“Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?” As the days of my term as president of Beth El have been waning, this question has been asked of me on more than just a few occasions. It seems that those asking the question often desire and hope for an affirmative answer; coaxing it out of me by reminding me of all that I have gained from this awesome and noble experience. But any true measure of my success as president and thus a major factor in answering the aforementioned question has much less to do with what I have gained from this experience than it does about the positive impact that I may have had on my community. So as time has rolled on and the days on the calendar have been crossed off, I can’t help but wonder if I have made a positive difference at Beth El and will posterity provide me with a resounding “yes” to this challenging question.
Like many profound moments in our lives, my time spent serving my community at the highest possible level seems to have passed me by almost as quickly as the blink of an eye. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the shock, fear, and trepidation that I felt when I was asked if I would become the Executive Vice President of Beth El. Initially, I reacted with a look over both shoulders to ensure that the question was truly pointed at me and then I followed with a response of, “You understand that would mean that I would then become president?” The retort of a question with another question, an approach that is often attributed to our people, was just as much about my own incredulous disbelief that I was being asked, as it was about making sure that the implication of the request was truly understood.
Although my initial thought was that there was no way I could or would take on this lofty position, I treated this significant question with the consideration and thoughtfulness it deserved. I spent the next couple of days mulling over the pros and cons yet sensing the unlikely possibly that I would say “yes.” I discussed this opportunity with anyone willing to listen and found that everyone was willing to offer counsel. I received an overabundance of advice such as, “What are you crazy?” or “Of course you have to do it!” These snippets of advice were delivered to me with the ease and unabashed certainty that could only come from someone unaffected by the consequences of the advice they were dispensing. My close friends and family encouraged and supported the idea but without fail each and every one of them warned me of the tremendous time commitment and the heavy burden of responsibility that I would be assuming. They also cautioned me that as a synagogue president, I could fall victim to unappreciative, disgruntled, and difficult members — even a few who may grow not to like me at all. And while I did not relish the thought of these difficulties they didn’t seem to rattle a small but growing desire in me to serve and help affect positive change in my community.
In any case, for me, my seemingly unshakable apprehension and unease to take on this position was borne more out of my concern for the public speaking that would be expected of me in the form of speeches, running meetings, and talking with people I barely know about difficult and sometimes unpleasant issues. But as with many of us undertaking something this consequential and uncharted, the most frightening thought of all was the notion of failing — letting down those who expressed their faith in my ability to lead and provide a voice to important issues not frequently discussed and to lend an ear to members not frequently heard.
So why did I agree to take on this seemingly unrewarding and difficult volunteer role? A role that was sold to me with such underwhelming rewards as the prestigious title of president, the notoriety that comes from being a public figure, and a personal parking spot that is often farther than most available spots; especially during the off hours that I frequent the synagogue? Well, that is a good question. One that I am not sure I can give a straightforward answer to except to say that I was compelled to take on this role. It was as if a voice inside my head, stirred by my conscience, called me to serve my community and to take up the gauntlet of affecting the painful yet necessary changes that were needed to move our synagogue forward. So, with hope, purpose, and optimism I accepted the role and began to prepare myself for the six- year commitment that lay before me — two years as executive vice president, two years as president, and two years as immediate past president.
My leadership journey would begin on the rung of the executive vice president where I trained to become president of the synagogue. I took this volunteer role and my commitment to my community very seriously. I attended SULAM (the Hebrew word for ladder), the four-day training program for incoming presidents of USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) synagogues. It was there that I learned many practical skills and important best-practices in operating a synagogue. But I also learned the gravity and sacredness of this work and that leading a synagogue is more than just about balancing budgets and fundraising events. All of us as leaders, volunteers, and members have an obligation to ensure the survival of our religion, culture, and synagogues for generations to come.
