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First-class coach

A rabbi to the rabbis leans heavily on his mediation skills

Have you ever thought about a career as a congregational rabbi?

No, not for your own career. Have you considered what it must be like for your rabbi to manage her or his career? To deal with the sort of concerns you worry about in managing your own job? How to grow professionally, and how to get along with the boss – which, if you’re a congregant, means you?

Rabbi David Wolfman has thought about these issues.

He’s a rabbinic coach – a certified executive coach with a specialty in helping his fellow rabbis.

A native of Englewood Cliffs, Rabbi Wolfman plans to return to Bergen County next month at the behest of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which is bringing him for the institute’s annual retreat for the area’s rabbis.

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Rabbi David Wolfman

Rabbi Wolfman has a favorite saying when it comes to encapsulating what makes leading a congregation a unique professional challenge: “There are two things in life you cannot speak about with any logic or rationality. One is religion and the other is emotion.

“We’re dealing with both when it comes to a synagogue.”

Because of this, events that might be routine in other careers, such as leaving one job for another one, lead to painful and difficult transitions.

“It’s not just a job,” Rabbi Wolfman said. “A good rabbi becomes part of each family’s family system. A rabbi may want to move, and a congregant says, ‘How can you do that? You buried my mother!’ That gets very painful.”

Rabbi Wolfman, 54, grew up in Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly and was “always involved in organized Jewish life,” starting with Sinai’s NFTY youth group and the Masada youth group at what then was the Englewood Jewish Community Center, now the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. After majoring in religion and sociology at Boston College, he went to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. Ordained in 1987, he spent almost a decade in two congregations before joining the staff of what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as its New England regional director. There, he served on a joint committee of the union, which represents congregations, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is responsible for mediation and arbitration within the Reform movement – in other words, for resolving battles between rabbis and their congregations.

“That’s when I got fascinated with the relationship” between rabbis and their congregations, Rabbi Wolfman said. He found that in general, “synagogues do a great job in matching” with an appropriate rabbi – who in turn “does a great job” in his assigned role. And yet, often “honest and simple things get in the way of harmonious relationships. A lot of turmoil would happen when there weren’t proper transitions that followed the placement of a new rabbi.”

The question of why that happened, and how to prevent it, fascinated him. He trained to be a licensed mediator. He studied organization change and transition. And he studied to be an executive coach.

“Four years ago I decided the work was so very exciting and so very needed that I established my own consultancy,” he said. “Now I concentrate on managing organizational change for the synagogue and creating healthy relationships between rabbis and top lay leaders.”

He believes that change and transitions can be managed properly, with good results for both the congregations and the rabbis.

At the Synagogue Leadership Initiative, he will speak about change, as well as two other issues: Navigating conflict, and finding your own strength and leadership style.

Additionally, he and a colleague will preach on the general benefits of coaching for rabbis – and then offer free sessions courtesy of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative.

The practice of rabbinic coaching, Rabbi Wolfman said, began with rabbis in some of the largest congregations seeking executive coaching from established executive coaches.

“They were able to help them in many ways,” he said. “The coaching side can help a rabbi create their own goal, their own professional roles and personal jobs. Coaching can help them find the language to enter into a true and authentic partnership with their lay leadership.”

Rabbinic coaching is simply executive coaching and life coaching – but the client is a rabbi, he added. That specialization saves the time a rabbi might have to spend getting a standard coach up to speed on the world of the rabbinate.

So what is coaching?

Rabbi Wolfman starts off by saying what it’s not.

It’s not therapy. It’s not training.

“Coaching is the ability to meet a client where they are, to help them understand their goals, help them identify what might be standing in the way of their achieving their goals, and help them think about what tools they may have to work through those obstacles, and finally how to achieve those goals they set,” he said.

A coach can also serve as “an accountability partner,” which can be important for a rabbi or other executive who has no direct supervisor.

“I’ll tell you about my coach. My coach will always end a session saying, ‘In two weeks you’ll do x, y, and z. I’ll email you on Wednesday to see what you’re doing. Do you want me to?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t want you to, but please do.’

“Accountability keeps you on task. A coach can also be a safe sounding board. A CEO of a large corporation or a rabbi of a congregation can come up with a brilliant idea and go with it to the board – and the idea may fall flat on its face. You can try ideas first on the coach. It’s someone in their corner, that’s always honest and always safe, and will always not tell you what you want to hear,” he said.

Of course, what’s a crisis moment for a rabbi will not be the same as for a corporate product manager.

“The Reform movement is about to introduce a new machzor,” a High Holiday prayer book, Rabbi Wolfman said. “You don’t think there’s going to be some tension in the congregation about that?”

More threateningly, “there’s the reality of having a fiduciary responsibility to your congregation, when fewer and fewer people are joining and connecting to our synagogues as we Baby Boomers connected. The coach is that safe person for the rabbi to work through a lot of these fascinating issues with,” he said.

And Rabbi Wolfman is indeed fascinated by the challenges the emerging millennial generation poses to synagogues and their rabbis.

“This is a generation that doesn’t join, but they wholly want to be Jewish,” he said. “They are very different than the Gen Xers who are now in board positions and are most of our new rabbis. Very different from the Baby Boomers who believed in belonging and membership. And of course different than the Greatest Generation that built the institutions.

“We have these four strong, very different generations. That’s a fascinating challenge to deal with,” he said.

He said that the millennials don’t join – and not just synagogues. “Gym memberships are plummeting where personal training relationships are skyrocketing. People don’t buy movies, they rent them. Young people don’t buy cars, they have Uber and Zipcar,” he said.

At the same time, “Their community is not based around a building.” Where once long-distance phone conversations were a luxury rationed by the minute, nowadays Rabbi Wolfman can have video conferencing with his daughter in Israel for free.

As a model of how millennials act, he looks toward his daughter, 28 Рa woman of more than average Jewish connections. Her father, after all, is a rabbi. Her fianc̩ is the son of a Conservative Jewish educator. Both teach at a Solomon Schechter day school.

“Both are as Jewish as Jewish can be and, they will send their kids to a day school, and in a million years they won’t be joining a synagogue,” Rabbi Wolfman said. “They will support the Jewish community, they want Jewish community, but they won’t pay $3,000 to join a synagogue.

“Rather than judge them, we have to find out what makes them tick and meet them where they are,” he said. “We are great at saying, ‘yes, we’ll bar mitzvah your kids – but you have to join first.’ ‘Sure, we’ll bury your parents – but you have to join first.’ ‘It will be a pleasure to officiate at your wedding – but you have to join first.’

“Learning how to engage them is the big transition in our time.”

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