Finding Jewish Leadership

            September 2013    
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Leadership of Synagogues: Who Will Step up to the Plate?

By Tom Weil

Synagogues over several decades tend to rise and fall based on the quality of their governing board and their rabbi's leadership.

Exceedingly complicated is appropriately ministering to a vast range of initiatives invariably faced by religious institutions and their trustees because of such inherent conflicts as: gaining agreement on the congregation's mission statement; often vast differences in religious beliefs and values among its membership; repugnant power politics played within the congregation; the dissimilarities of interests and needs among members with children and those who are senior citizens; the degree of favorably rallying around the rabbi and his/her staff; and, the ability of its membership to raise short- and long-term capital and operating funds perceived to be required to meet the temple's objectives. Because of serious underlying issues, these disagreements are frequently complex to resolve, and, in fact, they are often convoluted.

This commentary proposes that some of the same demographic and cultural factors that late in the last century caused the sharp decline (almost a half) in the number of Jewish-sponsored hospitals, in the next three decades or so, will be playing a significant role in shuttering a significant number of Conservative and Reform synagogues. As the more established, educated, and affluent Jews are often sought for trusteeship roles of the high-profile, formerly Gentile-dominated community and regional organizations, synagogues increasingly will have difficulties to attract experienced leadership for their board of trustees. The obvious question, therefore is: Who in the future will step up to the plate in what appears now to be a more murky environment in providing appropriate leadership for the Conservative and Reform houses of worship?

Jewish-Sponsored Hospitals - - A Possible Model

Changes in the governance of Jewish-sponsored hospitals provide a sobering example of how demographic and cultural factors may impact who may lead our synagogues in the future. Before the turn of the last century, when anti-Semitism was still relatively rampant, Jewish hospitals were established in many major metropolitan areas, because Jewish medical school graduates experienced difficulty in obtaining internship and residency training, and thereafter, receiving admitting privileges for their patients. Highly sought after, prestigious then and even today among those of Jewish faith, is to be elected a trustee of a major medical center, particularly as an officer of the board.

As Jews broke through the barriers of anti-Semitism, became gradually, culturally assimilated, and relocated their families from urban ghettos to more upscale suburban environs, their inner-city Jewish-sponsored hospitals were less frequently needed and supported. This is illustrated by the fact that from 1975 to 1997 the total number of Jewish-sponsored hospitals decreased from 33 to 20 facilities. Some notable examples of institutions that significantly modified their governance include: San Francisco's Mt. Zion Hospital that was deeded to the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center; Chicago's Michael Reese Medical Center, that at one time had a capacity of 1,500 beds, through various transactions became part of the investor-owned HCA (Hospital Corporation of America); and, Hartford's Mt. Sinai Hospital was merged (actually acquired) by the local Catholic hospital rather than with the more established, waspish Hartford Hospital.

Still requiring some study is whether these above noted demises were related to the overall shortage of inpatient admissions; patient mix (i.e., too many uninsured patients); lack of Jewish physician support (i.e., patients are admitted by doctors); disinterested or simply inadequate governing board leadership; or, a combination of these factors. Having observed these changes from a distance, my impression is that many of these facilities' younger trustees, who by this time had relocated with their families to more serene environments "many miles away," were not overly anxious to undertake the major fund raising efforts then required. Their key admitting physicians recommended that major capital investments were needed at their inner-city hospitals to maintain clinical competitiveness with the area's other facilities.

Rather than being a trustee of a "dying" hospital near his family's earlier ethnic roots, far more personally satisfying for "young professionals" was the opportunity to be involved in the expansion of a financially sound, horizontally and vertically diversified medical center, where the core acute care facility was located nearby public schools where his/her children were attending.

Some Parallel Studies

Somewhat similar longitudinal changes occurring among Jewish-sponsored hospitals were being replicated at other Jewish institutions. The faculty of Brandeis University's Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, the S3K Synagogue Institute, and others, have published relevant inquires on a host of topics such as who joins American Jewish congregations?; and, a far more specific analyses of a group of temples and their membership views based on surveying the Westchester County (NY) congregations. The latter study is of particular personal interest since the author was bar mitzvah in 1945 at Mount Vernon's Sinai Temple that later merged with the Free Synagogue; the Sinai sanctuary and adjacent building is now the house of worship for a Church of God congregation.

