Leadership development at shul: featuring a Separated-at-Birth quiz

At our synagogue, Temple Shalom of Newton, a year ago at the High Holidays our temple president talked about how uninvolved he had been in temple life about 8-10 years before and the slow, incremental process of engagement by which he ended up becoming president. He asked everyone to raise their hand who had nothing to do with the shul except coming for High Holidays, and when many sheepishly held up their hands, he said, congratulations,  you are halfway to becoming temple president! For many reasons, I don’t think that is in my future, but this week I joined two different temple committees/programs.

The first is the search committee for a full-time cantor. Growing up in the Reform movement, and in particular at the apex (nadir? apogee?) of Reform-ness in the 70s and 80s with a rabbi who pretty much rejected all the trappings and traditions of the faith, I had no idea what a cantor was. Since then I’ve had some brief experience with both a traditional, operatic male cantor at a Conservative temple my parents belonged to, and also guitar-strumming young female cantors at the traveling High Holidays service offered in town by the local Reform movement. And I’ve also listened probably three hundred times, mostly while driving in Portugal, to the Oy Baby! CD of beautiful child-friendly arrangements of Jewish classix by the singin’ Schneiderman Sisters of Portland, Oregon.

With all this expertise I was, naturally, a no-brainer pick for the cantor search committee and I am glad to be on it. The rabbis, board members, music committee chairs, lifelong singers and other machers have a lot to learn from someone like me. It was a karmically arranged prompt for me to start reading The New Rabbi, a book about the search for the head rabbi at a big Conservative temple outside Philadelphia, which I gave to Amy’s mom nine years ago while she was on the pastor search committee at her church.

I have also joined a group of temple leaders and staff in a series of gatherings called “Project Honi” that is working through some exercises from the management world aimed at getting the temple to an even better place as an institution. It was a fun and stimulating first gathering, if for no other reason than to meet some of the (actual) temple lay leadership and hear their perspectives. We watched a video of management guru Jim Collins giving a talk based on a recent book of his about how great institutions fall. The talk was given to a church-hosted gathering that our temple’s leadership attended last year and which impressed upon them the potential for Collins’ “good to great” thinking to inspire our temple at a time of several important transitions.

Now without question Collins’ framework, with thought exercises like “count your blessings–literally” and “who is on your bus” (i.e. who are the people in key leadership roles, are they right for your institution, what’s your plan if not), provides many good opportunities to motivate our group to work in a focused way on planning for the temple’s future. I am glad to have the chance to be part of the group as we address these questions together. But it must be said that Collins comes across as a fairly smarmy, self-congratulatory guy who acts as though he has to install an enormous step-down transformer to avoid electrocuting his audience with the sheer force of his brilliance. While we were watching I was struck by the physical resemblance of Collins to Alan Cumming, the Scottish-born actor who hosts “Masterpiece.” Tell me if I’m dreaming here. Something about the little moue that hovers on Collins’ face. I think this could be a great new role for Cumming if he needs the work.

Jim Collins, former "Cabaret" star

Alan Cumming, management scholar and motivational speaker

One thought on “Leadership development at shul: featuring a Separated-at-Birth quiz

  1. I always love reading your blog, this one also, although it’s more serious. But, who needs serious on Sunday?!

    To wit – if I have watched the Scotch Alan C. once I’ve watched him 50 xs on Masterpiece, and he is the essence of a self aware, “watch me being guileful” actor – could this be true about a “Great” management guru guy, too? hmmm…maybe so.

    My wish – that the Temple find a traditionally knowledgeable cantor who sings some of the traditional chants as well as new fangled finger pickin’ guitar stuff – I could do without all of that, but I know it’s here to stay.
    If such a cantor exists, and can be hired for more than a travelin’ year, I would join the shul, just to come and hear him/her. I always loved some of the cantors from my youthful days in Manhattan shuls, and Cantor Osborne at Emmanuel was A+ until we left…

    Good to read your thoughts!

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