Synagogue presidents meet monthly to swap tips, woes

Synagogue presidents: They go to meetings. They balance budgets. They welcome new members. They coordinate billings and contracts.

No one ever said the job was glamorous.

But for the 25 East Bay Jews who serve as synagogue presidents, sweating out the details is their very time-consuming gift to the community. Without the lights turned on and the cantor paid, there would be no Kol Nidre, no Sunday school, no Shabbat services.

So they toil in relative obscurity, keeping their synagogues afloat despite the fact that no one is quite sure what they do.

Many of their duties deal with delicate matters such as hiring and firing, collecting delinquent dues, smoothing hostilities between members. All agree that the wide range of presidential tasks have one thing in common: They require copious amounts of tact.

On the first Wednesday of every month, however, the presidents need not tackle these matters alone. For two years now, the Council of Congregation Presidents has been meeting to exchange information, wisdom and support.

"Synagogue presidents feel the weight of their microcosmic world around their shoulders. They don't have anyone to turn to within that system. They can't spread what they know through the congregation," says Jamie Hyams of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. Hyams staffs the group.

The monthly meetings "allow them to talk about things in a closed, secure group," she adds.

Charles Bernstein, who works full time as a human resources manager, has been president of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham for just over a year. The meetings, he says, "make you feel you're not alone out there."

Miriam Miller, president of Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore, agrees.

"It's confidential, so we can be open and free, and it provides a forum to discuss in-depth issues all of us presidents face. We get to share solutions," says Miller.

Miller sees her 15 weekly hours of synagogue work as a contribution to "the future of Judaism in our community."

What does it take for a president to succeed? "Attention to detail, caring a great deal about people, being sensitive to all different personality types, listening to people and not needing to do things only your way," Miller says.

Striving to preserve the anonymity this group treasures so much, Miller and the other presidents spoke mostly in generalities. Members agree that the group has helped them approach topics like kosher policies, staff contracts and new member recruitment.

Put simply, synagogue presidents do "whatever the rabbi doesn't do," according to Karla Smith, president of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.

Smith says meeting monthly with others in "the same boat" has been "an incredible experience. Sharing and brainstorming and a sense of cooperativeness among the congregations is wonderful to see."

That cooperation is extending out of the meetings and into synagogue life. Currently, the presidents — ranging from Orthodox to Reform — are planning several joint events. Smith says such cooperative efforts make sense, after all, because the presidents often have goals in common.

"We're all interested in attracting marginally committed Jews into whatever congregation they would feel most comfortable in. That's what we're all trying to do."