Sharing Leadership: A Work in Process and Progress

November 1, 2007
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Jan Katzew

“Virtually everything I have done as a volunteer leader in the Reform movement from the congregation through my current position has been done in partnership with our professionals.”
—Robert Heller

“In any successful volunteer-professional partnership in the Reform movement, the participants must believe that the decision-making is a joint process. This requires a great deal of trust, respect, and faith in the partners who are working together.”
—Marilynn Yentis

These two statements by volunteer leaders in the Reform movement testify to a distinctive, if not defining, aspect of Reform Judaism. With the contraction of halakhic authority and the growth of congregational autonomy, decisions of religious policy and even practice are the shared province of professionals and volunteers. To be sure, the

balance between authority and autonomy is elusive and the partnership between professionals and volunteers is dynamic. In today’s era of professionalization, partnership often means that volunteers are directors that issue directives; they must assert lay ownership and share responsibility. Acknowledging imperfection and asymmetry in the partnership — at times the same vagaries as in any human relationship — is critical to the success of shared leadership. The partnership works more often in theory than in practice — sometimes ending in “divorce” or détente, but other times leading to synergy and symbiosis.

Rather than relying on poskim as arbiters of Jewish law (Orthodox) or members of a law committee (Conservative) to determine norms of Jewish practice, Reform Jewish thought and practice is shaped by a coalition that includes a seminary (HUC-JIR), an array of professional groups (CCAR, rabbis, ACC, cantors, NATE, ECE-RJ, and PARDeS, educators, and NATA, administrators), and a congregational system (URJ). Not surprisingly, decisions that engage this organizational matrix are time consuming, labor intensive, and process driven. For example, introducing a new siddur (Mishkan T’filah) involved multiple votes by rabbis and feedback from 300-plus congregations that piloted different drafts of the siddur. The result is also telling — a prayerbook in multiple versions, e.g., with and without transliteration, with and without weekday services. Developing a curriculum for congregational schools also required multiple layers of input from academics and practitioners, ongoing assessment, and continual refinement. This process-heavy attitude toward change can at times yield frustration but the prize of inclusiveness and the better outcomes it produces is perceived to be worth the price of inefficiency.

Helping to create a meaningful Jewish life for every Reform Jew is the shared responsibility of rabbis, cantors, educators, administrators, and lay persons working collaboratively. Collaboration has become more than a method of engagement; it has become a value and, perhaps, a goal. And as partnerships develop, we see volunteers take on roles as teachers, readers of Torah, and worship leaders (shelichei tsibur). In early rabbinic Judaism, zugot (pairs of rabbinic leaders) articulated principles of Jewish thought and practice. They often presented their ideas in tension with one another, e.g., the exegetical approaches of Akiva and Ishmael. An echo of the zugot in Reform Judaism would include a rabbi and a congregational president, a professional and a volunteer, walking and working together, in pursuit of a Torat Chayyim, a living Torah that is authentic and relevant, rooted in Jewish tradition and open to Jewish innovation.

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Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD, is Director of Lifelong Jewish Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). He co-authored this essay with Robert Heller, Esq., Chairman of the Board of the Union for Reform Judaism and Marilynn Yentis, Chair of the Reform Commission on Lifelong Jewish Learning.

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