Posts Tagged ‘rabbi’


Bringing the Torah to Life: A Tale of Technology

Posted on: September 15th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

I recently learned from Elaine Kleinmann, a former STAR consultant, about how her rabbi is using technology in a very simple way to help his congregants prepare for Rosh ha-Shanah.  While this was done for Elul, it could be adapted to work with any holiday.  With thanks to both of them, I’m sharing it with you.

– Rabbi Hayim Herring

Elaine writes:

Rabbi Neil Kurshan of the Huntington Jewish Center in Huntington, Long Island, NY, started a lead up to Shabbat called “Torah Teasers”.  These are emails based on the parasha of the week, and raise questions which elicit responses that do not require additional knowledge of the Torah to answer.  The emails are sent to all those who had requested to be on his listserve, and it is a way to engage people and tie the Torah into personal experience.  Participants can then respond to the entire network. On Shabbat morning, in lieu of a sermon, Rabbi Kurshan gives some background of the parasha, raises the questions again with the congregation, asks for responses, and shares some responses from the listserve.  Following the give and take, he uses that opportunity to share his learning and perspective.

He sent a new request this summer to all those who are on his Torah Teaser listserve. He asked to “be able to share with all of you during the month of Elul some of the experiences that make Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur meaningful for all of us… just a paragraph about a High Holiday experience that was particularly meaningful for you.  It can be an experience from your childhood or from more recent years.  It can be an experience at services, within your family, in your home or from anything else connected with the holidays.  I just want you to describe in some detail the experience–what happened and what it meant to you.  I would then like to share these experiences during the days of Elul with the online community in our shul that makes up our Torah Teasers network.”

As a member of this network, I have been receiving these responses since Elul began.  One is about blowing the shofar, one from someone who underwent a health crisis in the past year, one was about childhood memories of Rosh HaShanah dinner, and one from someone who had moved (with her nuclear family but away from her birth family), and had her first encounter  at our synagogue on the high holidays. Rabbi Kurshan’s request  inspired and motivated me to write about my Russian born father, his ambivalence about Judaism in general and Yom Kippur specifically, and the irony of his death occurring a few hours before Kol Nidre 18 years ago.

Image from Flickr, Alexander Smolianitski

Coming Soon: A Social Media Site That Rates Your Synagogue

Posted on: June 2nd, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Shalom to all! I’ve invited one of STAR’s media maven consultants, Elana Centor, to post her thoughts about social media trends which are likely to impact upon synagogues. Please read her post and share your reactions, which her provocative post and thoughtful suggestions will engender! Thanks, Elana, for being a guest blogger on Tools for Shuls!  -Hayim

With a tag line of Get the real scoop on doctors, clinics and hospitals, is a place for consumers to share their personal experiences. While the majority of comments are positive, about one-third are negative. Piloted in Minnesota, and now a nationwide community, is part of Blue Cross Blue Shield. That’s right: an insurance company is sponsoring a blog where its group members can weigh-in on doctors. Isn’t that an “interesting” way to influence doctors?!

Now substitute rabbis, synagogues and religious school in that tag line and you have a peek into the very near future. Get the real scoop on rabbis, synagogues and religious schools.

If there is one trend in Web 2.0 that most synagogues are not prepared for, it’s the proliferation of what Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li coined as Groundswell

“A groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other rather than from traditional institutions.”
Bernoff and Li say the groundswell has created a permanent, long-lasting shift in the way the world works–one that most traditional institutions see as a threat.

Just in case you think you have some time before the groundswell impacts synagogue life, think again. Introducing, which bills itself as, “The premier online service for finding and reviewing congregations that you help create.”  Shulshopper, which is currently in a beta release, is part of the nonprofit independent Jewish organization Matzat. While there aren’t many synagogues reviewed on the site right now, that could change any moment and probably will. And, even if Shulshopper doesn’t go viral, some other synagogue social media site will appear without notice and it will allow people to share their experiences at your congregation. You can count on it– not every comment will suggest you have a warm and welcoming culture.