Obviously most disturbing is that the interest and commitment to synagogues among the younger generation of Jews appears to be tapering off. Therefore, of no surprise is that Jewish synagogues are: gradually showing signs (except for the Orthodox) of stagnation; they are unable to modify the traditional pattern of only a few young adult members without children, except again for the Orthodox; families most frequently joining the temple when they have school age children; many senior congregants are seeking social contacts; and, too many unfilled pews. These trends are more noticeable among the Conservative temples, too often struggling with older congregations in older suburbs. In any case, at any point in time, approximately 40% of the total number of Jews in the U.S. belong to a temple. A major drop off occurring, particularly among the Reform members, after their youngest child has been bar/bat mitzvah.

A finding consistent with other not-for profit organizations, is the Westchester County (NY) survey suggesting that there are too often complaints about a synagogue's lay and professional leadership. (Some of this can obviously be explained by the fact that rabbinical students receive virtually no such training while in rabbinical school and these efforts demand significant effort as a pulpit rabbi.) One wonders whether this is in any way related to an increasing number of congregations looking for "comfort" rather than "challenges", with the intellectual tradition of the pulpit thought to be waning? Or, is this because there is a glut of rabbis on the market (particularly during the recession), some temples considering whether it might not be advisable to recruit for a new, younger face to lead them?

Those surveyed as part of the Westchester survey groused that there are too many trustee meetings and most of then were not fruitful. They experienced during these sessions too much ego, politics, and bickering. The end result of all this "political nonsense and synagogue politics" is that many expressed the opinion that it is not very personally rewarding to be a temple board member - - only takes away from the potentially favorable possibilities of being connected with a meaningful spiritual role. My personal interviews with current and former synagogue board members supports this point of view.

Most frequently, synagogue leadership is held in the hands of the middle-aged members, with too little interest in bringing along the younger group. Even more distressing is that synagogues generally make poor use of their members' skills and abilities. Such an environment carries the danger of creating a congregation in name only, one that lacks the "social glue" of sound personal, professional, and social interactions usually identified with a congenial and emotionally rewarding religious community.

What is so noticeable to me in reviewing these publications is the avoidance of such topics as who seeks, who is recruited by the nominating committee, and who is elected a temple trustee?; how effectively do these trustees deliver sound policy decisions?; and, whether and if so, how well do rabbis and their staffs convey direction to their trustees and congregations in arriving at some cogent goals and objectives?

In Hal Lewis' review of Wertheimer's book (2011),"The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape," he is highly critical of this text because of the absence of covering such topics as leadership style, decision-making, succession planning or even the relationship between the trustees, and the rabbi and staff. Also missing is some discussion of the effect that Jews, who possess well-defined leadership skills, are often already on highly visible community-based boards and avoid synagogue trusteeship. My impression is that these highly charged, controversial topics may have been sidestepped for a number of reasons that are now discussed.

Around the turn of the last century, particularly among those living in dense urban areas, Jewish life, aside from career considerations, frequently centered around family, friends, the activities of the synagogue of choice, the YMHA/YWCA, the local Jewish federation, the nearby Jewish hospital, and other similar organizations. Most of the more prestigious private, preparatory schools, and colleges and universities of higher learning had informal quotas related to the number of Jews who could be admitted. A few high-end suburban communities were restricted - - did not allow Jews to own a home there.

Meanwhile, it was the usual and customary practice for the community's most prominent Jewish families to be well represented on the boards of the Jewish-sponsored hospital, a local synagogue, and the Y - - these organizations were then most fortunate since they frequently had the "best" leaders available. Often a senior trustee position was passed on from father to son and many years later to possibly a daughter. Jews had other Jews as their closest friends; and, only a few were sought out to have a significant stake in highly visible Gentile-dominated organizations or institutions.

Jews Become "More Main Stream"

After World War II, as economic conditions improved and anti-Semitism became less overt, Jewish physicians more readily obtained training opportunities and admitting privileges across a far broader spectrum of hospitals. To achieve better educational opportunities for their children and to live a more comfortable life style, there was a mass exodus of Jewish families from the inner city to the suburbs. More Jews, particularly among those members identified with the Reform movement, reflective of the broad societal changes then underway, married non-Jews so that now 47% are in mixed marriages.

Local governing boards of all types, voluntary health and welfare agencies, PTOs, banks, the United Way, community foundations, museums, symphonies, hospitals, and other broad-based organizations started to recruit those who were Jewish. When you look around today, more than 65 years after the end of World War II, Jews are reasonably well assimilated into the nation's key leadership roles whether it be political, economic-financial, intellectual, or social.

