Posts Tagged ‘synagogue’


Would You Volunteer for this Synagogue?

Posted on: June 29th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

The motivations that move people to volunteer are varied but here are a few personal observations:

What is important to note is that each motivation requires a different approach to volunteer engagement. As a volunteer talent scout, you get to probe people’s motivations and then match the work to their motivations. So any volunteer “ask” should begin with an understanding of the underlying emotional needs of potential volunteers.

This is not an exhaustive list of motivations for volunteering. So:

  1. please add to the list
  2. and, let me know of one example when you saw a volunteer really grow because you aligned his/her emotional needs with the task at hand.

Thanks, Hayim

Volunteers: A Great Treasure

Posted on: June 18th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

While I can’t remember the source, there’s a beautiful story that describes how a man sets out on a worldwide quest to find the greatest treasure in the world. After wandering the world, he returns home and digs underneath his own kitchen floor and—finds that the treasure had been there all along. The treasure has been there all along….

This story makes me think about the hidden treasures that are right in the middle of congregations: namely, volunteers. Why?

Let’s look at some basic demographic characteristics of American Jews, relative to other ethnic and religious groups:

Members of congregations are amazing underutilized assets! 

In 2004, Dr. Amy Sales, noted Jewish researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Life at Brandeis University, published a study entitled The Congregations of Westchester in which she provided rich data on congregational life from 16 congregations. She asked participants to respond to the statement, the “synagogue makes good use of my skills and abilities.” A mere 34% of respondents agreed with that statement. In a related vein, 66% of the “rank and file” membership reported that they were “not at all active” in their congregation.

Imagine what congregational life could be like if these statistics were reversed, so that 66% of congregational members reported that the synagogue makes good use of their skills and abilities and 33% of the members reported that they were not at all active in their congregation!

So, here are two questions I’d like you to respond to:

  1. How can synagogues make more members feel that they make good use of their members’ skills and abilities?
  2. How can synagogues increase the number of “rank and file” members who want to volunteer their time for some aspect of synagogue life? 

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Photo from  MoBikeFed

Don’t Forget the Personal in PC

Posted on: May 22nd, 2009 by Hayim Herring

The acronym PC originally meant personal computer. This represented a revolution, putting powerful computing tools once only used by corporations into the hands of individuals. But personal should have another dimension. We shouldn’t forget that technology must be a reflection of the personal touch that a church or synagogue aspires to provide.

In the prior post on technology, people noted that technology should be thought of as just another way to reach and teach members in the community. If you have people leading the technology team in your congregation who are easily attracted to the latest trends and toys in technology, take caution. Make sure you also have people who know less about technology, and more about building community. 

For example, many congregations have four generations of members.  Let’s assume that the majority of members at least access the congregation website, which you’ve just redesigned.  Did you ever think about the font size used for text? For some who are older, trying to read it is like trying to hear from an inadequate sound system in the sanctuary.  One of the ways you can help people into your “electronic front door” is to have a button which enlarges the size of the font.  This sounds like a small matter, but if older members have difficulty reading the website, what message are you sending to them? You’re implicitly saying that your congregation doesn’t understand their abilities—not the message we want to send to our elders, who have often been loyal supporters of the congregation!

Another example: how easy is it to use the automated voicemail system. Is there a long message before an option to get information? Is the staff directory accurate? (I often find that trying to locate the extension of a Rabbi after hours is especially difficult because some directories consider “rabbi” a part of the name!) If you get caught in the equivalent of voicemail devil’s triangle, you’re again sending the unintentional message that you’re not attentive to your congregants.

So here’s a suggestion. If you have an adult education committee meeting, invite people to come in 15 minutes earlier to give feedback on the adult learning section of your website.  You can do the same if you have a sisterhood or brotherhood meeting—ask members to review their activities page and the website in general. You can follow a similar process for getting feedback on your voicemail system.

As you review your technologies, try to keep the following questions in front of you:

  1. Do your communications technologies serve your members’ needs, and how do you know that’s  true?
  2. Are they consistent with each other so that key information is easily accessible and accurate?

