The decision not to renew Rabbi Jeremy Morrison's contract at Congregation Beth Am has become an unusually public controversy. (Background: Beth Am congregants at an event in 2018.)
The decision not to renew Rabbi Jeremy Morrison's contract at Congregation Beth Am has become an unusually public controversy. (Background: Beth Am congregants at an event in 2018.)

Beth Am suffers ‘moment of crisis’ after rabbi’s contract is not renewed

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At Congregation Beth Am, the Days of Awe have been followed by days of turmoil after the synagogue board voted against renewing the contract of Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, a decision some argue was made without sufficient community input, while others maintain the process strictly followed protocol as laid out in Beth Am’s bylaws.

Board members voted 15 to 3 (with one abstention) not to renew the contract. The board also chose not to offer the rabbi a one-year extension. The decision sent shock waves through the large Beth Am community of more than 1,300 households, triggering four high-level resignations of lay and professional leaders and a volley of public letters exchanged on both sides.

“We believe this is a moment of crisis in the life of our congregation,” said signers of a letter from former board members and past presidents critical of the decision and the manner in which it was reached.

A vote to let a rabbi’s contract expire without renewal is not unique to Beth Am. It happens in congregations across the country. Rabbi Jan Offel, the director of consulting and transition management for the Union for Reform Judaism, has seen other synagogues experience community-wide distress in similar situations. She has been in touch with Beth Am leadership in recent weeks and months.

“What’s unusual,” she says, “is how public this has been. Everyone’s writing an [open] letter.”

Morrison, who serves as senior rabbi of the Reform synagogue in Los Altos Hills, was hired to replace Senior Rabbi Janet Marder, who retired in 2020 after 21 years. He is in the final year of a three-year contract that expires in June 2023.

Open conflict erupted soon after Sukkot with an Oct. 21 letter to the congregation. In it, Beth Am president Jay Hirsh announced the board’s vote, writing, “It is clear to us that, despite his strengths, Rabbi Morrison is not the right rabbi for Beth Am at this moment.” The letter did not detail why the board reached this conclusion.

“As is typically true in a situation like this, where a complex evaluation of alignment with spiritual and community values is required,” Hirsh wrote in the letter, “there is no single factor that dictates the outcome. Rather, our decision arises from a consideration of multiple factors related to Rabbi Morrison’s ability to unite the congregation as a kehilla kedosha,” a holy community.

Although some feedback was solicited from staff, clergy and congregants months ago when the contract renewal process began, board members said after the vote they received scores of calls and emails, both supportive and critical. Then, on Oct. 31, in a move that further rocked the congregation, longtime synagogue executive director Rachel Tasch abruptly announced her resignation.

“Given the direction the lay leadership is taking the congregation,” she wrote in an open letter, “I find myself unable to continue in my role as Executive Director. The formal process for Rabbi Morrison’s evaluation and renewal generally took place without my involvement, and I have misgivings about the process based on what I observed.”

Tasch has not responded to J.’s request for an interview. Rabbi Morrison has not commented on the situation.

Two other high-profile resignations were board members Bob Frankle and Alison Barnstable. In a Nov. 9 letter to the congregation explaining why, they wrote: “In the end, we could not in good conscience support and defend the Board’s decision and decision making process, a process that violated our core values and our understanding of Jewish values. We continue to be concerned as the Board attempts to explain its process… without the transparency and trust you deserve.”

On Nov. 16, Paige Kaplan, the synagogue’s engagement and experience manager, also resigned.

In a Nov. 3 congregational briefing on Zoom, board members sought to calm the waters by explaining their review process, though without revealing the reasons for the nonrenewal. Board member David Crankshaw pointed out that the criteria used to evaluate Morrison was the same one drawn up by the search committee to find Marder’s replacement three years ago.

“The criteria for senior rabbi included someone with warmth and compassion,” Crankshaw said, “with wisdom and teaching skill, someone who could be collaborative and inclusive, bring inspiration and charisma, leadership and creativity. The board had to look at everyone’s experience with these criteria as we assessed Rabbi Morrison’s fit with the vision and values of the congregation.”