Considered excellent candidates to be now appointed to a broad range of boards enjoying significant local or regional influence, are Jews (male or female) who were raised in families that for several generations had actively participated in not-for profits and other similar organizations in their communities; who graduated from established colleges and universities; who have achieved relatively senior professional roles or are married to a spouse who had such a position; and, who have already or would achieve significant financial resources. Even though they were Jewish, if relatively bright, assumed to be effective in developing policies, able to attract resources, were well-liked among their colleagues, and appeared willing to give the organization some of their time and energies, they were assumed to be prime candidates for a previous Gentile-dominated trustee appointment.

As a result of the potentially more capable Jewish leadership being recruited and elected to governing boards offering more social status, attractive personal and professional connections, and emotional capital, synagogue boards were left with a smaller and probably a less qualified pool to chose from when electing temple trustees. One knowledgeable reviewer of a early draft suggested: "A synagogue board is not always a particularly pleasant and satisfying experience for successful business people;" and, in fact, they "often have proven to be an exasperating and frustrating experience." These comments and my personal interviews might at least partially explain why synagogues may not be obtaining the potential candidates for leadership roles that they would like or deserve.

Current studies suggest that the younger generation should not be expected to invigorate Jewish congregational life. In fact, in spite of having a strong portal into Jewish communal values, they often express weakened institutional ties, lack of interest in organizational memberships, support a diminished role for Israel in the individual and collective consciousness, and express disaffection to the survivalist agendas of older American Jewry. They express preference for personal meanings compared to peoplehood; and, they have an inherent disdain for the tribalism often associated with their elders. Younger Jews more frequently identify with broad social, community concerns such as the under-served (not necessarily Jews), the environment, and social justice causes that include the Palestinians, in spite of the fact that many have spent considerable time in Israel, and feel connected with its traditions. They want to be culturally tied to conventional Jewish values rather than being associated with Zionism, donating to its various related charities, advocating for Israel's defense, or taking an active leadership role in a synagogue.

Some Predictions

Almost half the Jewish-sponsored hospitals collapsed during the last quarter of the 20th century in the sense that they were more frequently either acquired by a non-secular entity or in a few cases they were shuttered. The reasons were various, but probably the most critical factors were the lack of paying patients (Jewish patients had often moved to the suburbs); Jewish physicians were obtaining training opportunities and admitting privileges elsewhere; there were huge capital needs that required fund raising; and, possibly more pivotal was most younger board members had moved to suburbia and had opportunities to be elected to community hospital or other prestigious boards there.

Now and even more frequently in the future, synagogues can be expected to experience some similar trends. Today the more established Jewish professionals, with the "right" credentials, often has the option to be a trustee of several prestigious organizations that have a community and maybe even a regional impact - - roles that personally feel warm and fuzzy, and were previously dominated only by Gentiles.

For the most business-types, synagogues are often personally uncomfortable places to be a trustee for many reasons including experiencing at board meetings constant bickering sometimes on minor matters, and the old guard playing their usual power politics. Because of this reputation, the temple nominating committees often have difficulty to attract the most experienced leadership. What should be of even more concern for the future is that younger Jews are increasingly interested in broad social justice (e.g, the poor, the environment, and even the Palestinians), consistent with their Jewish values; and, they seem to be steering away from the traditional, well organized synagogue activities as they are structured today. Finally, I experienced a reluctance among pulpit rabbis to review and to comment on drafts of this commentary, something that never occurred in my preparation of over 240 published articles in the health and hospital literature.

For all of these reasons, I believe the viability of all the current American Conservative and Reformed synagogues is less promising than their congregations and rabbis would like to believe. Hopefully, responses to this commentary will offer some concrete solutions and well-thought out recommendations.

* * * * *

About the author: Thomas P. Weil

Tom Weil completed his administrative residency requirements for a Yale University masters degree ('58) in hospital administration by serving as the S.S. Goldwater Fellow at New York City's Mt. Sinai Medical Center. He proceeded thereafter to the University of Michigan to complete his Ph.D. degree ('64) in the department now called health management and policy. Tom spent 30 years as a full-time healthcare consultant and is now retired living on a 14 acre equestrian property five miles from downtown Asheville, N.C.


from the September 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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