What Happened When I Met 51 Other Temple Presidents

March 14, 2018Deborah Rood Goldman

It was a “no brainer” for me to attend the URJ Scheidt Seminar for congregational presidents last month in San Diego. Because I work for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), I wasn’t sure I’d be eligible to attend. However, my supervisor approved the conference, and my colleagues encouraged me to go – knowing that as president of my congregation, Garden City Jewish Center in Garden City, NY, I would have a terrific experience. Of course, the idea of leaving New York for sunny San Diego in mid-February quickly put the kibosh on any lingering doubts.

I’m seven months into my two-year term, which, often feels like a second job – one that has caused me more than a bit of insomnia. I work double-time, ruminating, planning, reaching out, and smoothing the way, all to implement new processes and small experiments, always trying to tap the right people along the way for their expertise, thoughts, and opinions. I’ve had to push beyond my comfort zone, but generally, I trust my instincts.

When the seminar officially opened late on a Thursday afternoon, I found myself with 51 other temple presidents – current and incoming – on the back patio of a beautiful hotel, surrounded by palm trees. We came from congregations of all sizes across North America, and there were five (yes, five!) Deborahs among us. Knowing we’d spend the next three days together, we mingled and sized one another up. My first “aha” moment happened almost immediately – during the opening ice breaker: Listening to presidents from large congregations share many of the same concerns I have, I sensed I’d enjoy being a member of such an articulate, open, and friendly group.

The leaders and thinkers of the Reform Movement, who became our teachers throughout the weekend, treated us as VIPs and were constantly available to us – in face-to-face consultations, as well as during meals, learning sessions, and in Torah study and worship. Consistently, they modeled concepts we aim to incorporate in our own communities: audacious hospitality, the joy of learning, engaging Torah study, and inspiring worship – all within the framework of sacred partnerships.

As I moved from session to session with my cohort of colleagues from small congregations, I found the content addressed the very issues I grapple with every day. In one, “How to Think Like a Synagogue President: What Should I Care About?” for example, I couldn’t stop nodding; the rabbi’s every word confirmed that my intuitive-based decision-making has been right on track and, unbeknownst to me, that my beliefs are grounded in organizational theory and Talmudic scholarship. And, although there certainly are universal truths applicable to all synagogues, the seminar provided resources and information that were decidedly not one-size-fits-all.

I was rejuvenated by the weather in San Diego, but more so by the depth and breadth of the curriculum, the intimacy of the event, and the chance to meet and interact with so many like-minded congregational presidents who face the same challenges and opportunities my congregation and I confront.

I returned home inspired to move forward with new initiatives and to try a few experiments I might never have considered otherwise – and I didn’t waste any time getting started. I’ve restructured the way our board meetings run, and, in place of a traditional d’var Torah, I encourage board members to open each one by sharing a story about their Jewish journey. I also now know that I’m not alone in this work, and I’ve been successful in asking for help to plan an upcoming event. Two individuals are partnering with me in work that in the past, I would have scrambled to do myself. Perhaps best of all, I’m now connected to a wonderful group of people who share my passion for synagogue life, who are doing the same sacred work, and with whom I can consult and confer whenever I have questions or concerns.

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