Climbing a Sulam

Climbing a Sulam

Local shul targets emerging leaders

Fair Lawn Sulam participants include, seated left to right, Larry Bach, Leslie Frucht, and Lily Shinkar; and standing, Wendy Grinberg, Jennifer Mendelsohn, Rabbi Ronald Roth, Todd Walker, and Neil Garfinkle.

Like all organizations, synagogues need a steady supply of new leaders if they are to function effectively – but motivated men and women may be hard to find.

“We have a crying need to develop more synagogue leaders,” said Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel. “It’s a challenging time for all synagogues.”

Facing assimilation on one hand and indifference on the other, “synagogues have to be a place of meaning, of inspiration. People are not knocking our doors down. Their lives are busier. But if we inspire them, they’ll give us the time.”

To help build a “leadership pipeline,” the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has expanded its Sulam program, at one time aimed only at synagogue presidents. (Sulam means ladder.)

“It’s not just for presidents anymore,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor, United Synagogue’s director of kehilla enrichment. The revamped program now targets potential leaders as well. Thirty-one Sulam cohorts are meeting this year, Savenor said; they include groups at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

Roth, who recently led a group of Fair Lawn congregants in the Sulam track targeted to emerging leaders, said he invited people under the age of 45 “who were either in the process of becoming leaders or want to be in the process of becoming leaders.” Recruitment for the six-session course began last summer.

In planning the course, Roth and synagogue president Linda Ayes, who co-led the Fair Lawn sessions, visited United Synagogue’s New York City offices, where they participated in a full-day training session and were given a curriculum to use in the synagogue.

The Fair Lawn course was “very interactive,” Roth said, explaining that it included a large amount of Jewish text study done in chevruta style, with learning partners working together on the material.

“Some members said it was the best leadership training they’d ever been to,” he said. Rather than teaching synagogue skills, the course focused on “values, text study, and some issues in synagogue life. It helped to ground the potential leaders in a sense of what Judaism means to them,” Roth said, adding that it encouraged participants “to understand Jewish texts through their own personal lens.”

One of the texts, for example, was about a welcoming community; another asked what a functioning Jewish community needs to have; while a third focused on how a leader can give a community hope.

Wendy Grinberg appreciated this approach. She noted that “compared to other leadership development programs I know about, this one focused on building relationships, reflective leadership, and encouraging the sharing of ideas. We spent no time talking about the history of the organization, how it functions, its committees or structures. Because of this, I think, people became friends – the most important way to make people commit to a synagogue and its survival – and felt empowered to share new ideas and even do something about them.”

“I feel strongly that the Sulam program’s approach to study and discussion versus a standard seminar type program leads to a more open and warm setting, which brought forward a more candid dialogue,” participant Seth Seigel-Laddy said. “It was great to see that there are many others within our community who have the same commitment and willingness to volunteer, keeping our shul vital and vibrant.”

Roth said he is scheduling one-on-one meetings with group members to elicit feedback. His hope, he said, is that those in the cohort will continue to meet – whether for Shabbat dinners, social events, or social action projects – and will be inspired to participate even more, and more effectively, in synagogue life.

Neil Garfinkle, a New York City schoolteacher, said that as group members started to bond, “I believe we all also became more inspired to become active leaders in our shul. The problem was, when? When do we find the time?”

Exploring this issue, he said, “was one of the most significant classes for me. We spoke about the building blocks of our ‘palaces in time.’ How much time do we allocate to what is important?”

He noted that one challenge of leadership is dealing with the many different personalities in the synagogue.

“Everyone’s ideas and feelings need to be accepted,” said Garfinkle, who is vice-president of programming for the Men’s Progress Club, chair of the youth committee, synagogue board member, and chair of the education subcommittee for the long-range planning committee.

“People are here volunteering out of the goodness of their heart – but how do you balance people’s goals and ideas, keeping everyone happy and coming back for more?”

Jennifer Mendelsohn, who spearheaded the shul’s Jeans and Teens program and will be installed as secretary of the executive board in June, said the Sulam program was “even better than I expected. We got to know each other and became close-knit.”

Mendelsohn, a Fair Lawn-based attorney, said she looked forward to her Sulam meetings each week “because of the group of people and the chevruta study. It’s really fascinating to be able to get together and study with such a diverse group of people. It created a nice sense of community.”

She particularly liked the chevruta study, where members asked each other questions.

“It helped with regard to being able to work as a team and within our own community,” she said. “It was a first for most of us. We enjoyed asking questions back and forth to understand the text.”

She said she thinks the program was helpful “in terms of being able to recognize that everybody comes to the table with their own set of leadership assets and values. When you can recognize that everyone has their strengths, you can better work together in a community.”

Mendelson also was struck by the number of active young congregation members.

Often, she said, “the younger generation gets lost, but as a result of getting to know one another, going forward, we’re better able to associate with other people in the shul with the same vision. There’s a sense of a younger group.”

Leslie Frucht called the Sulam program “a very valuable experience.”

Frucht has been vice-president of adult education for the shul’s sisterhood for the last two years and soon will be installed as its president. She said she looked forward to the meetings, “where the rabbi helped us see how the meaning of the texts can provide context and resolutions to current-day situations. I hope to be able to put into practice the concepts that I learned. It is also my hope that I will be able to entice and energize others to become more active and participate, not only in the sisterhood, but in all activities at the FLJC.”

Seigel-Laddy agreed. “I personally plan to take some of the ideas and discussion and bring it forward into my presidency of the Men’s Progress Club over the next two years,” she said. “Specifically, we’d like to make sure we have a diverse enough slate of programming to support our existing members but also to bring in [new] members and continue to grow our community.”

Margie Gelbwasser said the program gave her “a sense of community and the incentive to learn more about Judaism, while connecting with fellow Jews in my synagogue.” She suggested that the greatest challenge facing synagogues today is “retaining members and showing why a synagogue community can be beneficial.”

“Our synagogue has created many opportunities for kids, teens, families with young children, and more,” she said.

“I think it’s important to continue to reinvent oneself as a synagogue since the needs of members change as well. Keeping the lines of communication open and having programs such as Sulam and inviting input can strengthen the synagogue community and help it grow.”

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