The following is one of three sermons I delivered on the High Holidays (2013/5774). This "sermon trilogy" was delivered before the joint services including the Reform congregation I serve as rabbi, The Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon (JCK), and the Conservative congregation with whom we co-own the synagogue building, Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS). More information about the partnership between JCK and CBS can be found here.
"Return of the Leadership"
The date was September 28th, 1987. There was excitement in the air that evening as, just like millions of others, I sat on the couch with my dad to watch the premier episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The voyages of the starship Enterprise, which began in 1966 under the command of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and their legendary crew, was now being handed over to Captain Picard, Commander Riker and their crew; a new generation to care for and take command of the Enterprise.
That same model of generational stewardship can be found in our Torah. After freeing our ancestors from Egypt, Moses led our people through the desert for 40 years. Just like the crews of the Enterprise, Moses had a crew of supporting characters to help him, including his brother Aaron, the high priest. But, no one person, no singular, stagnant crew can effectively shepherd a people for such an extended length of time. When the time came for Israel to fulfill its destiny and cross into the promised land, God handed over the reigns and gave the control, to a new crew. Joshua took the place of his mentor Moses, Eleazar took the place of his father Aaron, and the Israelite people, this great ship journeying through the wilderness, continued it’s voyage under the command and care of the next generation of leaders.
If you have been following my sermons these High Holidays, either on erev Rosh Hashanah or on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the next couple of paragraphs are, again, going to sound quite familiar!
Our ancient wisdom from Proverbs 29:18 teaches us that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The Israelites and Jews of past generations knew what many of us know today; it is far easier to achieve your goal when you actually know what that goal is.
As I have mentioned previously, the Union for Reform Judaism has gathered professional and lay leaders from the various branches of the movement in an effort to create a unified vision for Reform Judaism going forward. As of this summer, that Think Tank produced its final proposed vision statement. While this statement is a product of, and intended for the Reform Movement, many of the major themes that are expressed in the statement pertain to all of us.
The proposed vision statement for the Reform Movement is divided into three over-lapping spheres. Seeing as how I have already covered two of these spheres, this evening we will turn to the final sphere of the vision statement.
Under the heading of “With Leadership” the third paragraph reads:
“The organizations of the Reform Movement exist for the purpose of bringing the teachings of Judaism to the world. In partnership with one another, these organizations hope to realize the many lessons contained in those teachings by nurturing individual Jews, by sustaining congregations and groups that foster authentic and innovative community, and by shaping a shared destiny for Reform Jews with fellow Jews in Israel and around the world.”
This section envisions the role that the various organizations of the Reform movement play in leading the movement and creating an interdependent network that will help to strengthen each of the individual organizations.
The vision of leadership espoused by the statement is one of responsibility and obligation to one another. This leadership, according to some of the key words from this paragraph should be one of partnership, with the goals of nurturing, sustaining, fostering, and shaping our microcosms. It must be stalwart, driven, and energetic with a clear sense of purpose.
Strong, determined, vibrant, and visionary leadership is crucial, not only for guiding a movement, not only for shepherding a whole nation through the wilderness, and not only for commanding a starship in the 23rd or 24th centuries, but also for managing even the smallest of organizations; the congregations that we each call our own. Yet maintaining the strength, determination, vibrancy, and forward thinking of a congregation’s leadership requires remembering why each leader serves, periodically altering the crew that is in charge and, at indiscriminate moments, perhaps turning to a new generation of leaders.
Both of our congregations currently face a dilemma when it comes to leadership. For those who are unaware, and since we all could use a harsh reminder, neither of our congregations currently has a president. I will repeat that, neither CBS nor the JCK has a president. It is like a ship without a captain, a nation without a leader, and like the Israelites in the desert without Moses.
When my colleagues ask how we manage to operate without a president, I share that we have a committed executive committee and board so we get by. But, that’s just it; we get by. Getting by is not good enough, and we have to do better.
The lack of a president is, in many ways, a symptom of a larger and more troublesome issue facing our communities. To the best of my knowledge, both of our congregations have, by and large and over the past many years, been recycling leaders. Our boards have either remained stagnant or have seen a turnover in the form of certain board members moving off the board, only to be replaced, more often than not, with former board members. This does not work.