Former board member Lorree Farrar said the board met 14 times throughout the summer to discuss whether to renew the rabbi’s contract. “We tried as hard as we could to focus on data,” she said. “We tried to make it as comprehensive and thorough as we possibly could.”

Farrar stressed that all such conversations were confidential, which may explain in part why many in the Beth Am community, having given their feedback in the early stages of the review process, were taken by surprise when the decision was announced.

What’s unusual is how public this has been. Everyone’s writing an open letter.

“As an employer we have a responsibility to protect an employee’s privacy,” Farrar added. “We can’t do that while also talking publicly about our considerations of all those dimensions of the job.”

Board member Loren Ford agreed that maintaining the rabbi’s privacy was paramount. “I am constrained by the law, as well as kavod [honor] and respect,” he told J. in an interview. “It is not appropriate for me or any board member to discuss personnel decisions about any employee. It’s not legally OK, it’s not ethically OK.”

Added the URJ’s Offel, “Legally, they have to keep it confidential. It would be completely inappropriate to be anything but. It was a very thoughtful process the board went through and a detailed process. It has to be a confidential matter, absolutely, there’s no two ways about it. The board is elected by the congregation. They represent the congregation.”

Ford acknowledged that the board’s decision and the resignations have caused distress among congregants, staff and clergy (four rabbis serve in different capacities, plus a cantor).

“There are some congregants who are upset, some who are frustrated, maybe angry,” Ford said. “That’s not surprising. There are other congregants who feel satisfied with the decision. But everyone is sad. No one is having a good time.”

In a Nov. 1 congregational letter, Beth Am president Hirsh wrote, “These are hard days at Beth Am.”

Harder days were still to come, when on Nov. 10 the group of former board members and past presidents sent their letter out to the Beth Am community. It was a lengthy indictment, harshly critical of the board’s decision-making process.

“These resignations and the growing frustration among many congregants reflect deep concerns about the Board’s approach to evaluating Rabbi Morrison and the Board’s lack of transparency around their decision-making process on his contract,” they wrote. “Whatever your view of the contract renewal, we believe that all congregants deserve to know about the significant concerns that have been raised about the Board’s process.”

Among their charges, the letter writers asserted that the board did not sufficiently solicit congregational input and said “most congregants were not aware” that deliberations were in process “until Rabbi Morrison mentioned it in his Yom Kippur sermon” when he said he was in the final year of his contract and was in talks with the board about renewal.

The letter further claimed that the board broke precedent by not putting its decision to a congregational vote. “Leaving the decision on Rabbi Morrison’s contract renewal to the Board alone… is contrary to our congregation’s precedent and culture of inclusion,” the group wrote.

The letter writers declined to speak to J.

Board president Hirsh quickly responded with a congregational letter of his own. He chided the letter writers for their “misuse” of the Beth Am membership directory, and for putting forth “misleading information which suggested the recent work of the board was unfair and not legitimate. Concerningly, the tone of the messages could stir feelings of hostility and suspicion, affecting the peace of Beth Am’s kehillah kedosha [sacred community] and putting community trust to the test,” Hirsh said.

Board member Ford said the group letter sent to members is something that “has never happened before in the history of our congregation. It’s fair to say that we did not contemplate that anyone would do that. We’ve gotten quite a number of responses [from congregants], and almost all of them say they feel violated, invaded. We also heard from some who felt differently.”

Ford also rebuffed the assertions in the letter, noting about the signers, “Just as they do not have insight into the board discussions about confidential personnel matters, they also do not have insight into the nature, quality and content of conversations we had with congregants over the past two years.”

While over the years Marder’s contract renewals were put before a congregational vote, Ford said that practice was dictated by the bylaws. A senior rabbi’s contract must be ratified by the congregation, said Ford, but the bylaws do not require the congregation to ratify a decision to let a contract expire.

