The business of sacred communities

The business of sacred communities

For Lisa Harris Glass, nurturing synagogues is a step toward strengthening them

What is a shul?

Is it really a business, nonprofit to be sure, but nonetheless an operation that must be managed, its funds raised, its resources husbanded, its leadership groomed and mentored, its facilities maintained? Or is it a k’hillah k’doshah, a sacred community, a place people join to find God and community?

That question is an easy one for Lisa Harris Glass, director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative (SLI) of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. It is both. At bottom, she believes, a synagogue is a sacred community, but if it is not also seen clearly as a business, it will not be able to function.

It is her job to help shuls work.

Lisa Harris Glass

Glass, 46, grew up in Somerset. “It was a young community, with brand new developments and lots of dairy farms. It was kind of wild – the names of the main streets were the names of the kids we went to school with.”

There were a fair number of Jews in town then, she said, but as the town grew, the number of Jews did not grow with it. It was a happily eclectic community.

The Harrises were “very secular,” Glass said. “We didn’t have a mezuzah on the front door. Rumors of kashrut in previous generations were also as close as we got to it. We were really very assimilated.”

There was only one synagogue in town, Temple Beth El, “a Conservative synagogue with largely unobservant congregants and an Orthodox rabbi,” Martin Schlussel, whom she remembers as a “beloved man.” She loved him, too. It was the 1970s, at the height of the women’s movement, and “I was all ‘why can’t a girl read Torah?’ So he invited me to dinner at his house, and I remember him explaining that women have distinct and special and amazingly important roles in Judaism, but there are things that men do and things that women do.”

That did not satisfy her, but soon it did not matter. “We dropped out of the synagogue after my bat mitzvah,” Glass said. “I grew up with no youth group and without any access to a synagogue or a rabbi. We never lit candles on Shabbat or yom tov.”

No longer true

This matters now for two reasons. First, those things are no longer true for Glass. Second, Glass wants Jewish children to have easier access to Jewish life than she had.

Despite the lack of religion in her life as a child, it was then that Glass developed a strong sense of God. When she was about 10, her family underwent a series of stresses that made her decide that God does not exist. The stresses worsened, and “I remember thinking that maybe there was a God, and I’d ticked God off. I decided that I would take God back into my life. I was a child, but I remember it distinctly.” Ever since then, she has looked for God, secure in the knowledge that there was a God and that she would find him.

When she went off to college at Montclair State, Glass sought out a synagogue for the High Holy Days, but she did not feel welcome in the one she found and did not return there. Her college enthusiasms were not Jewish ones – she was, among other less unlikely things, the manager of the school’s men’s wrestling team the year it won the NCAA division championship. Her undergirding connection to the Jewish world was there, but it was dormant.

After graduation, Glass became a human resources generalist for the Hyatt hotel chain. She loved the work but eventually realized that its demands would not allow her the life she wanted. (Jews had to work even on the High Holy Days, but that was not discrimination, she said, because Christians had to work on Christmas and Easter.) “So I came home and said to my husband, ‘I want to work in the Jewish world. How little can we afford that I work for?’ So I checked the [Newark] Star Ledger – I didn’t know anything about where else to look – and I found an ad for an office person at Temple Beth-El in Cranford. I went on an interview a few days later, and the next morning they called and offered me the job. I took it.”

That was the start of Glass’s career in the Jewish world. Beth-El was a small Conservative shul. “I loved being there, but I realized that I had a lot to learn,” Glass said. “I can remember opening a first-grade primer and reteaching myself the aleph bet. I’d forgotten it.” She learned more about customs and rituals, and began incorporating them into her life. She learned how to read Torah, as she had wanted to do when she was a child.

Another call and then another

After 4 1/2 years, during which the job expanded as she pushed at its walls, Glass got a telephone call from Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. It was double the size of Beth-El, and it was looking for an executive director.

“Even though I’d been working in Cranford, I had no idea there was such a position,” she said. So she found an executive director, took him out to lunch, and asked him about it. “It was nothing I thought I couldn’t handle,” she said. “So I took it.”

Glass spent another 4 1/2 years as executive director at Neve Shalom, learning more about what makes shuls tick. She made close friends there; one of them, Audrey Glass Napchen, who is now Neve Shalom’s president, introduced her to her brother, David Glass. Lisa and David married; their family now includes Carolyn, 16, and Jonah, 10. David Glass is retired from the U.S. Navy and teaches social studies. And then she got another one of those telephone calls, this one from Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, a shul that is much bigger than Neve Shalom. It was a challenge, and Glass met it. She stayed there for 6 1/2 years, and then, yes, she got yet another telephone call. This time it was from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; for 3 1/2 years, Glass was its New Jersey regional executive director.

“And then my phone rang” and it was Judy Beck, director of the federation’s SLI program, looking for her own replacement. Glass took the job.

Glass now uses the skills she learned throughout her career, beginning with the groundwork in human relations she received at Hyatt. She mixes the practical and the spiritual; she works with shuls on the assumption that “there are business things that have to be applied, but it’s not a business. We take Jewish values and apply them, so everything we do is infused with those values.

“I love visiting synagogues and going into sanctuaries. I love being in sacred space. You can feel God. You can feel the joy and the sorrow that has happened in that room. I am always moved by it. This is the idea of doing God’s work. When you ask people to fold papers or stuff envelopes for their synagogue, you actually are giving them the opportunity to become closer to God. People look at me askance – sometimes in horror – when I say that, but ultimately they like it. It starts to resonate.”

Behind the numbers

Glass has learned how to look at a shul budget and read its secrets. “I have an analytical mind, and I can use it to figure out what’s keeping a synagogue board up at night. I can tell what the infrastructure issues are, what the board should be talking about but isn’t.

“I can tell if a synagogue is or soon will be burdened with infrastructure repair and maintenance because I can see the kind of money that’s dedicated to upkeep, and if there is a reserve fund for major things. I can tell what’s important to them by the kind of money allocated for education. For so many synagogues, being in leadership is about paying the bills, but that doesn’t feed anybody’s soul.”

That skill allows her to “find opportunities – unrecognized assets – in a synagogue’s budget.”

Her job now allows Glass to work with synagogues “across denominations, not having tunnel vision for your affiliates. I love that. We are out there serving Jews, and it’s exciting, the kind of change you can affect if you can help everyone who shows up looking for help.”

The help she can give is not always what congregations think they want, as demographics change and shuls struggle to adjust.

“We have to change the mindset that the actual goal is saving a building,” Glass said. “Ultimately, the purpose is to let people have a meaningful spiritual relationship with God. Sometimes, my role is to give them permission to close.

“I sat in a room with a bunch of colleagues recently, and they were worried about the future of North American Judaism. I’m not worried. We have been up against so many negative forces in our history, and yet always we survive. Do I think that in 50 years North American Judaism will look like it does now? I don’t. But I know that we will be there. This is a time of great and what I predict will be rapid Jewish institutional change, but Judaism always will be here.”

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