In a blog post for the Women’s Rabbinic Network, my colleague Rabbi Dr. Kari Tuling lists what she has derived as the “Ten Commandments for Smalls.” After serving a variety of small congregations, each under 100 families, she offers advice to congregations, like both of ours, to ensure our successful existences. As her second commandment, she writes:
“Enforce turnover in your leadership. What is the fastest way to kill a congregation? Allow certain members to sit on the board indefinitely. You absolutely must – and I cannot stress this enough – create a mechanism for turnover and see to it that your newcomers are able to cycle through the leadership positions. Otherwise, three things will happen, to your great detriment: (a) newcomers will leave because they will see that they have no hope of being heard (b) the ‘perma-members’ on the board will eventually veto any and all new ideas (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’) and (c) if someone persists and actually tries implementing a new idea, doing so will create an old-guard/new-guard split. New blood is necessary to the health of the congregation.”
To her list of three detrimental things I would also add that, without turnover, our current leaders will begin to feel burnt out, grow cynical, might develop feelings of apathy for our congregations or, in the worst case scenario, just give up.
The problem we face is the small and ever-shrinking pool of willing leaders. Which leads me back to one of those key words from the vision statement; partnership. Within our individual congregations we are all in partnership with, and responsible for, one another. I conveyed this idea on the second day of Rosh Hashanah with the goal of getting us each to realize the true sense of intimate, shared community. A congregation is nothing without relationships and the sacred attachment between one another. To highlight that point, I shared with you this observation made by Albert Einstein:
“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men-above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.”
In that sermon, however, I was a little less than honest with you; I only used half of Einstein’s quote. The rest reads:
“Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My peace of mind is often troubled by the depressing sense that I have borrowed too heavily from the work of other men.”
Being a member of a community, especially a small congregation, comes with certain responsibilities to that community. Leadership of a congregation cannot be left to the few men and women who have been bold and spirited enough to step up. We should all feel a sense of pride in our congregations and a sense of duty and obligation to step into leadership roles. If nothing else, we should feel that same sense of indebtedness that Einstein expressed, the desire to give as much, if not more, than we received, and the drive to pay it forward.
Arguably, the greatest leader in all of Jewish history, again, is our pal Moses, who never wanted to be a leader in the first place. God called to Moses from the Burning Bush, summoning him to service. In that same vein I call upon all of you this evening. If you are not currently, or have yet to become a leader in either of our congregations, I am calling on you, asking for your support in the form of service to your congregation. We need your intelligence, honesty, energy, creativity, logic, and talent to help us pay it forward.
When God called upon Moses, Moses used every excuse he could think of to get out of leading the people. We all live hectic and busy lives and treasure every precious free moment in our schedules. Up until this point, I have labeled the idea of taking on leadership roles in our congregations as a duty, an obligation, and a debt that we need to pay. We all make excuses when trying to avoid adding to our calendars, especially when we are told that we are obligated to do something which we might not want to do.
But taking on a leadership role goes far beyond obligation and debt. Taanit 11a in the Talmud teaches us, “When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and be at peace with myself.’” Further, Pirke Avot 2:2 teaches, “Let all those who occupy themselves with the business of the community do so only for the sake of heaven, for the merit of their ancestors will sustain them and their devotion, too, will endure forever.” To take time out of your busy day, to work for the benefit of your greater community, and to become a leader in your congregation is a mitzvah and, I can assure you, it will be a rewarding and enriching experience for our congregations and, most of all, for you.
To those who have previously fulfilled and those who are currently fulfilling the mitzvah of leading your community, I thank you for your time and effort. To those who have yet to take on the mantle of leadership, I ask you for your help. We need you, your energy, and your ideas.
The Moses generation is expending more and more energy each day, growing increasingly tired and burnt out. The time for excuses is over. The time for true partnership, for shared responsibility, and for the fulfillment of a great mitzvah is upon us. Now is the time for the next generation, the Joshua generation, the Picard generation, to take control and lead the continued journeys of our congregations.
Chazak v’Ematz, may you be strong and resolute in your service to your congregation, so that each of us, JCK and CBS, may live long and prosper.