Strengthening Professionals so as to Strengthen Their Shuls

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Stained Glass Magen David
14 Dec 2010

“Go. Transform. Be blessed.” These poetic words from Marvin Schenker, Executive Director of the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst on Long Island, NY, was the farewell blessing at the Orthodox Union’s Third Annual Synagogue Executive Director’s conference held in November at the Young Israel of Woodmere, New York. Mr. Schenker aptly summed up the momentum created from the three-day conference. More than 40 synagogue executive directors, the behind-the-scenes leaders of synagogues, convened at the conference, bringing with them energy to strengthen institutions and to transform the synagogue so as to reach new and even higher levels of service to the community.

Chaired by Dr. Alan Singer of Congregation Shearith Israel (the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) in New York City, a planning committee of executive directors and OU Karasick Department of Synagogue Services staff, began formulating the framework of the conference last spring. The goal of the conference was two-fold: to provide concrete information for policies, procedures, and programs that executive directors can bring back to their shuls, and to provide a venue for vital networking that will allow executive directors to share best practices on an on-going basis.

Over the duration of the conference, our singular national Jewish community, the executive directors, reached a high point. From the big to the small –from New York City to Los Angeles; from Omaha to Memphis; from Maryland to Florida; Texas to Canada – this dynamic force in the lives of our synagogues convened to better serve Klal Yisrael through adopting the methods and practices the modern shul needs to prosper.

Sessions at the conference covered many topics – fund raising, board governance, efficiency tools and time management, marketing and the use of social media, first aid and the use of AED (defibrillator) machines, and compiling best practices.

As the Executive Director of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, I appreciate the opportunity to learn from experts in the non-profit world. Executive Directors returned home with changes, new ideas, concepts and principles that resulted or will over time result in substantial changes in the way the executive director goes about his or her job – and therefore, in how the shul itself will be changing.

I have a professional responsibility to not only relay the strong message shared by a speaker, such as Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the OU, but also to help guide my synagogue in acting on that message. Rabbi Weil spoke passionately about synagogue fund raising efforts beyond dues and annual dinners – Do we have a long term financial plan? Do we effectively “make the ask” when it comes to fundraising? Do we have an established program for bequest giving?

As a conference participant, I am not only there for my own professional growth. I am a liaison from Omaha’s Orthodox community to the Orthodox Union and to the greater Jewish world. I bring the message to my shul’s leadership, and I help in developing and implementing vision.

In Omaha, for instance, we are in the very early stages of developing a Legacy Giving Program. I brought concrete ideas to a newly established committee with action steps for realizing our goals. I work collaboratively with the committee chair, synagogue president and rabbi to reach goals such as this. As an institution, we value instances when we do not have to reinvent the wheel and when we can benefit from the creative thinking of others. We now also strive to be represented among those who share best practices for other congregations to benefit.

In the short time since the conference ended, literally dozens and dozens of posts to an executive director’s on-line user group have garnered solid work-product suggestions for improving efficiency and member services and speaks to the strong camaraderie developed among the conference attendees. The value of the professional networking that takes place at this annual conference cannot be overstated. Not only have I posed questions to the executive director’s user group, I have revised our yahrzeit notification letter based on a question posed by another executive director. I wasn’t seeking information to make changes to our notification letter but such great suggestions were made that I chose to incorporate them. Though done without fanfare, our institutions are the beneficiaries of the best practices shared through this network of executive directors.

Whether big changes, like discussions of revising synagogue By-Laws to include leadership succession plans, or small adjustments in practice, like being reminded to set up an outlook alarm to check the synagogue’s AED battery – executive directors came away from the conference with practical information that will impact their day-to-day operations and their synagogue’s service to members. These aren’t always changes that will be noticed by the average congregant. These are changes that enhance the productivity, financial efficiency and services provided by the shul.

Synagogues are vested in the success of their executive director. Working closely with their rabbis and presidents, the executive director is often the face of the congregation, overseeing many facets including maintenance of a beautiful and often historically-significant facility, coordinating simcha events and Yom Tov celebrations, and trying to make everyone happy with their High Holiday seats. The job of the executive director is 24 hours a day and, for those who daven in the shuls where they work, seven days a week.

The central message, time and again over the course of the conference, was that more important than all the leaky roofs, bulletin typos and seating charts, the executive directors of OU synagogues are in the business of helping people and making a difference in their lives. While a vigorous schedule of presenters left little free time, the conference was a respite for participants– a time to focus with colleagues on how to do better and how to be better.

The OU’s annual conference invigorates the executive director, provides insights on how individuals can improve in their positions, and displays concrete ideas to bring to home communities to enhance the experience of all congregants.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. Perhaps one day it will be held in Omaha.

Beth Cohen is the Executive Director of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska

To learn more, please click: OU Synagogue Services | Congregation Support Network or visit:

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.