OU’s Helping Hand to Synagogue Presidents

25 Sep 2006

OU’s Helping Hand to Synagogue Presidents:

That synagogue presidents don’t have an easy job is an understatement. To be effective, they must put much time and effort into what is a volunteer position. Yes, they have honor within their congregations and often sit on the bima, but the position can be a double-edged sword, especially if the shul is grappling with controversial issues – such as the tenure of a rabbi or falling revenues and membership. Unlike rabbis, who have their rabbinical organization support groups, presidents have no formalized body to turn to for advice – or at least they didn’t until now. Thanks to the Orthodox Union, help is on the way.

In an ongoing effort to increase its communications with synagogue presidents and to give them a greater voice, the OU has established the Presidents’ Forum, an e-mail discussion group to allow free exchange of ideas on subjects having to do with the synagogue and the Jewish community. The Forum is open to the presidents (and executive board members) of OU member congregations – there are hundreds of them – across North America. Consequently, if a president in Toronto has a problem that a president in Phoenix can address, help will be on the way across the miles and even across national boundaries.

According to Frank Buchweitz, National Director of the OU Department of Community Services, “There are no limitations to the scope of the discussions, as long as they pertain to synagogue and community issues. Postings can be in all areas of halacha (Jewish law); hashkafa (Jewish thought and philosophy); relations with professional staff; the handling of difficult situations; ideas for working with different constituencies (youth, seniors, etc.); events; religious and political issues; Israel and similar concerns.”

As Orthodox Union President Stephen J. Savitsky – in a sense, the President-in-Chief — explained, “We speak to our shul leaders all the time on a one-to-one basis, when they contact us with problems, or are looking for advice. We are constantly in touch with them about OU initiatives. We work with them – but presidents do not often work with other presidents. Who better than a president who has grappled with a particular situation to advise his counterpart on a similar situation? They are in the trenches together.”

Mr. Savitsky should know – he has been president of his own congregation.

The Presidents’ Forum is another in a series of Orthodox Union initiatives to provide advice and expertise to OU member synagogues. Regional leadership conferences on synagogue management are held across the country on a regular basis, in which OU experts discuss fund raising, leadership development and other key factors in a congregation’s health. This winter, the OU held a seminar for the gabbai – the layman who assists in the running of the synagogue service – to provide advice on matters such as dealing with noise, distributing aliyahs to the Torah and other honors, and when to correct the Torah reader when he makes a mistake; the program was repeated with great success recently in Los Angeles. The OU Kosher Division visits synagogues to provide insights into the complex world of kashrut. Now comes the President’s Forum.

The Forum will be moderated by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, Director of Synagogue Services for the OU’s West Coast Region in Los Angeles. Postings will be archived on the OU’s website, www.ou.org, in a special area which presidents can enter with a password.

In guidelines provided by Rabbi Korobkin, who will act as moderator, postings must contain the name of the president – no anonymous mail will be accepted. In addition, they should be written in the style of a letter to the editor, and not exceed 150 words. Presidents will receive approximately one e-mail every two weeks from the Forum with a digest of the period’s postings; they can then respond with their suggestions.

“We look forward to lively dialogue” said Mr. Savitsky. “Presidents will become pen pals through the Forum. With Rabbi Korobkin and Frank Buchweitz monitoring the messages, we will be able to determine if a particular issue is arising on a wide scale and needs an OU response – such as the OU call to ban the so-called “Kiddush Clubs” last year when they were getting out of hand. What we see will guide us. The presidents will speak, and as always, the OU will be listening – as well as other presidents and board members. They will strengthen one another on behalf of Klal Yisrael.”