The role of the congregational rabbi is a multi-faceted one that demands a wide variety of capabilities—no news there. Recent work has emphasized the importance of the rabbi in envisioning a new approach to the synagogue that addresses today’s realities and societal trends.1 This emphasis on vision led me to think about how broadly we employ metaphors around the idea of sight, and to wonder whether the concepts, and even the sounds contained in the word, could be stretched still further to encompass elements of the varied functions and requirements of today’s congregational rabbi.
Here are the results of those musings:
SIGHT: The effective pulpit rabbi has a vision for the future for the congregation. It’s insufficient simply to take care of current needs and serve the congregation in the present tense, or to rely on a glorious past, however long term. Today’s sustainable synagogues are those experimenting with new models and embracing change, as has long been true of successful organizations of all types. The rabbi must intentionally shape the direction of the congregation, help it move ahead toward a desired future, and integrate tradition with an appropriate pace of change.
INSIGHT: In both their pastoral and leadership roles, rabbis must have keen perception about people in groups and as individuals, with differing qualities, motivations and needs. This interpersonal understanding underlies the ability to empathize and to develop trusting relationships, which enable the rabbi to effectively advise, console, support, and supervise. Equally important is self-awareness into one’s own strengths, deficiencies, and tendencies. Without this intrapersonal insight there is no humility and little potential for growth.
INCITE: A key function of the pulpit rabbi is encouraging and inspiring others, inciting congregants to volunteer more, to give more, but mostly to be more through increased Jewish and spiritual engagement. The rabbi who can do this will lead a congregation of seekers who come together in community to share their journeys.
CITE/RECITE: Strong knowledge of Jewish texts is a baseline expectation, and forms the core of the curriculum at most rabbinical seminaries. In addition to being able to readily access Jewish wisdom and tradition, the rabbi must apply these teachings in a way that makes them relevant to congregants. He or she needs to help people grapple with, and perhaps find answers to, the questions they’re asking about life, with the aid of Jewish wisdom. And the rabbi must then convey these ideas in a compelling way—from the pulpit, in the classroom, and one-on-one.
SITE: No organization exists in a vacuum; its particular time and place form a specific context within which it operates. For the rabbi, this means leading the congregation in a way that addresses the forces currently impacting it, as well as those impacting Judaism at large at this very moment. Today’s effective rabbi remains aware of changing local demographics, shifts in generational attitudes, the implications of technological advances for the congregational world, and the like. He or she constantly monitors the culture both around the synagogue and within it, and is attuned to trends as they emerge.
SIGHTLY: The rabbi serves as a religious or symbolic exemplar, one who demonstrates the qualities or behaviors to which others aspire. To be an authentic and respected spiritual guide, the rabbi needs to “walk the talk” or practice what he or she preaches. Some clergy members experience the constant spotlight as a great burden. The need to always be a role model in demeanor, word, and action can place a strain on the rabbi who lives in fear of letting slip a wrong word and being unceremoniously knocked off the pedestal.
This exercise has just about scratched the surface of the world of today's pulpit rabbi. With so many different job demands, very significant educational investment, and relatively few positions available, it's a wonder that anyone chooses to enter the rabbinate. Despite all this, the Jewish community is blessed with a supply of dedicated rabbis willing to heed the call to serve in today's synagogues and in other communal settings.
Our lives are enriched by their efforts.
1Hayim Herring, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2012).
Linda Rich is an Alban field consultant.
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Tomorrow's Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life
by Hayim Herring
Herring offers creative scenarios to stretch the imagination about how more synagogues could become vibrant centers of Jewish life and how congregational leaders can begin to chart a new course toward achieving that goal. Key to his vision are the ways synagogues can collaborate with other synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the local Jewish community and around the globe, as well as with organizations outside of the Jewish community.
Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary
by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman
Sacred Strategies is about eight synagogues that reached out and helped people connect to Jewish life in a new way—congregations that had gone from commonplace to extraordinary. Researchers Aron, Cohen, Hoffman, and Kelman write for synagogue leaders eager to transform their congregations, federations and foundations interested in encouraging and supporting this transformation, and researchers in congregational studies who will want to explore further.
This House We Build:Lessons for Healthy Synagogues and the People Who Dwell There
by Terry Bookman, William Kahn
This one-volume guide to a healthy congregation combines the wisdom of a rabbi with the expertise of an organizational development consultant to demonstrate the power of positive relationships and show how to avoid some of the common traps that can lead to serious conflict. Using the life of the synagogue as its central illustration, this book gives vital lessons for congregations of any faith on how to be a healthy community of believers.
Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning
by Robert Leventhal
Drawing on his extensive and fruitful consulting work in diverse synagogue contexts, Alban senior consultant Robert Leventhal presents his Synagogue Visioning and Planning (SVP) model to a wider audience for the first time. Using this substantial yet accessible model, Leventhal has helped numerous congregations with visioning and planning, leadership development, and team building. Congregations that engage with SVP will uncover hidden depths of vision and vitality as they grow into a clearer understanding of their God-given ministries and gifts.
Join Ed White for an exploration of the behaviors, dynamics, and practices—congregational and spiritual—that help lead to a long and fruitful pastorate.
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A New Vision for the Long Pastorate
Leader: Ed White, Alban Consultant
October 23-25, 2012, Roslyn Retreat Center, Richmond, VA
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