Potomac’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek Takes Road to Strength

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Years ago, Diane Snyder Steren declined an opportunity to become her synagogue’s president. She might have done so again last year if not for Sulam.

Steren, president of Potomac, Maryland’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek, still had children at home the first time she was considered for the job. What’s more, she wasn’t interested “without a goal.”

“I didn’t want to be a reactive president,” Steren, a physician, said in an interview. “I wanted to have something to work toward.”

Enter Sulam, a collection of expertly developed curricula created by USCJ and funded entirely by membership dues. It’s goal: to strengthen the various leadership elements of kehillot, the Jewish communities inside and outside the walls of a synagogue. For Steren and her congregation, the Sulam experience can be summed up in the expression Hazak, Hazak -- to go from strength to strength. That’s exactly what B’nai Tzedek has done, using one successful Sulam experience as a jumping-off point for another, and in turn creating a comprehensive strategic vision for its future, a healthier board and a fully prepared Steren.

“Sulam in Hebrew means ladder, but until 2011, it was a one-rung ladder,” says Robert Leventhal, who was hired by USCJ to expand the offering that for decades had only included Sulam for Presidents. “Part of its power is that it keeps you striving, spiritually and managerially, to be better. You move up. So, we began to think of it as a system, not a program. That’s a huge idea.”

Establishing Fundamentals

The first new element Leventhal created was Sulam for Current Leaders, a toolkit that offers webinars, guides and articles to kehilla boards, addressing six fundamental questions: Where are we going? What will this process be like? How will we take these steps? Who will do what? How will we work with lay staff? And how do we get more people involved?

“I’ve rarely visited a congregation where the board hasn’t been made up of extremely bright intellectuals,” said Nadine Kochavi, a USCJ transformation specialist who, with Leventhal and Aimee Close, helps oversee Sulam. “The translation from running their business to a not-for-profit synagogue is different. I’m told that time and time again. It’s not the same.”

Next, USCJ launched Sulam for Emerging Leaders, a path for congregations to harness the 35-45-year-old congregants who currently have busy lives -- and potential to be great future leaders. Research led USCJ to take the approach that this generation doesn’t want to be hustled into joining boards and committees, says Leventhal.

“Emerging Leaders isn’t about how to run a meeting; it’s the why, not the what,” Leventhal says. “Why should I, as an adult, lean in and be part of a Jewish community?”

Since its 2011 inception, more than 1,500 people have graduated Sulam for Emerging Leaders and half have then taken some sort of leadership role. More than 100 rabbis have led groups at their respective kehillot.

Steren was on the B’nai Tzedek board when she met Leventhal at a congregation leadership retreat. It was there she learned about Sulam for Strategic Planners, setting her on the path to where she is today. She went to her then-synagogue president and said she’d love to work on strategic planning, but only if they did Sulam.

Learning Strategy

“In the few attempts we did without Sulam, it didn’t work,” she says now. “Unless you do it professionally, I don’t know how you would know to do this.”

Because it is intensive, requiring the buy-in of just about all congregational elements, USCJ requires kehillot to apply for Sulam for Strategic Planning, with the rabbi and board both participating in the application.

It takes 12-18 months to even create the 3-5-year strategic plan. An independent effort to do as much would have cost B’nai Tzedek anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, money that just wasn’t in the budget. With USCJ membership, it was free.

Steren knew the lengthy initiative had no shot at success without the enthusiast support of B’nai Tzedek’s founding rabbi, Stuart Weinblatt, and that’s exactly what she got.

While there’s a strong sense of partnership between B’nai Tzedek’s clergy and lay leadership, Sulam has the potential to create as much for congregations not so fortunate, says Rabbi Weinblatt.

“It’s one of the crown jewels USCJ offers,” Rabbi Weinblatt said in an interview. “It’s a chance to help us be thoughtful leaders; to develop thoughtful leaders, so that we’re not just reacting to the boiler bursting or roof needing to be repaired, but to see those things in the context of the bigger perspective.”                               

Comprehensive Analysis

For Strategic Planning, the group analyzed data on issues such as financing and demographics. They took surveys to benchmark the synagogue against others. They established priorities, creating task forces for education, ritual, sustainability and leadership. And they did it all with constant support of USCJ. The development portion of the plan is now complete and B’nai Tzedek is fully engaged in its future.

Upon taking the presidency, Steren also signed up for Sulam for Presidents, “focusing on what was needed and what I had to do.”

The board participated in Sulam for Current Leaders, six sessions that helped the group engage through more than just budget reports.

This fall, B’nai Tzedek will participate in USCJ’s newest offering, Sulam for Purposeful Living, a seven-session engagement and leadership program to help baby boomer congregants reflect, re-energize and re-imagine their personal and communal lives.

For Rabbi Weinblatt, Sulam for Purposeful Living is an extension of a group he himself has led for years, having responded to a half-dozen seniors who wanted “to find out what life was about.”

Leading the men’s group is “one of the most gratifying things I’ve done as a rabbi,” Weinblatt says. “Sulam for Purposeful Living will be a chance to bring other people in.”

As for the Sulam offering not yet on the B’nai Tzedek schedule -- Emerging Leaders -- it’s just a matter of time, Steren says.

“I’d love to do that,” she said. “For me and my synagogue, USCJ has been a great organization to work with.”

                                           

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