Since the question is not if, but when members, former members and visitors will share stories about your congregation in an online community, what will be your strategy? How will you respond if someone writes a negative comment? How will you even know if someone has written about you?
Here are three things you can do to prepare for the synagogue groundswell.

  1. Develop a Social Media Communications Plan
    Every synagogues needs to have a social media communications plan which includes strategies on how the synagogue will respond to positive comments, negative comments that are nasty, unfair or untrue as well as negative comments that have validity. Create the plan when the emotions of the comments are not part of the equation.
  2. Become Digital Detectives
    Digital Detectives are people who investigate what is being said about their organization on websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and a host of other social media sites. It’s not as difficult as it sounds thanks to Google Alerts – a free feature of Google that can be configured to send you an email alert every time your synagogue, rabbi or key members are mentioned on a website or blog.
  3. Spend Time Doing Some Online Listening
    In many ways, participating in social media is like immigrating to a new country. It has its own culture, customs and language. That’s why it’s important to spend time observing how things are done in social media before you try to actively participate in it.  By taking the time to listen and observe you will represent your congregation in an appropriate and respectful manner.

Elana Centor is Chief Strategist For Digitalwagontrain a training, coaching, consulting firm helping individuals and organizations achieve their goals faster, smarter, easier by using social media tools.  Elana posts regularly on her blog Funny Business.

Image from Flickr.comLong Zheng

Terrific or Terrifying? Technology’s Impact on Your Organization

Posted on: May 12th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Item: in 1986, I purchased a desktop computer manufactured by Leading Edge (which would now have to be called Dead Edge—the company didn’t last long) and an Epson dot matrix printer for about $2200. The computer was state of the art, came with 2 megabytes of RAM which I upgraded to 4, a monitor on which amber-colored words appeared and, when I inserted a second floppy disk, a fairly sophisticated spell-check program. As I write this entry, I am sitting on an airplane, using a laptop. One person is watching a movie on his handheld device, another is listening to songs, and although it’s dark, the cabin is aglow with other laptops or net books. All of these small, portable devices are exponentially more powerful than my first electronically tethered desktop, which didn’t move more than a few inches because it was plugged into a wall outlet.
My point? As much as we may sometimes wish it, technology is not going away and is literally embedded in most aspects of life already. In fact, it’s literally embedded in many bodies—insulin pumps, pacemakers, replacement parts (we are just seeing the beginning of how technology will allow for body-morphing for the masses for non-medical purposes).  So while hardware and software applications will continue to change and mature, the communications environment in which we live is here to stay.
From what I observe, there are many digital addicts who are always on. That means that they expect near-immediate responses when they send you a question, want you to help them solve a problem or simply want to send a greeting. The ding of an email or voice mail notification can create a near-Pavlovian response on our part, we feel like me must acknowledge the email moments after it comes, perhaps at the expense of deeper thought. 
I’d like to start a conversation with you now by asking two questions:

  1. Are you satisfied with how your synagogue manages to keep up with the rapid flow of technological changes?
  2. What technological changes has your synagogue made within the last five years, and have these changes delivered what they promised?

Thanks for what I’m sure will be another provocative discussion!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

image from 

Personal Confessions: Spirituality Lost and Found

Posted on: May 4th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Before we leave the topic of spirituality, we’re going to take a look at a critical factor in creating spiritual communities: the Rabbi. I’ve tried not to be blatantly biographical, but I’m making an exception in talking about spirituality. Why? I can generalize about congregations, but I can’t generalize about “rabbis and spirituality,” because each rabbi has a unique path and story.

I wonder, is spirituality a generational issue?  I don’t remember my rabbi, of blessed memory, using that word when I was growing up in the ‘70’s. Nor do I remember him often mentioning God (I could be wrong on that last score but don’t believe so.)  I attended The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) from 1976 to 1985 (undergrad and reb school), and again don’t remember the words spirituality or God mentioned all that much.

