Leader of the free world Try being leader of the shul

As I watched President Barack Obama’s swearing-in on Jan. 20, it dawned on me that I now have something in common with Malia and Sasha Obama. Both our dads are president.

My dad isn’t exactly the leader of the free world or the commander in chief of the U.S. military. But even though Obama will have to deal with at least four years of Democrats and Repub-licans, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, corruption, war, health care and the entire Middle East, I think he has it easy compared to my dad’s new job: president of a 450-family synagogue in suburban Washington, D.C.

My dad took office earlier this month, 16 days before Obama. The shul doesn’t yet have its own Air Force One, so I wasn’t able to be there, except in spirit.

Like Obama’s rise to the highest office in the land, my father’s ascension to synagogue president still seems somewhat improbable. A few years ago my family would go to shul for all the Jewish holidays and some Shabbats, but we were hardly regulars.

After my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, my dad volunteered to repaint a railing in front of the shul. He got to talking with the rabbi, who asked him if he wanted to do something with the synagogue. My dad said yes, he wanted to paint the railing.

“I have a better idea,” the rabbi said. A member of the synagogue was starting a class for adults who wanted to learn how to read Torah. Was he interested?

“I got into this through religion, and not through maybe the more conventional way that people become leaders,” my dad said when I talked to him on the phone the other night. “I got involved because I started reading Torah.”

After my grandmother died in 2005, my dad started going to minyan every day to say Kaddish. Eventually he became comfortable with the shul in a way he’d never felt before. And then people started asking him to do things.

He was asked to serve on the religious practices committee; when the head of the committee left to become president, he became chairman. Then he became vice president. And about six months ago, it was announced that he would be the next president.

When it comes to what they actually do as president, Obama’s job and my dad’s sound kind of similar. My dad will oversee the synagogue’s lay leadership and meet with the heads of the committees — such as fundraising and membership  — just like Obama will oversee his Cabinet and the governmental departments.

My dad is the public representative of the synagogue. He’ll provide weekly addresses during the service and write a column in the synagogue’s bulletin. He’ll even have his own State of the Union–style speech during Kol Nidre.

I asked my dad what advice he might give to our new president — after all, he has two weeks of experience on Obama.

“Accept your limitations,” my dad said sagely. “Don’t be afraid to take small steps. Trust other people, when you can, and ask a lot of questions.”

Being president of the shul isn’t entirely unprecedented for my dad. His mother was very involved with her synagogue in Harrisburg, Pa., and his father-in-law, my grandfather, was a rabbi in Milton, Mass. “We do kind of have a family tradition,” my dad noted.

As First Daughter, I’m eminently proud of him — although I’m still trying to get a grip on the idea that that guy reading announcements and welcoming you at Kiddush is my dad.

I hope people appreciate him. I hope they listen to and respect him, and know how much he cares about the shul. And I hope my dad knows that even though I can’t be in the sanctuary with him, I’ll be thinking about him every Saturday morning.

Being president, the old man admitted, is a pretty thankless job. It’s unpaid, and often unsung.

But he does get a prime spot on the bimah during services. And — maybe most importantly — he gets a reserved parking space. No more walking from the satellite lot on the High Holy Days — at least for the next two years.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].