Marc H. Wilson
MARC WILUDZANSKI-WILSON is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, South Carolina.

What makes a congregation and its rabbi “good”?

Ever since the encounter between God and the Serpent, the world has been ravaged by conflicting definitions of “good.”  Torquemada, Hitler, that nut in North Korea, were all convinced that they were promoting the “good.”  No one could convince them otherwise, and living hell ensued.

One would hope that honorable people could concur on a more precise definition of “good and evil.”  We know that it’s not so.  Murder and rape, yes.  But, beyond the obvious, we live by maddening tiffs over divergent notions of “good”:  Was the movie, the restaurant, the speaker, the party . . . “good”?

What about the rabbi?  What about the congregation?  Good?  Well, I guess so.  Well, not really.  What makes you say that?  I dunno; I can’t really put my finger on it.  But . . . he just rubs me the wrong way.  But . . . I just guess I like him.  But . . . I just do/don’t feel at home there.

Well, is the rabbi an articulate speaker?  an activist?  a compassionate pastor?  a scholar?  What of the congregation?  solemn, dignified services?  happy-clappy?  baseball intermurals?  adult education?  kid-friendly?  coffee hour?  A summary definition of a “good” rabbi or congregation may simply be expecting too much.  And, certainly, a congregation that aspires to be all things to all people has chosen to be the evil twin of the Keystone Cops.

Can a congregation come to an understanding on the meaning of “good”?  Laypeople and rabbis rarely seem to engage in thoughtful brainstorming and consensus-building on the definition of quality.

Instead, they hope for the best.  They thank God each day that the natives are not too restless, put out the fires, and wait until the rabbi’s contract renewal or when a congregant gets particularly miffed.  Even worse, they descend into a thesaurus of mush to describe the congregation, like “warm-and-family-friendly.” Have you ever encountered a congregation that did not tell you that it was “warm”?

Can you really expect empirical indicators of success for congregations and rabbis – like you do for microchips?  Can you quantify virtues like “welcome, compassion, and rabbinical skills”?

Intuition is critical, the kind that says, “I know ‘good’ when I see it.”  Nonetheless, each congregation should be able to agree on a few benchmarks for measuring “good” in itself and its pastor.

A few examples:

If you want to know if a congregation is “welcoming,” you might ask: (1) Are there greeters who welcome visitors to services, introduce them to the rabbi and congregants, ensure that they are not abandoned during the Kiddush/Oneg, and ascertain how to follow-up?  (2) Do the rabbi and senior congregation official(s) pay a visit to newcomers within a week of their arrival?  (3) Do chairs of key committees contact new members within a week of joining the congregation, soliciting the newcomers’ involvement?

If you want to know if a congregation is “compassionate,” you might ask: (1) Is there a mechanism for prompt response to people in crisis?  (2) Is there a hot-line for at-risk members of the congregation who require shopping, transportation, navigate the social/medical service bureaucracies, or help with chores?  (3) Is there an established group to visit and provide support for the sick and homebound?

If you want to know if the rabbi is a good “pastor,” you might ask:  (1) Is s/he in contact with each hospitalized member daily and visit at least every other day?  (2) Does s/he visit the homebound at least bi-weekly?  (3) Has s/he ever said that s/he was too busy?  (4) Does the congregation extend encouragement, time, and funds for the rabbi to ensure his counseling skills are fresh through continuing education?

These protocols will never substitute for the all’s-wellness that you feel when you harmonize so sweetly on Adon Olam or when the rabbi makes just the right point in his/her sermon.  Nonetheless, they will enable you to come to some understanding of quality and give you a respite from conflicting fuzzy definitions of “good.”

The challenge is to determine a set of reasonable expectation.  It can be tremendously enlightening for congregation and rabbi.  How will we know compassion, enthusiasm, warmth, rabbinical excellence, when we see them?  Facing that question may be our only escape from the acrimony and havoc that turn board meetings into bloodlettings and create combative, cynical rabbis.

“WILUDI,” AKA Marc Howard Wilson, is a rabbi who writes from Greenville, South Carolina.  Visit with him at

About the Author
Marc Wilson is a rabbi and activist, serving congregations for four decades. He lives in Greenville, SC, and is blessed with a compassionate wife and the 14 smartest grandchildren ever. He especially loves being with family, teaching Torah, and cooking a competitive kosher gumbo. Marc is especially passionate about inclusive Yiddishkeit and the long, strange trip his life has been. He considers his greatest achievement the seven years he cared for his homebound parents. Contact Wiludi (Rabbi Marc) at