CARING AND SHARING: AN OU CONFERENCE ENABLES SYNAGOGUE EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS TO COMPARE NOTES, LEARN FROM EACH OTHER, AND REALIZE THAT LARGE OR SMALL, CONGREGATIONS ARE VERY MUCH ALIKE
By Anne Goldberg
Executive Director, Congregation AABJ&D, West Orange, NJ
Executive Directors used to be the forgotten people in synagogues, given much less attention than the clergy and board. No more. The Orthodox Union has just completed its Fifth Annual Executive Directors Conference, which was held in New York. Originally scheduled for November, it was postponed because of Hurricane Sandy. Participants came from 12 states and two Canadian provinces, journeying from as far as California to attend. Anne Goldberg of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange has been a planner and participant in all five of the conferences. Her thoughts on the proceedings, which apply to all synagogues, not just Orthodox ones, are as follows.
The buzz around town is that this was one of the best OU Executive Directors Conferences so far. So what contributed to the success of this conference? Was it the topics discussed, the presenters, the participants, or a combination of all? As a member of the planning committee for all five conferences, this is a question that I have been pondering.
We have come a long way in five years. I remember discussing the concept of a conference, who would come, what would we talk about, what topics may be of interest, to finally the “grand opening” of our first conference. Some 40 participants from across the country signed on; I believe that on our first day together, most of our energy was spent trying to gauge one another, comparing our backgrounds and shul set-up, deciding on how much to share and how much to trust. By day two we were all family. Large or small synagogues, urban or suburban, West Coast, East Coast, we were all in the same boat facing similar challenges and we were all comrades in arms. Our common denominator was, and still is, greater than our differences.
I believe that the sense of camaraderie, the exchange of ideas and know-how, and the networking opportunities have been the major “take-aways” at each conference. In fact, what the conference does is to remove the isolation of our work environment, and affords all participants the potential to be part of a dynamic team, each of us working for the betterment and growth of our shul. Regardless of where one is -- Canada, Florida, Texas, Nebraska or New York -- we all stay in touch through the OU Department of Synagogue Services | Congregation Support Network and our list-serve on Google Groups and Yahoo Groups. No one is alone, and there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Whatever the issue or the challenge, someone in the group has been there and is willing to share and offer guidance.
To some extent, the topics addressed at the conference tend to be perennials, such as fundraising, board development, juggling our workload, HR manual, insurance, and security. However, each year a different approach is tackled and new insights are gained.
What made this conference a success? I would venture the timely topics and the eagerness of everyone around the table to share and participate in the discussion. This year we welcomed a lot of new faces, many of whom were new to their positions, some with many years of experience and others not. Everyone was readily embraced into the group, and eager to learn from one another. The exchange of ideas, points of view and expertise are what makes the sessions and workshops engaging and valuable.
The topics discussed this year were current and relevant to what is going on in our synagogues and communities. Regardless of who and where we are, we are all dealing with similar situations such as “how to involve our members, engage our board, create a vision and ensure succession”; “how to establish policies to protect our staff, ourselves and our institutions”; “how to deal with the economic down-turn – let’s share some fundraising ideas”; “in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary school, do we have a disaster plan in place, are we properly insured?”; “we are all in the market for new synagogue software, let’s compare notes”; “big shul, small shul, let’s compare our budgets ($13 million vs. $500,000)… surprise, the percentages are the same!” Even though we have serious discussions, we also take time to laugh and to share our “horror stories.” This year, we were privileged to have well-known entertainer and comedian, ‘Modi,’ set the tone of the evening.
The Conference also offers us benchmarks to measure our personal skills and efficiency, as well as the well-being of our institutions. Knowing how other synagogues operate and how they meet challenges, gives us the much needed perspective to position our own shul and to set goals and develop strategies.
After this three-day exchange, we come out re-energized and motivated to move ahead. Enriched with new knowledge, new ideas, best practices, new contacts and the support from our colleagues, we return home striving to make our synagogue a better place for our community, our members and our staff.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Orthodox Union Karasick Department of Synagogue Services for coordinating the Annual Synagogue Executive Directors Conference. Kudos go to Yehuda Friedman, the conference coordinator, Rabbi Judah Isaacs, the Director of Community Engagement, Penny Pazornick, Associate Director of Synagogue Services, and the entire planning committee for a job well done.
Looking forward to next year… … in sunny Florida, I hope!
OU | Enhancing Jewish Life