If you do try to solicit feedback from committee members please share what you’ve learned.  Additionally, let our readers know what simple changes you have made to help better connect members to you’re congregation.

Thanks—and looking forward to your responses and experiences!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

photo from, Kaptain Kobold

Terrific or Terrifying? Technology’s Impact on Your Organization

Posted on: May 12th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

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 

Spirituality and Pornography: Hard to Define

Posted on: April 13th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

One of the primary goals of the synagogue or minyan (prayer quorum), is to create a spiritual community. Pardon the comparison, but in thinking about how to define the term spiritual, I remember the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said of pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced [by it] but I know it when I see it.” Words like spiritual and spirituality are vague words as well, but while challenging to define, you know them when you feel them.

However, I think that we have to hold ourselves accountable to some precision in defining these words. Otherwise, spirituality risks becoming a trite term – the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. So here is my attempt to simplify a complex subject. Spirituality has two components.  The first one is separation and the second is elevation. Or to understand the term as a mathematical equation: spirituality = awareness (or separating out one moment from another) + positive action (or elevating our choices). 

Although not all choices are equally consequential, every moment of our lives presents us with choices. Living life spiritually means having a constant awareness of the mundane and the extraordinary; that is, we separate ourselves from animals, which act by instinct, because of the awareness we bring to our choices and then intentionally choosing the more elevated path for each choice before us. We use this ability to discipline our baser instincts so that the phrase, “I’m only human,” isn’t an excuse for mediocre behavior but a stimulus for us to strive to do that which is good, beautiful, wise, compassionate, just and caring.

Living spiritually is not something that comes naturally to most people, and needs cultivation and practice from the time of childhood.  And, living a spiritual life requires the reinforcement of a community of people who share similar aspirations. In the ideal world, over time, rabbis should become experts at cultivating a community of spiritual individuals.  That takes a tremendous amount of personal practice and periodic time away from the congregation.  It requires the ability to discern what is ultimately important and to keep in perspective what feels critical at the moment.  It also takes a congregation which values the rabbi’s ability to cultivate spirituality.

In this post, all I want to do is try to simply define what I mean by spirituality.  In the next post, I’ll comment on some of the challenges in developing a spiritual community. But please comment on this definition and help bring clarity to a vague but essential issue for rabbis and congregations.

Thank you!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Image from  alicepopkorn

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

Posted on: March 30th, 2009 by Hayim Herring



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



Wanted: More Spiritual Dreamers!

Posted on: March 23rd, 2009 by Hayim Herring

Before the current economic crash, we were in the middle of a tremendous generational transfer of wealth. The majority of that wealth circumvented the synagogue community. Why was that the case? One of the reasons was that major funders considered synagogues to be too parochial and uninspiring for their tastes.

Imagine the challenges which synagogues now face. Synagogue list serves have been abuzz with stories about staff cuts, salary freezes, and impending synagogue closings. Rabbis are really going to have to work harder to articulate inspirational dreams even to maintain the support of their current community, let alone funders with greater financial means, who could offer budget relief.

I have no hard data on this, but it often feels that rabbis don’t dream expansively enough. Perhaps our training doesn’t sufficiently encourage us to create compelling narratives about Jewish life, or maybe it’s that synagogues tend to be risk adverse and push back against big dreams, or maybe it’s just the times in which we live — but where are the spiritual visionaries of today who will cultivate the most noble aspirations that we have as a people?

Let me cite a couple of examples of what I mean by big dreams:

The synagogue will become a microcosm of a just and perfected world. All people who walk through its door, regardless of status and ability, will be treated with the dignity to which they’re entitled because they’re created in the image of God. All synagogue staff members will respect one another and the members of the community they serve. Instead of looking for people’s flaws, members of this community seek to shine the light on the unique contributions that each individual has the potential to offer.

Another example:

The synagogue will become a model of a diverse, multi-generational community. While few places in society today enable individuals from different generations to meaningfully and regularly interact, all aspects of synagogue life will truly embody the phrase, “from one generation to another,” l’dor va-dor. By doing so, the community will be an evolving repository of Jewish wisdom and help all people enrich the passages of life.

