewish community, we need committed and knowledgeable lay partners in our holy work – but amidst busy lives, it’s not always easy for people to step up and volunteer.

Yet, those who do can inspire sacred action for their entire community. As the director of the URJ’s Leadership Institute, I’ve been inspired by congregational leaders who attended our events last year – from a lay leader at a small congregation who’s single-handedly facilitating worship services to a newly elected president tapped to lead their congregation after being a member for just two years. I’ve seen connections forming between leaders from across North America, all of whom took different and unique paths to their positions.

Last week, we read Parashat Sh’mot, a Torah portion ripe with examples of ways to rise to leadership – some willingly, some defiantly, and others reluctantly. What does it take to be a leader and how can we support all who come into their positions?

Each congregation has its own way of cultivating leadership. To assist this sacred work, the URJ offers programs that enable leaders to learn, network, and worship together, all specifically designed to meet the needs of leaders in varying positions and to take into consideration the ways they rose to leadership.

Stepping Up

What does it take to stand up for your beliefs in the face of adversity? Shifra and Puah, midwives who were instructed to kill all male infants born to the Hebrews, refused to follow orders. Their heroics saved the Jewish people.

Though it’s not physically dangerous to stand your ground in our congregational communities, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, either. The old joke says, “Two Jews, three opinions”; we are not always in agreement. How can Jewish leaders stand up for their individual beliefs while still finding consensus among those they serve?

Creating and maintaining a culture of respect within a congregation’s leadership is no small feat. The URJ’s Scheidt Seminar for Presidents and Presidents-Elect provides a supportive network for lay leaders at the helm of their congregations and offers a foundation for leadership styles and strategies. Temple presidents get to spend time with others who share the same challenges and concerns.

To further support temple presidents, the URJ offers congregational board training workshops to promote the type of dynamic, creative leadership so many strive to attain.

Seizing an Opportunity

What is the inner calling that tells you to take a chance? When Moses is floating toward her down the Nile River, Pharaoh’s daughter sees an unexpected opportunity and heeds the call to leadership, plucking him out of the water and raising him as her own. Though we don’t know much more about their relationship, Pharaoh’s daughter clearly chose to seize the moment.

Seizing opportunities for leadership is no different in congregational life. When a new rabbi enters a congregational community, the transition requires nurturing, intention, and a strong partnership with the congregational president. Both leaders need to follow their individual inner calling to inspire sacred action in their community – but also to work in sacred partnership together.

The URJ’s Shallat Rabbinic Retreat and Seminar gives rabbi/president teams opportunities to reflect, in tandem, upon the transition process and determine what comes next. This sacred time together helps build the partnership that is so critical for a strong congregational community.

Being Tapped on the Shoulder

Moses shows a natural aptitude for leadership, yet he does not see this trait within himself. When God tells him to free the Israelites, Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” He does not recognize his leadership abilities until God does.

So it is with congregational leaders, who may need a proverbial tap on the shoulder to encourage them to take the next step. Those who have risen in the ranks often recount that they would not be where they are today had they not been approached, encouraged, and set on the path to leadership.

Our congregations need a pipeline of trained leaders who can step into new initiatives and governance roles. Identifying such prospects often requires current leaders to ask questions of members to learn about their passions and their skills; such thoughtful and intentional conversations can lead to a tap on the shoulder.

We also have a responsibility to train these new leaders, familiarizing them with the mission, vision, values, and goals of our communities. These leaders need to explore and hone their personal leadership styles while understanding what it means to lead within a holy community. The URJ is piloting a resource that congregations can use to provide leadership development for new and emerging leaders. Congregations can apply through January 25, 2016, to be a part of a pilot cohort that will be the first to test self-guided modules with the assistance of URJ Leadership Institute staff.

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As 2016 begins, we look forward to engaging myriad congregational leaders – those who have stepped up, those who have seized the opportunity, and those who have been tapped on the shoulder. Through these programs – as well as our Communities of Practice, Scholar Series on Leadership, and other resources – we seek to engage congregational leaders in experimentation, growth, and ongoing learning so that they can strengthen themselves and their congregations – and, in doing so, ultimately strengthen the entire Jewish community.

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