Rabbis Go to Business School for Tools To Deal With a Difficult Economy

By Lana Gersten

Published December 04, 2008, issue of December 12, 2008.
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Evanston, Ill. — With the economy in turmoil, rabbis around the nation are under increasing pressure to raise funds to keep their synagogues healthy and oversee budgets that are being squeezed as members lose their jobs.

But little of what the rabbis learned in rabbinical school prepared them for the management skills they need to be CEOs of their synagogues.

A new executive education program at a major business school, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, aims to fill that gap by teaching rabbis basic business skills. A pilot program held during the first week in December brought together 55 rabbis and executive directors from leading Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues to learn how to better manage a staff, resolve conflict, raise funds and polish their leadership skills.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg envisioned the program, after spending years as senior rabbi at Boca Raton Synagogue yet realizing he lacked some business skills necessary to run a successful synagogue.

“We have such rich rabbinic training with so little management training, despite the fact that so much of what we do now involves fundraising, conflict resolution, crisis management, governance, managing people,” he said.

At the urging of Boca Raton Synagogue member Dinah Jacobs, whose husband is dean emeritus of the Kellogg School, and who herself is a pioneer in customer satisfaction and service quality, Goldberg attended one of Kellogg’s advanced executive programs alongside senior executives of major companies. He said the experience, which he described as “transformative,” seemed well-suited for rabbis, who could gain valuable management skills.

Six months later, the rabbis and executive directors of synagogues across the country and the United Kingdom, who have a combined 757 years of rabbinic experience, traveled to Northwestern and paid $2,000 to participate in a program that was tailor-made to the challenges of running a successful synagogue. Jacobs had surveyed a wide variety of Jewish leaders and developed classes according to their needs. The course syllabus ultimately covered topics ranging from marketing, fundraising and financial management, to synagogue governance, conflict resolution and crisis management.

Inside the Kellogg classroom, there was a sense of camaraderie, said Julie Schonfeld, incoming executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis alike worked together, learning from each other by sharing their different experiences. “Part of what is tremendously exciting is the sense of unity among the colleagues and a sense of our unified purpose to apply this knowledge to bring greater energy and vitality to Jewish communities,” Schonfeld said.

Halfway through the five-day program, Jonathan Stein, senior rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefilah, a Reform synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said the courses applied directly to the problems he faced.

“From a professional point of view, it’s really interesting because I find myself listening to these business models and business talk and in my head I am constantly making a transition to how this is in my synagogue,” Stein said.

Stein attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for his undergraduate degree, but entered the rabbinate to be a bearer of Torah. Despite his early business schooling, he said he finds himself acting as a CEO without proper professional training.

The N.U. program comes at a time when Jewish leaders are becoming increasingly aware of their lack of business savvy. The 2006 Wertheimer Study of Conservative Rabbis and Lay Leaders found that lay leaders want their rabbis “to do more as fundraisers and managers of people.”

In September, participants at the first National Conference on Continuing Rabbinic Education discussed the need to teach business leadership and congregational management skills to rabbis. And from December 14–17, Yeshiva University is sponsoring the second year of a similar management program, for Orthodox rabbis, to be held in Weston, Fla.

Of all the courses offered at the Kellogg program, professor Liz Livingston Howard’s fund-raising class garnered top marks. In evaluations, many participants praised the course’s practical nature, and one said it was “enormously valuable for synagogue life.” Because of the demand for more help with fundraising, Jacobs set up an impromptu Webinar, which Livingston Howard will offer to the rabbis as a followup.

Jacobs is also planning ongoing education by setting up an online community where participants can interact, find books on a variety of business subjects, and log onto an additional course that will teach sound management approaches. She plans to welcome a new class on campus in December 2009.

Particularly now, in the current financial environment, participants talked openly about developing the skills necessary to be able to relate to their lay leadership, who are undergoing hard times during this unstable economy.

“In a climate that is very nice and rosy, you can get away with not the best or optimal management technology or thinking,” said Donald Jacobs, the dean emeritus, who taught a class on synagogue governance. “In an environment that’s very fraught with danger, with the economy turning down, not up, it’s more important that you have an optimum methodology to operate with, because frankly, you don’t have the space to make mistakes.”






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