I loved my education at JTS and remain grateful for it to this very day. But the approach to Jewish living in those years generally excluded discussions about God, faith and spirituality from the curriculum, except in the most abstract academic manner, although some of us frequently discussed those issues well into the night as students, especially over Shabbat evening meals. We had no or few role models to raise these issues with and we really felt that not too many of our faculty members concerned themselves with the exploration of their own life of faith, or if they did, they didn’t seem very willing to share these issues with us. In fact, I would even say that our education undermined the cultivation of spiritual feelings.  Pretty sad, considering that many of us entered school with a serious belief in God, even if it wasn’t the most sophisticated theological understanding of the Divine.
I can’t detail my encounters with spirituality during 10 years of Congregational life, seven years of Federation life and seven years of Foundation life. And of course, a lot in life has happened during these years outside of work.  While I periodically experienced spiritual moments in all of these iterations, I felt that I was undergoing a slow, spiritual death.  In retrospect, I don’t fault my work environments much, although none of them were conducive to intentionally cultivating spirituality. 

What I realized is that I had allowed myself to drift from my own spiritual moorings to the point of cynicism. As spirituality became more of a buzzword, I felt that spirituality was another form of narcissism clothed in religious vocabulary.

For whatever the reasons, I am grateful to say that I have felt the resurgence of spiritual feelings.  For me, that means paying greater awareness to those around me, to what I do and how I do it, to learning from those who have spent more time on doing their own spiritual work and reading more about spiritual masters.  Prayer feels richer, relationships feel deeper, the meaning of everyday moments is greater, and my questions about existential meaning are more insistent.  So that has been my path of spiritual enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment.

What’s your story?

Rabbi Hayim Herring

image from, Image Zen

Rabbi – Where’s the Spirit in Spirituality?

Posted on: April 21st, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

A rabbi’s spiritual leanings (or lack thereof) ultimately determine whether or not a congregation achieves some dimension of spirituality. (Please refer to the last post for a rich variety of understandings of “spirituality.”) The congregational context in which the rabbi works will either contribute toward the creation of a spiritual community or help to undermine it.  In other words, while the rabbi must lead in the creation of a spiritual community, ultimately it is the partnership of a core group of congregants and rabbi who help to develop and sustain this kind of community.

Most congregations are structured to sap the spiritual energy of rabbis (and cantors for that matter). Think about it: when was the last time you remember a congregant saying to a rabbi, “Rabbi, your SQ (spirituality quotient) could use a little more zip. Have you taken your spiritual temperature lately?”

What are some of the structural barriers in congregations which conspire against the creation of a spiritual community?

The conversation on the prior post on dimensions of spirituality was incredibly rich, and thanks for your insights. So please respond to the following questions (in addition to any other comments):

The next time, we’ll focus on the barriers that clergy erect in fostering spirituality, so stay tuned!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Photo from  Orbital Joe

A Rabbi’s Great Privilege: Being a Talent Scout

Posted on: April 3rd, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

I’ll write about some of the strategies which I’ve learned for getting congregants involved in synagogue life in future posts.  But now, I want to look specifically at the big picture opportunity rabbis have in identifying and cultivating talent within and outside of their synagogue communities.

The American Jewish community is highly educated, accomplished in the arts, education, business, and professions like medicine, law and accounting.  While college is certainly not the right track for every young person, Jews have an exceptional level of undergraduate and post-graduate education. The aspirations of our ancestors in Europe, who left their countries of origin for a better life in “the new world,” have by and large been fulfilled.

Yet, rabbis often allow great talent to slip through their fingers.  (While lay leaders also have to be involved, rabbis have a unique opportunity to be talent scouts, because members are often disinclined to refuse their requests.) The limited research that we have on whether congregants feel valued for their talent is discouraging. I’ve often felt that members are the most underutilized yet potent force in the congregation.  So especially in these trying times, rabbis have to “step up to the plate” and act more enthusiastically in this role.

In order to do so, we’re going to have to debunk a couple of unconscious biases we have.  The first is that if someone doesn’t have a certain level of ritual practice or halakhic (legal) knowledge, they don’t have much to contribute.  My experience has been quite the opposite. For example, if you know of someone who has expertise in communications, if you or someone else knowledgeable in these other areas is willing to work with this communications expert, then collaboratively you can do some outstanding work.  More important than the work itself, you may find this volunteer will become curious about the “Jewish” piece, want to learn more, and become more involved in the synagogue community.