“People say, ‘Oh you’re splitting hairs,’” said Ford, who is an attorney. “Well, governance is legalistic. Bylaws most of the time are boring but written in precise ways.”

In an effort to heal the community, the board has launched a series of small-group listening sessions to allow congregants and board members to exchange views and express their feelings about what has transpired. A special congregational meeting will be held on Zoom on Dec. 15 to “provide an opportunity to ask questions and offer input regarding the Board’s recent decision related to our Senior Rabbi’s contract,” as it was phrased in the invitation.

Ford said the listening sessions are going “very well,” adding that “people are being respectful of each other, listening to each other’s viewpoints, and the board members are listening to what the folks in small groups are saying. It’s what we intended to happen, moving forward together as one congregation and being able to care about each other.”

Offel of the URJ is likewise optimistic that the Beth Am community will come through this ordeal.

“It’s a strong congregation,” she said. “I’ve seen this in countless congregations throughout the country, and often a congregation can come through this strengthened in some ways.”

How two congregants see it

Alyson Yisrael considers Congregation Beth Am a second home. She says she’s not going anywhere, despite the upheaval since the synagogue’s board chose not to renew the contract of Senior Rabbi Jeremy Morrison. But, she concedes, “It’ll be rough in the near future.”

A member of the Los Altos Hills Reform shul since 2001, Yisrael has long been active in temple life. She served on various committees and her two daughters had their bat mitzvahs there. So the rift among congregants over the board’s decision has caused her anguish. Yet she stands with the board.

“I don’t see the board’s motivation to do something potentially harmful, that could cause suffering for the community, if it wasn’t necessary,” she told J. “I happen to have some close friends on the board and I trust those people. Even if I didn’t, who would voluntarily bring this on?”

The Mountain View resident has followed the crisis closely, including the accusatory congregational letters between board president Jay Hirsh and a group of former board officers critical of the decision, and the resignations of two board members and longtime executive director Rachel Tasch in protest.

“I hate to say ‘sides,’ but we are [taking] sides at this point. We’re getting [member directory] emails, which I don’t think is the appropriate route,” she said about the divisive and public back-and-forth communications. “I was so upset when I saw this.”

Other congregants feel differently, opposing the board’s decision and the manner in which it was reached. One agreed to talk to J. on the condition of anonymity, wishing to avoid a fracturing of relationships with staff, clergy and friends. This person likes Morrison and thinks he has done a good job.

“I had no problem with him whatsoever,” this person said. “He has shown a sense of humor, likeability and warmth. We were remote when he started [due to the pandemic]. He didn’t have the opportunity to make the impression he might have.”

The congregant also appreciated Morrison’s caring response when there had been a death in the family. “He was warm and empathetic. I felt he made it easier, he was very supportive at a very stressful time, and continued to be supportive since that happened whenever he saw me.”

The congregant was critical of the review process undertaken by the board and said clergy contract renewals have been handled differently in the past.

“From my own personal experience, there was a process, and it did not appear this process was followed. It felt very flawed. After all this came out after Yom Kippur, people were saying, ‘What’s going on?’ Like me, they felt blindsided. There’s a way to respect someone without it coming out like this. The lack of transparency has left us all feeling as though we were not important in this process as members.

“What struck me is this is not the Jewish way,” the congregant said. “This is not following the mission of Beth Am.”

The person added that the primary goal now should be the healing of the community.

Yisrael attended one of the small-group meetings organized by the board meant to reduce tension and promote understanding. She said she encountered fellow congregants who felt they “deserved to know” the inner workings of the board in reaching its decision. “That’s not how things work,” she told J. “If your contract was not renewed, you would not want everyone to know why. There are policies and procedures in this, and the board is the rabbi’s boss. The board shared what they were able to share.”

However, she ended up appreciating the small-group experience. “I started the small group feeling a bit frustrated, and in the hour and 15 minutes people felt like they were heard. It was not just civil, but nice. It was what you want discourse to be.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.