Armed with the skills I learned from SULAM and the motivation and desire to elevate Beth El to even greater heights, I, along with my extremely competent Executive Vice President Stacey Licht, devised a plan and list of goals that we hoped to accomplish during my tenure as president. Our goals included ensuring that our board was financially responsible and transparent to our members. We strived to unite and centralize the synagogue financially under the board of trustees where all expenses and revenues from all Beth El organizations would find direction and oversight. We reminded all our VPs and committee chairs that our challenging financial situation and fiduciary obligation required us to justify and link all expenses to growing and improving Beth El. Also, we challenged all Beth El volunteers to have an eye towards fundraising and increasing revenues to help offset our growing administrative costs and decrease in revenues stemming from our members’ increasing need for individual financial arrangements and changing demographics.
Membership was also a critical part of our plan as we broke out our membership committee into three pillars of concentration; recruitment, retention, and integration. We promoted the bond and commitment of our leaders to our members while touting the respect deserved of our leaders as important volunteers and not simply unpaid workers of the synagogue. We attempted to stress the importance each and every member of our synagogue has in our community regardless of their level of observance or religious background, frequency of their time spent in our building, or the level of their financial contribution. We promoted the importance of open and honest communication between not only our members and the board but between our lay leaders and our professionals too. In addition, we stressed the importance of observing our Jewish faith and encouraged regular synagogue attendance along with increased observance of our traditions and mitzvahs. However, most of all, we instilled in our leaders the idea that the destiny of our synagogue lay in our hands; we as members of this synagogue have ultimate responsibility and accountability for the direction and success of our synagogue. Only we can affect positive and monumental change that can ensure our survival.
What I have laid out for you is but a high-level and small representation of the many ideas that some might characterize as grandiose and overwhelming. But if we, as members of Beth El can’t imagine or dream outside the barriers of “how we have always done things,” then we are destined to stagnate and ultimately stop growing.
As president of a mostly volunteer organization my title does not afford me with the luxury to command or force others to act as I see fit. Even in my own professional life as a manager, I have learned that leadership is not about bullying or telling people what to do. It is about setting a tone and an example with one’s own actions with the hope that others will be inspired and embrace your vision too.
Making the dramatic changes necessary to move our synagogue forward is not an easy task. The path towards our synagogue’s brightly glowing future is laden with obstacles and the harsh pain that comes from resistance and the threat from the promises of new and different ideas. It often requires raising controversial issues and lending a voice to topics that have been held beneath a blanket of fear and intimidation. But standing up for what one believes to be for the betterment of our synagogue is crucial for there to be any hope for change and progress — even if it means one has to stand alone. And while the scars from such exchanges can take time to heal, I can’t help but feel pride from the knowledge that I left nothing on the table in my quest for making my synagogue the growing, vibrant, and spiritual place I know it can be.
Based on what I have shared with you, it would be easy for you to conclude that the answer to the opening question of this article would be a decisive “no.” But when I wipe away the dirt and rotten leaves that are the difficulties and pain of the last four years, I uncover a beautiful monument to the wonderful members that I have gotten to know at Beth El. Contrary, to all the warnings, I have been treated kindly and with great respect by the members of this congregation and although during my tenure these relationships have made me more susceptible to life’s heartaches as I have had to watch my fellow congregants suffer through financial setbacks, sickness, and even death. I blur my eyes from these pains and focus on the positive aspects of this experience and cherish the people that I have gotten to know and the relationships that I have made.
So as I put the final punctuation mark on my last article as synagogue president, I can’t help but open my eyes to the realization that our journey in life is similar to my journey as president. Life is often filled with obstacles, challenges, suffering, and pain. Ultimately what make life worth living are the cherished relationships we create and the joy that comes from living each day with purpose. So too, as I look back on my experience as president with the hope that I have made a difference securely held close to my chest, that I realize that it is the special relationships I have gained and the joy I received from serving my community that has ultimately brought me to the conclusion that “Yes, knowing what I know now, I would do it again.”