The second myth is that it’s easier to go it alone then to ask for help.  Okay, maybe it is easier to accomplish a task alone, and not every task needs volunteer help.  However, for more significant and complex work, the process or work product that you create will not have the same excellence that it could if you partnered with a volunteer.

The third myth is that once you’ve gotten the commitment of a new volunteer for a project, your job is over. As a talent scout, it’s important to help create a climate in which a volunteer’s abilities can flourish. That means that it’s important to check in with them as they start, give them a clear role, thank them for their help, and be available for questions which they may have.

So I’d like to hear from you about:

Shabbat shalom and a chag kasher v’sameach!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Image from, photographer’s home page here

The Rabbi as C.E.O.: Yes or No?

Posted on: March 30th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments



Rabbis often express ambivalence about their executive leadership roles.  By executive leadership roles, I’m referring to supporting the board, supervising staff, delegating work appropriately to volunteer and professional staff, playing a role in budgeting and staffing decisions at all levels, and undertaking tasks which are typically referred to as “administrative.” This ambivalence flows from several sources:

rabbi as ceo

Given these many variables, there is no one ideal, clear definition about how rabbis should assume executive leadership roles. However, one thing is certain: the rabbi should not be absent from what we typically called the administrative aspects of synagogue life.  Why?

When the synagogue has a skilled executive director, the rabbi can work with that staff person to ensure that decisions which the executive director makes come from a place of Jewish wisdom.  When a synagogue does not have an executive director or one that functions at a low level, the rabbi will have to be more involved in what he or she considers are the “mundane” aspects of synagogue life.  In either scenario, we need to abandon the distinction between the secular and religious aspects of synagogue life, or what others call the spiritual and administrative aspects of synagogue life.  These are false distinctions because ideally every aspect of congregation life should express and be shape by Jewish teachings.

Like it or not, rabbis must master the fundamentals of basic executive leadership skills.  While other members of the staff and membership may have greater expertise in these areas, the rabbi must at least have a working knowledge of how organizations function, what the role of boards and committees are and how budgets work.  Only that way does the synagogue have a chance to become a holy and holistically Jewish venue.

Most rabbis would much rather be teaching, providing pastoral counseling or studying Torah – things that the rabbi would rather do and is better trained to do.  However, I believe that neglecting the “business” aspects of the synagogue creates the likelihood of ultimate unhappiness for the rabbi because when problems result, he or she will be called in to clean them up.  So it’s better to thoughtfully and proactively define the rabbi’s role in this area than to constantly be putting out fires which could’ve been avoided in the first place.

So rabbis and synagogue leaders-you’ve had these discussions before.  What do you think?  Have your views changed over the years?  Thanks for sharing your insights.

Rabbi Hayim Herring



Is Your Rabbi an Excellent Teacher?

Posted on: March 16th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Did you know that most rabbis have little formal training in education?  One of the most pervasive aspects of the rabbi’s job is teaching, but aside from a required course in education, most rabbis learn how to teach on-the-job. Imagine teaching a group of preschoolers in the morning, seniors at lunchtime and middle-school aged children in the late afternoon and teens in the evening. That’s not an unusual schedule for a congregational rabbi.

I’ve personally witnessed rabbis inflict painful learning experiences on congregants (and I admit, I did in my younger days!)  One morning, I watched a rabbi interact with preschool age children using words and concepts that were appropriate for older teens. Later that evening, I heard another rabbi speak to adults as if they were children.

In a book of Jewish ethics (Pirkei Avot 1:4), rabbinical students are instructed to sit at the feet of their teachers and “drink their words” up. The image is hierarchical, with students sitting on the ground and their teachers sitting or standing above them, in a privileged position because of their learning. And after 5-6 years of most rabbinical schools experience, I wonder if that’s the image that some rabbis carry around in their heads when they are teaching: I (rabbi) am up over you because I’ve got the knowledge; you (congregant) are beneath me because you don’t.