Clearly, each congregation must envision its ideal picture of its community’s future. A significant part of the rabbi’s work is to lay out the possibilities of a big dream and then empower the congregation and staff to work together on achieving it. While I’m fully supportive of getting every member of the congregation to light Shabbat candles and study Torah daily, those are not big dreams—they are discrete Jewish practices that don’t point to larger meaning and purpose in life.

As a people, we have a history of knowing how to dream with great imagination. Reclaiming that capacity is going to be one of the most important roles for contemporary rabbis if we want vital institutions. So rabbis—please share your big dreams for the Jewish community or your congregation (or other institution) here. And others—let me know what you wish your rabbi would dream!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

image from muha…

Is Your Rabbi an Excellent Teacher?

Posted on: March 16th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

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:.

Synagogues, Though Feeling Distress, Provide Support

Posted on: February 27th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

I’m taking a brief break from writing about rabbis to report on how synagogues are coping in these stressful financial times. As I speak with colleagues across the country, I’m generally hearing the same story:

“Dues revenue is down, while we are providing more dues relief to congregants who can no longer afford to pay what they were paying”

“We’re freezing or reducing staff salaries”

“We’re moving some people from full-time to part-time, eliminating staff or not replacing staff when a staff member leaves”

“We’ve shortened our weekday hours and are having one day a week when the building is closed….”

Anecdotally, these are the kinds of stories that I’m hearing and I expect the situation to deteriorate during the summer, when cash flow in congregations is low. And, I wonder how many people will request dues relief before the High Holy Days or even drop synagogue membership because of feelings of embarrassed because of the inability to pay.

At the same time, many synagogues are doing an exceptional job of reaching out to members and the community. Here is a sampling of the kinds of creative efforts that congregations are making to support members:

These steps will help people make sure that they do not confuse their financial worth with their human value.

These efforts are clearly laudable but beg the question of how many congregations will be able to remain viable in the long term future. I’ll be writing more about that later. For now, please respond to these two questions:

  1. What is your congregation doing to support members in these times of need?
  2. What short-term measures is your congregation implementing to be sure that it steers clear of deep financial trouble?

If you have some insights to offer about these critical questions, please share them so that others in the community can benefit.


Rabbi Hayim Herring

The Challenge of Innovation and Communication!

Posted on: January 30th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

Here’s one of my favorite stories about the challenges of communicating:

A lawyer was interviewing a man regarding his decision to divorce his wife, and asked, “What are the grounds for your divorce?”
He replied, “I have about 5 acres.”
“No,” he said, “I mean, what’s the foundation of this case?”
“It is made of concrete” he responded.
He said, “Do you have a grudge?”
“Yes,” he replied, “it can hold two cars.”
“Sir, does your wife beat you up?”
“Yes,” he said “several times a week she gets up earlier than I do.”
Finally, in frustration, the lawyer asked, “Why do you want a divorce?”
Looking perplexed, he answered, “My wife says I don’t communicate well.”

According to the Jewish tradition, God did not communicate with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai only once. Rather, the classical rabbis teach that every day God’s voice still emanates from Mount Sinai. (Pirkei Avot 6:2)

Without stretching this analogy, there is something important to learn from this rabbinic teaching: communicating once about critical matters is not enough. No matter how many times you think you have clearly explained a change-related matter, you probably need to continue working at it.

Often, there is a small cadre of people directly assigned with implementing a change and they’ve probably been working at it for some time. They are close to it and understand from the inside out. But, it probably took this group some time to gain clarity on their mandate for change. So if even those who are most intimately associated with the change require time to digest it, consider how much effort is really required to communicate on a broader level.

There are a few strategies that can help you communicate effectively:

When I Googled “communications strategies,” I received 36,800,000 hits—a sign of the challenge of communicating in a multi-media, information-saturated age. So here’s my question: what are the most effective means you’ve found to communicate a change?

Rabbi Hayim Herring