OU Executive Directors Conference Brings Knowledge, Networking and Annual Reunion

25 Feb 2014

Rand Levin is the Synagogue Administrator for Beth Jacob Congregation in San Diego. But that wasn’t always his career path.  His first career was as a television cameraman. After many years of involvement at his synagogue, including four years as president, he only began thinking about becoming a full-time administrator after attending the National Synagogue Executive Directors’ Conference. “My first three years attending this conference was as a synagogue president. The whole thought to make it into a career was from the conference,” says Mr. Levin.  His story is not unique; as a result of past years’ events, several shuls have recognized the need to professionalize, and have subsequently hired Executive Directors.

The 6th annual National Synagogue Executive Directors’ Conference was hosted in Los Angeles this year. The Orthodox Union Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, along with host communities Beth Jacob, Young Israel of Century City, and B’nai David-Judea, welcomed Executive Directors and others from 35 shuls in 11 states and 5 Canadian provinces.

This year’s three-day conference built a connected theme into each day. Beginning with the theme Engage, Sunday’s discussion centered around creating a welcoming environment as well as the implications of the PEW Study. Monday’s theme was Communicate; Financial strategies, synagogue security, crisis communication, and new technology were just a few of the topics covered. Tuesday closed the conference, but not before lively discussion of topics related to Implement, including creating actionable items, winning people over to your plan, and program evaluation.

This conference is designed to provide professional development tools to Synagogue Executive Directors in order to strengthen their own skills, and in turn strengthen their synagogues. The goal is to both support communities, and provide a forum for Executive Directors to discuss challenges and best practices and to learn from each other. In fact, one of the best benefits to come out of the conference is the camaraderie. For those who have been coming for years, each conference is a meeting of old friends – as the newcomers quickly discover. “I’m leaving here knowing that I have a group of people I can rely on and relate to, and the feeling is mutual. Everyone is knowledgeable and helpful – they go out of their way to help,” says first-year attendee Lisa Zelenetz, Administrator of Shaare Tefilla in Dallas, Texas. Feelings of friendship and support were easily apparent by the final day of the conference, where inside jokes abounded and participants lingered to chat long after the conference had officially ended.

“The collegiality is really important,” says Rabbi Judah Isaacs, Director of the Department of Community Engagement at the OU. He explains that the OU maintains a Listserv where attendees can ask any questions they might have. “I don’t think that would work without the personal relationships they establish here each year.” Marvin Schenker agrees.  “People are more likely to respond and give of their time when they know you,” says Mr. Schenker, Executive Director of Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst in New York.  And having attended all six conferences, he knows what he’s talking about. “These people are incredible,” he adds.

He’s not the only one who thinks so.  “It was most inspiring and wonderful meeting different people knowing we do the same things differently, and can learn from everyone,” says Luba Allen, first-time attendee and Executive Director of Beth Israel in Edmonton, Alberta. “The ability to share and collaborate with colleagues around the country who experience the same things you do on a daily basis is invaluable,” adds Matthew Hocherman. “There is a real sense of camaraderie. You can share strengths and weaknesses that you might not be able to share with your shul members. You build ongoing relationships. Knowing that there are people who know what you do makes you feel that it’s worth it.”Mr. Hocherman, who is attending for the fourth time, is the Synagogue Administrator for the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida.

The weather presented an unexpected challenge to this year’s conference. It was a struggle for many participants to make it out of their snowed-in cities. But in the end there was only one cancellation – a testament to just how much people wanted to be here. And they were appreciative. “I’ve been in this industry for 15 years, and there’s always something new to learn. I want to thank the OU profusely for providing this to us,” says Reva Homnick, Administrator for Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft Lauderdale in Florida. Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast Director for the OU, expanded on that appreciation:  “Kudos to the staff for putting this together, and to the hosting synagogues. All too often people think the Jewish community ends at the Hudson River. But the OU has proven again and again that there’s a vibrant Jewish life outside the Metropolitan area and that the OU is committed to servicing and supporting synagogues from coast to coast.”

Supporting Jewish life is exactly what they aim for. “We really feel this is an important service we provide to synagogues,” says Rabbi Isaacs. Yehuda Friedman, Associate Director in the Department of Community Engagement and this year’s conference organizer, agrees: “The idea behind this conference – bringing people together to learn from one another and to strengthen communities – ties into the greater message of the OU as a synagogue network convened to bring shuls together. We see ourselves as a resource.” The conference was organized from New York by Mr. Friedman, in coordination with Alan Ishakis, Executive Director of Beth Jacob, Rebekah Jalali, Administrator of Young Israel of Century City, and Amram Hassan, Executive Director of B’nai David-Judea, as well as a committee of executive directors from across the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the organizers, the conference went very smoothly.

But in terms of what the conference accomplishes, Alan Domb, Executive Director of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto, Ontario, says it best: “Realizing that I have support out there transformed the position for me. Sometimes it feels like you’re all alone. It can seem like reinventing the wheel. Finding so much support has not only been an extremely rewarding experience, it reenergizes me. I bring back new passion to my congregation.”

Alisa Roberts is a freelance writer from Los Angeles.