Some rabbis intuitively begin to understand that different strategies and approaches are needed depending upon the developmental stages of their audience. But, even when rabbis become good educators, many have the potential to become outstanding ones with just a little training and mentoring.

Rabbis: what “aha” moments made you realize that there were better ways to teach and what did you do about them? Others who aren’t rabbis—what suggestions do you have to help rabbis become more impactful teachers?

Thanks in advance for your responses!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Image from Flickr: .:Axle:.

Are You Sleeping? Rabbis and the Art of Public Speaking

Posted on: February 20th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

When I was a congregational rabbi, after a few years, I started adhering to one rule rigorously when giving sermons: never speak long enough for people to fall asleep! There were a few other rules which I followed, too.  Giving a brilliant sermon every week was mission impossible for me.  However, it was always possible to find some new dimension of Torah in the broadest sense that would engage people with a new idea, a new way of framing an issue, advocating for a cause which was significant or helping people find personal relevance in Jewish practice. 

Equally important, regardless of the topic, I had the extremely good fortune of having several models of outstanding communicators from whom I learned the art of public speaking and a good friend in the congregation who generously volunteered his time to shred my words and reconstitute them in a way that would grab and hold people’s attention. In a prior life, he had been a journalist and helped me realize that communicating big ideas simply was essential to my rabbinate.

The Talmud (AZ 35b) asks, “To what is a scholar to be compared? To a vial of fragrant ointment. When its cover is removed, the fragrance of its ointment is diffused. When it is covered, its fragrance is concealed.” My experience with many rabbis when it comes to public speaking has been that they are like “the vial with the cover on.” They do have a lot of wisdom to share, but the way they publicly communicate gets in the way of their ideas. They develop bad speaking habits in rabbinical school and often don’t receive help once they are in the congregation.

This is really inexcusable.  People in the congregation, whether members or guests, will form opinions about Judaism based on what they hear during a rabbi’s sermon. Rabbis are given a unique opportunity: they can inspire involvement in Jewish life, or discourage it, by how they communicate their messages.

I’m going to recommend one book which I recently finished reading, entitled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They offer a six-point formula communicating ideas that can be extremely helpful for public speaking:

You’ll note that if you look at the first letter of each of these six points, they almost spell the word, success. There are many additional ways in which rabbis and become successful communicators of Jewish wisdom and tradition.  What I’d like to hear from you is your recommendations on how rabbis can communicate with greater impact, especially in an age when attention spans seem to have shortened.  And, if you are a rabbi and have your own story about how you learn to become a better communicator, please be sure to share that as well!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Retooling Rabbis

Posted on: February 12th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

For the next several weeks, I’ll be writing about a new topic: rabbis. In keeping with the Tools for Shuls motif, I’m thinking of calling the chapter based on this series of posts Retooling Rabbis. Please read my posts with full awareness that some of my best friends are rabbis, (and that I realized my adolescent dream of becoming one in 1984!)  The tone that I’m striving for in my posts is to be lovingly critical about the rabbinate, for the rabbinate (or ministry for that matter) is one of those vocations where heeding the words of the ancient Jewish sage, Hillel (born before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E.,) is a very wise idea. He said, don’t judge people until you’ve been in their situation (Avot 2:5.) Having been in that situation in different iterations, I hope that I will put enough love in the critique—and enough critique in the love.

Here’s where I really need your input. Imagine that you are the dean of a rabbinical school. You have the opportunity to modify the rabbinical school curriculum. Assuming that the fundamentals of the curriculum are sound and that subjects like Jewish history, Hebrew language and Jewish law will continue to be the foundation of your curriculum. What other topics do you believe are critical for contemporary rabbis to learn today—and think outside of the box (or book!)?

If you are a rabbi, draw upon your current experience and stage: what additional subjects you wish you had been exposed to before you completed school? Where did you feel some of the larger gaps in your curriculum? If you are a member of the synagogue reading this blog, give us your view from the pew, committee or board room. From your vantage point, what do you perceive to be missing from rabbinic education?

This is a discussion which really does require multiple views so I hope that even if you don’t regularly comment, you’ll chime in.


Rabbi Hayim Herring

Photo from lev_cap