“Good Shabbos, everyone; here is the schedule for the rest of today.”
Delivering weekly announcements is the most public role a shul president has. It’s also the least time consuming. There’s so much more that goes into rallying Jews of disparate opinions into a common purpose and mission. From 2017 until 2020 I had the privilege of serving as the president of Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, N.J. With nearly 300 member families, Shomrei Torah is a warm, inviting shul where black hats and ba’alei teshuva daven and socialize seamlessly side by side. Fair Lawn, a suburb in Bergen County, has a reputation as a non-judgmental, non-materialistic, down-to-earth Jewish community. As such, nearly 1,000 observant families, across seven Orthodox shuls, call Fair Lawn home.
Following are ten key lessons I learned through three years of experience leading the shul. Hopefully this list will not only help guide future presidents who take on this most meaningful volunteer endeavor, but also provide some valuable insights for anyone playing an active leadership role in their community.
- Appreciate the people who came before you. Many of the people you are trying to lead are the same people who held significant leadership positions in previous years. It’s important to recognize that your role is only possible because of the amazing volunteers who have given of their time and talents.
- Understand the difference between a customer and a member. Members ask, “How can I help?” Customers ask, “How can I get better service?” It’s important to remind members, who at times are unhappy about an event or program, to take a pause and realize it was organized by a volunteer. That volunteer had plenty of other things they could have done with their time.
- Value the relationships over the issues. It’s so much more important to maintain your friendships in the community than to fight to be right on any particular issue at the expense of a relationship. Any time I felt an issue become personal I immediately backed off and focused on strengthening the relationship over winning an argument. Remember, you’ll have to live in your community when your tenure is up.
- Recruiting matters, but member engagement matters even more. Yes, the goal to attract young families is important. Yes, you want to bring in the next generation of members and, hopefully, volunteers. But don’t lose sight of engaging the very members you already have. Scan the member list regularly and identify members who could use some love, support, and personal contact to keep them coming back and involved in the shul.
- Find your “Hang your Hat” projects. Shul presidency can be a time-consuming endeavor. The day-to-day details can easily swallow 100 percent of the time devoted to the gig. It’s important to early on identify two or three major initiatives for the membership to rally around. It’s best to cull these initiatives through a shul survey or focus group to ensure your efforts match membership desires.
- Put your ego aside. The presidency is a big responsibility and for two to three years you’ll feel like the face of the franchise. But time flies and soon you’ll be off the stage, back to sitting among your friends. Recognize that ultimately you’re a blip in the storied history of your shul. Take the job seriously, of course, but avoid getting caught up in your title.
- Surround yourself with the right team. You’ll spend many hours, and some long nights, with your leadership or executive team. As president, take part in forming that team. Look for complementary skills, motivated people, and most importantly members you’ll enjoy working with on a regular basis.
- Serve as your rabbi’s co-pilot. Build a trusting, productive, jointly beneficial partnership with your shul rabbi. Some issues will be halachic and others will be administrative. Still, the more you can openly talk about everything regarding the future of the shul the stronger your relationship will be. Further, members will appreciate that the president and rabbi are on the same page.
- Network with other shul presidents. They say it’s lonely at the top. It doesn’t have to be if you network with other local shul presidents. Share best practices, exchange ideas, and view yourselves as Jewish leaders working together toward a better tomorrow for your whole community.
- Apply the very Torah values we are learning every day. We are all attending classes and shiurim focused on Torah values. Simply applying these values to your leadership model is a great roadmap. Mainly, treat your fellow Jews with kindness, be slow to anger, and lend a helping hand to anyone in need.
Leading Shomrei Torah ultimately became one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life. It was truly an honor to serve with Rabbi Benjamin Yudin as he transitioned to rabbi emeritus after 50 years while helping Rabbi Andrew Markowitz take the helm.
Three years. Ten lessons. One truly rewarding experience. Get involved in your local shul or a Jewish non-profit that speaks to you. The time spent, the care given, and the love shown will come back to you in ways you can’t even imagine.