Synagogue leaders can learn a lot from new book

Just three chapters of “This House We Build: Lessons for Healthy Synagogues and the People Who Dwell There” could be enough for any synagogue director to experience Meg Ryan’s restaurant-based ecstasy from “When Harry Met Sally.”

Never before have the combined acumen and expertise of a member of the clergy and an organizational behaviorist revealed the hidden conflicts and dysfunctional relationships of synagogue communities with such honesty. Through case studies, use of faith values, discussion of texts and descriptions of congregational cultures, the authors, Rabbi Terry Bookman and William Kahn, bring the usual elephants in the room to life.

What we learn, early on, is that the reason that Jews joined congregations “once upon a time” doesn’t exist today. Back then, it was simply because it was the right thing to do. Today, members join because it is the right thing to do for themselves — to get their needs met. This is the core basis for struggles between leaders, clergy, members, staff and anyone else who dares to believe that being a part of a congregation will locate and nourish their Jewish heart, mind and soul.

Healthy synagogues, Bookman and Kahn say, mean committed members who want their relationship to the synagogue to survive and are willing to work at it. This strikes a resounding bell in the Bay Area where, according to the recent study completed by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, only 28 percent of the Jewish population belongs to synagogues.

Bookman and Kahn pose that this rejection of synagogue membership may be because Jews expect perfection in their relationship with their synagogue. If we don’t perceive perfection, it makes it easy for us to reject membership.

The elements that determine healthy relationships in synagogues are largely the same as those found in other nonprofit and faith-based institutions. Community vision and understanding, strategic communication, financial support, managing healthy boundaries and developing strong partnerships within the context of the institution help keep these organizations, and synagogues, healthy.

What distinguishes the synagogue framework, note the authors, is the congregants. Issues of authority are fogged by expectations of the role of the clergy. Issues of community and communication are often challenged by definitions of holiness and practice. Burnout often drains the vibrancy needed for member participation and, consequently, financial resources suffer.

The authors remind us of the biblical story of Korach, who challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. It teaches us how power can be transferred across generations.

The efforts needed to build lasting relationships require congregants to feel truly invited, welcomed and liberated to speak out. The key is that, at the same time, trust, faith and wisdom are built on knowing how to use all these voices appropriately. The book addresses strategies for managing these healthy boundaries.

If there is one hole in the theories presented in the book, it is in the relationship models. Clergy and lay leaders, members and clergy, clergy and clergy, clergy and executive director are fully discussed. What is completely overlooked is the importance of the non-clergy relationships between executive director and lay leadership, and executive director to staff and members. Perhaps this topic will be in the sequel.

It takes an educated, strong and directed leadership to allow all voices to be heard and to move the congregation forward in appropriate business, ritual and relationship decisions. It is a challenge for all involved to balance individual needs with those of the collective community. “This House We Build” offers rich insights for clergy, congregants, and professional staff to learn how to create and sustain their community in the course of inevitable transitions and everyday challenges.

Nancy Drapin is the executive director of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

This House We Build" by Terry Bookman and William Kahn (384 pages, Alban Institute, $20).