We live in a time when the past is no longer a roadmap for the future. Cookie-cutter job descriptions and those that worked for the past do not do justice to the skill-set required for future rabbinic leadership. The new leadership model is one of co-option, conversation and collaboration, not one of coercion.
The need for change in the UK’s United Synagogue and other Modern Orthodox Congregations around the world is urgent if we are to avoid serious hemorrhaging of membership, attendance, and engagement. In the past, rabbis and religious institutions could retain membership by a “command-and-control” approach. Holding the only keys to an orthodox marriage, funeral, divorce or conversion, they could coerce membership of an orthodox shul. Today, however, the Modern-Orthodox community has countless options and command-and-control no longer cuts it. Thus, my meeting with the Working Group for the Selection of the next chief rabbi (“Dark horse emerges in race to become UK’s next chief rabbi”, Times of Israel, November 27th, 2012) focused on the need for the next chief rabbi to prepare the community for change by transforming his relationship with congregational rabbis from a ceremonial one to a working relationship. This relationship should aim to prepare the next generation of young, talented rabbis to take over, and the community to embrace and support them.
Key to the required change in modern orthodoxy is upgrading the offering that orthodox synagogues provide to their members and attendants. This new offering must be relevant to members who live and work in the modern, fast-changing world of business and the professions. The United Synagogue, like other modern orthodox communities, depends on its congregational Rabbis to design offerings that must be both authentically Jewish and also more alluring than any intellectual and spiritual input members experience elsewhere. This new, upgraded offering should expand beyond ceremony to inspiration, leadership and intellectual engagement. If our rabbis aren’t relevant to people’s real-time challenges, members will find their intellectual and spiritual input elsewhere (both to the right and to the left) – and modern orthodoxy will become marginalized and irrelevant. The new chief rabbi and other modern orthodox leaders will need to spearhead this change.
One example of the need for relevance is the role of women in the community. Congregants work in business environments that are dealing successfully with the role of women in the workplace. In their day-to-day work lives, many female congregants serve in senior corporate positions and many male congregants answer to, work with or supervise extremely talented women. Yet on the weekends, in many synagogues women find themselves feeling sidelined and disenfranchised, notwithstanding the frameworks of Jewish law, halacha, that inform what roles women can and cannot play in religious service and leadership. I welcome the United Synagogue’s recent decision on women in communal leadership – however yet again, it seems as if this decision has been handed down in the same command-and-control model.
The reason that 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail is because they are imposed by individuals and bodies who do not enjoy the full trust of those needing to implement it. Successful change comes from first carefully expanding people’s paradigms and aligning the intended change with the values of those who will implement it – in the case of the United Synagogue – a capable team of Rabbis and an internationally recognized Beth Din (court of Jewish law). The new leadership model is one of co-option, conversation and collaboration, not one of coercion. The new United Synagogue chief rabbi will need to master these new leadership skills to succeed.
The Limmud phenomenon is another example of the need for change. Conceived of and led by lay leaders, this international network of interdenominational learning events is to some extent an indictment of the existing intellectual offerings of the Synagogue and another indicator of the need for an upgraded rabbinic offering. As rabbis we need to hear the community’s needs and respond relevantly and intelligently by “upping our own game” rather than by attempting to exclude a competitor for our members’ time, attention and interest.
The London Beth Din and the United Synagogue team of congregational rabbis are cornerstones to any envisaged change in the United Synagogue and their paradigms will need to expand. Not an expansion of the halachik frameworks within which they operate, that would no longer be orthodoxy, and judicial independence is key to the integrity of any legally based system. They will need to expand their paradigms by updating their appreciation for the social context in which they are making their decisions, the speed at which that context changes every day, and the real-time challenges of people who operate successfully in that ever-changing social context. To succeed, the next chief rabbi will need to master the skills of helping strong rabbis and communal leaders expand their paradigms. Congregational rabbis should be empowered to make relevant decisions for their congregations always within broad halachik guardrails set by the chief rabbi and Beth Din. They should be challenged to argue their cases to the chief rabbi as to why their decisions are appropriate to and in the interests of their own congregations, even if their decisions differ from those of other rabbis in the United Synagogue. This will encourage an even greater diversity of offerings within orthodoxy than is currently available. “This is the way it’s always been” should no longer be an acceptable rabbinic or lay leadership mantra.
The frustration that the community feels with the length of time members of the United Synagogue Working Group is taking to reach its recommendations is understandable, but so is the challenge they face. Cookie-cutter job descriptions and those that worked for the past do not do justice to the skill-set required for the future. We live in a time when the past is no longer a roadmap for the future. The next chief rabbi, like any successful business leader, will need to navigate hitherto uncharted waters. The ultimate success of the next chief rabbi will be measured not so much by his own accomplishments as by the success of his successor.