Speaking the same language

Speaking the same language

Joint conference brings Reform, Conservative synagogue executives together

In 2008, NATA — the Reform movement’s National Association of Temple Administration — and NAASE — the Conservative movement’s North American Association of Synagogue Executives — held a joint conference. Richard Tannenbaum, executive director of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lakes, helped organize the event.

The conference went off smoothly, but something was missing.

“It was more like two conferences that overlapped for a day without real integration,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. “We wanted a truly joint conference.”

That goal finally has been realized. Last month, the two groups came together in Nashville and it modeled true cooperation, Mr. Tannenbaum said. “We formed a joint task force to look at things we could collaborate on since so much of what we do is similar.” With each organization bringing some 150 people, “we knew we could have a great conference, with great speakers, and create a greater dynamic and a sense of community, since we’d be doing sacred work together.

“We created total equality between both organizations,” he continued. To that end, name tags didn’t indicate which group delegates came from. “We wanted people to have to sit down and engage in conversation, finding similarities before they saw differences.”

Temple Emanuel is Conservative; Mr. Tannenbaum, a member of NAASE, is that group’s vice president for professional development.

The task force planning the conference met weekly through Zoom video conferencing. “There were two co-chairs from each organization, and we were from all four corners of the U.S.,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. It met for a full year. “It gave us a chance to get to know each other and understand each other, so we were all on the same page,” he added.

Not coincidentally, the conference theme was “Coming Together — Kulanu b’Yachad.”

The 270 participants, including synagogue executives from northern New Jersey, came from all over the United States, Canada, London, Israel, and even Australia. Feedback has been “really sensational,” Mr. Tannenbaum said, and a large number of people asked that such conferences be held on a more regular basis. Plans for a similar meeting are already in the works.

“NAASE goes to Israel every fifth year,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. While the two groups are not always there at the same time, an effort will be made to coordinate their trips. In addition, NAASE has invited NATA to attend the Conservative group’s conference in Israel next year. “It won’t be a joint conference, but it will have the flavor of camaraderie.”

On the whole, he added, “we’re really more similar than dissimilar.” Any differences be  o groups were ironed out in advance. For example, it was decided that all food would be kosher — a requirement for NAASE but not for NATA — so that everyone would feel comfortable.

“Everyone was so open-minded and accepting,” he said. “No one felt that they had to bend or give up anything.” Even in the distribution of aliyot at Shabbat services, people were called up in pairs: for example, the presidents of both organizations went up together, and the four conference co-chairs had a joint aliyah.

Nashville was chosen as the conference site because “we wanted to find a city that has collaboration, and at the opening evening’s musical performance, the three artists that performed talked about how songwriting and collaboration go together,” Mr. Tannenbaum said.

Conference sessions were both formal and informal, addressing topics that ranged from making synagogues more organized to enhancing security, from software, crisis management, dues collection, to “moving congregations to the leading edge,” improving both focus and operational effectiveness.

Local participants included Vicki Farhi, the executive director of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes; Rochelle Rudnick, the temple administrator at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth; and Joe Slade, the executive director of Temple Sinai in Tenafly.

Ms. Farhi said that she always has enjoyed NATA conferences “because they provide a chance to get together with colleagues and friends across the country, share best practices and learn new ideas,” and get a sense of where synagogues are headed. “Collaboration is beneficial to everyone,” she said, adding that “it puts us in a position for respectful conversation — which is direly needed in the Jewish world.”

She also enjoys the workshops for synagogue executive directors held locally by Lisa Glass, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s chief planning officer. The Nashville conference, she said, extended this idea. Still, she added, she knew what to expect “because we have a model here in northern New Jersey.” Indeed, Ms. Glass was one of the speakers in Nashville.

While “it did take a while to break down some of the barriers of people who didn’t know each other,” the conference was helpful, Ms. Farhi said. Not only did she enjoy most of the speakers, but “I met an executive director from Wayland, Mass., who gave me beneficial advice on development and financial transparency. That will probably be a continuing conversation.” She also picked up “some practical tips on how to manage both big stuff and small stuff. Like the way [UAHC president] Rabbi Rick Jacobs and [USCJ president] Rabbi Steven Wernick had a conversation, how they framed it. It was nice modeling.”

The conference, she said, was a “wonderful opportunity for a synagogue professional to have the time to focus on professional development with other professionals. That benefits the work she does and the synagogue she works for.”

Ms. Glass — who had been a synagogue executive director for some 14 years — offered three sessions at the conference: How to Think Like a Pro: Tools & Methodologies; Investor Model: Doing Traditional Dues Right; and Death as a Spiritual and Philanthropic Opportunity.

In the first session, she said, she suggested that “what often separates good professionals from great professionals is the ability to reason through a problem, crisis, or challenge in a thoughtful and complete manner.” Her goal was to help participants become effective thought leaders in their community. “You have to train yourself to allow for different thinkers at the table,” she said.

In her second session, Ms. Glass talked about a model of the dues/funding structure that stresses relationships with congregants, offering “a practical, detailed discussion of the investor model and its applicability to all synagogues, irrespective of size, location, denomination, or demographics.” Her third session pointed out that “losing a loved one is a traumatic event, and it can become a critical time in the relationship of a congregant with his or her synagogue.” Her presentation explored the spiritual and financial opportunities that go hand in hand with this life-cycle event.

“I was impressed by the level of collaboration between NAASE and NATA, and how each part of the conference had two leaders, one from each,” Ms. Glass said. “Also, being with a group of that size made it feel substantial and powerful.” Attendees could see what each group brought to the table and “benefit from best practices. As a synagogue director, our work is so similar. We even had a speaker who was a church administrator. It’s the same — running the infrastructure of a sacred community.”

And then, she said, “the fact that we were able to work together to achieve this” is the most important benefit. “We were providing an example of the types of collaboration that are possible.” Such events “are a clarion call on how we can be working together in many areas in the future, whether in multidenominational synagogues or in sharing space.”

Mr. Tannenbaum said he intends to remain active in organizing joint conferences. “It was exciting and inspirational,” he said. “We were speaking the same language.”

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