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Many find Orthodox Union’s Synagogue Initiatives an invaluable resource

With 250 consults annually, the department is the go-to support network for synagogue executive directors

Executive coach Susan Kramer addresses conference participants. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.
Executive coach Susan Kramer addresses conference participants. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Adir Posy knows firsthand about the joys and challenges of being heavily involved in a synagogue; the national director of the Orthodox Union’s Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Initiatives also serves as the associate rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Calif. He says it is no secret that shul life can be both rewarding and stressful at times, particularly for shul administrators.

“Executive directors are involved in the core experiences of people’s spiritual lives,” says Posy. “It’s beautiful and inspiring because they can make a significant difference, and are there for others in times of joy and sadness. On the other hand, shuls are places where the entire community is emotionally invested. When people put their time, efforts, hearts, and souls into their community’s spiritual home, that can be both exciting and draining.”

Issues that administrators may contend with include budgeting, programming, membership retention and growth, volunteer recruitment and appreciation, conflict management and day-to-day operations.

Conference participants explore a shul scenario and introduce new approaches to consider. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

With the goal of strengthening communities, member congregations and their constituencies, the Department of Synagogue Initiatives provides vision, leadership and programmatic support to Orthodox communities and congregations throughout North America, and assists synagogues in problem-solving, growing, restructuring and sustaining their communities by infusing them with inspiration and professionalism.

The department conducts 250 operational consults annually with congregations throughout North America and Rabbi Posy typically visits a different shul or city every other week. This month, he plans to visit Cincinnati, New York, Toronto and Norfolk, Va., where he will assist with operations and board and professional development.

“The OU and our Department of Synagogue Initiatives truly believe in the primacy of shuls as centers of spirituality for Jewish life,” says Posy. “We really want to invest in those who are ensuring that the lifeblood of our community thrives, including rabbis, professionals, board members and volunteers. Our goal is to help people working in shul life to be successful.”

In an effort to support shul administrators whom Posy calls “heroes,” the Department of Synagogue Initiatives offers them unparalleled resources including leadership training, strategic planning skills, a bureau of inspiring speakers for shul programs, opportunities to connect via email and WhatsApp groups, an annual conference centered on networking and leadership development, and an online library of ideas and best practices on everything from general and holiday programming to membership growth and fundraising.

Executive directors Madeline Kramer, Alan Domb and Robert Schneider prepare for the program fair. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

As the executive director of Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst in New York, Alan Domb appreciates the array of services offered by the department to shuls, their boards and operations managers.

“The annual OU Executive Director and Administrator Conference and email and WhatsApp groups have been invaluable resources for synagogue networking and management support,” he says. “There is no need for shul administrators to reinvent the wheel when many of us have dealt with similar issues.

“The rich pool of community professionals with their plethora of experiences, skill sets and insights make the Department of Synagogue Initiatives the go-to sounding board for all things synagogue-related,” Domb continues. “Other support services, including synagogue board of directors consulting, mentorship, and professional development for executive directors are all valuable resources for synagogues to take advantage of.”

This year’s recent conference in Boca Raton, Fla., drew 36 participants from across the United States and Canada, the majority of whom return year after year. The three-day event at the Boca Jewish Center and Boca Raton Synagogue included individual meetings with a financial planner and an executive coach; small-group brainstorming sessions; lectures presented by experts on technological advances, creative fundraising and security planning; a program fair where administrators shared programming ideas; and a vendor fair featuring companies like book suppliers ArtScroll and Koren Publishers. A photographer also took professional headshots of each administrator.

Honorees Marvin and Esther Schenker are surrounded by executive directors from all over North America. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

Former executive director of Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst Marvin Schenker was honored with the “Distinguished Service Award” at a gala dinner for his decades-long commitment to excellence and his dedication to the vibrancy of shul life.

For Domb, who attended the conference for the 13th time, developing new connections and reuniting with friends from previous years was a conference highlight.

“The best takeaways, as always, were the relationships forged and enhanced with the group of directors I get to reconnect with each year,” he says. “It almost feels like a family reunion. Our mutual understanding of each others’ significant professional challenges creates a support network with a depth and clarity that could only exist with those experiencing our unique communal ‘behind-the-curtain’ perspectives.”

Beyond the opportunity to network and collaborate on a national scale, the conference also offered attendees a bit of respite from their daily work obligations and a chance to reflect from afar on additional ways they can thrive as emissaries of their shuls.

Rebecca Brown is the executive director of Congregation Or Torah in Skokie, Ill. This was her first year attending the conference and she appreciated learning from, and collaborating with, fellow seasoned professionals.

“I really enjoyed the sessions on problem-solving and conflict resolution, customer service—which is our business, goal-setting and new ways to fundraise,” says Brown. “It was awesome to be in a room with other individuals in the same role as mine, yet we all bring something different and unique to the table. I look forward to attending the conference again.”

Brown views the OU and the Department of Synagogue Initiatives as sources of tremendous support to her shul.

“Or Torah is grateful to have such a close relationship with the OU and we are indebted to the organization for their support when it comes to leadership opportunities, community development, and programming resources,” she says. “We know we can always rely on the OU to problem-solve and assist us with new synagogue initiatives.”

As the former spiritual leader of Baltimore’s Congregation Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion for over 26 years, OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer appreciates the tireless efforts and dedication of synagogue administrators.

“Communal professionals deserve our gratitude, recognition and support,” he says. “A thriving leadership paves the way for the success of the shul and the community at large. The OU is honored to be a source of support for those who dedicate their lives to the growth and betterment of the community.”

CONTACT: Rabbi Adir Posy, National Director, Orthodox Union Department of Synagogue Initiatives, (212) 613-8184, posya@ou.org

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
The Pepa and Joseph Karasik Department of Synagogue Initiatives aims to elevate the level of spiritual connection in the Jewish people by supporting the shul as a core institution of the community. The department works to empower rabbis and shul leaders by providing them access to experts, best practices and one another.
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