Being a congregational rabbi is one of the most difficult jobs. It requires a tremendous amount of technical knowledge as well as skills in multiple areas. In meeting the intense demands of this job, rabbis make many sacrifices. For choosing this career – key to the continuity of the Jewish people – you have our gratitude and admiration.
No matter how skilled a rabbi is, he can benefit from suggestions from those on the other side of the pulpit on how to be a more effective rav. Many of these suggestions, from a congregant’s perspective, are well known. Some you may disagree with, while others may not be appropriate for your congregation. A rav certainly does not have to fulfill all of them to be a great congregational rabbi. This article was written with the hope that something here will be of use to you in guiding your congregants to live a Torah life. The suggestions are divided into four areas: Care, respect, teach and grow. Start by implementing a point below which resonates with you, and build from there.
1. Care. Congregants need to feel important in their rabbi’s eyes, that he cares about them. Here are ways to show your congregants you care:
a. Avoid playing favorites. As best you can, treat congregants equally and show an interest in each one; learn their names and what they do during the week. Be friendly to everyone. During the kiddish and at shul events, do not schmooze only with those who approach you; work the room and especially focus on those who are not talking to others. Not playing favorites also applies to inviting congregants to your home for a Shabbat meal. It should either be clear which type of people you invite, e.g., singles and single parents etc., or work your way through the list, inviting each person and family over, space permitting.
b. Encourage your congregants to care for each other. Emphasize the importance of treating everyone – even nonmembers – with basic decency: Not to kick someone out of their seat, not to ignore people and bypass them for aliyot and the amud, to wish good Shabbos to those sitting next to them, to welcome new people, to invite those who are looking for meals, and to be extra friendly and attentive to those who are frequently marginalized by society: Orphans, children from single parent homes, converts, singles, widows, widowers, divorcees, senior citizens, and those with disabilities or a weak Jewish background. Create a warm, friendly, and accepting environment, where congregants look out for each other and newcomers feel welcomed. Creating such an environment starts with you; you have to be one of the first to approach a newcomer and be extra attentive to those in need. Your congregants will model your behavior.
c. Do not use a one-size-fits-all approach. Shuls are filled with varied populations – kids, teenagers, singles, couples, empty nesters and seniors – each with unique needs. Meet those needs as best you can and when possible, solicit input as to what would be beneficial to them. Ask your congregants for programming ideas, and drasha and class topics. This can be done informally, with email surveys, or groups of members meeting to share ideas.
d. Have competent staff. If the shul office staff is friendly and competent, congregants feel cared for.
e. Be aware of resources. Every community has resources to which you can refer congregants. Have shul committees that can be mobilized to assist those in need. Delegate so you do not have to do everything yourself. When referring your congregants out for help, follow up with them to ensure their needs are being met.
f. Make introductions. For meals, jobs, friendships, dates, study partners etc.
g. Respond quickly to any email sent to you personally. You can do this by sending a short reply thanking the person for the email. If a lengthier reply is needed, give them an estimated time frame of when you will get back to them.
h. Meet with your congregants. Encourage your congregants to meet with you or call to discuss concerns. This shows you are interested in them and available to help. This will help you address simmering issues such as marital discord or problems with kids before they boil over.
i. Call your congregants. Reach out to them if you have not seen them in a while or heard they are experiencing difficulties. Emailing is second best. Keep a list of congregants to visit, call or email on a regular basis.
j. Compliment and encourage your congregants. Look for opportunities to compliment your congregants and express appreciation for what they do for the shul and community. Encourage them in whatever challenges they are dealing with. Do not underestimate your power as a rav; the impact of every act you do and every word you say is magnified. Your congregants will remember and cherish your kindness and thoughtfulness for years to come.
2. Respect. When you show people you care about them, you show them respect. Not talking down to your congregants and appreciating the challenges they face are other ways of showing respect. This section though, is about how to help them respect you. Your congregants have to respect you to benefit most from what you have to offer. Instead of trying to get your congregants to like you, focus instead on getting them to respect you; that is much more important. Here are some suggestions to project a persona people will respect:
a. Look the part. Dress well and be mindful of your posture. If you are very young looking, although not necessary, you may benefit from a beard, even a short, trimmed one. People frequently associate a beard with rabbis and will often show you more respect if you have one.
b. Act the part. You are a role model and people are watching you, e.g., come on time to minyan, follow along with the laining, do not check your e-mail during davening etc. How you act will either make a kiddish Hashem or God forbid, the opposite. Always remember (Bamidbar 32:22), “Veheyeasem nikeayim” and avoid any hint of impropriety. Areas to be extra careful about are the use of communal funds, and dealings with children and women, ensuring that proper behavior and boundaries are maintained at all times.
c. Speak the part. Do not use slang or any other way of speaking or acting beneath your dignity; it is unbecoming of a rav. Your goal is not to pal around with your congregants. Your goal is to be their rav and role model.
d. Do not make disparaging jokes, even if the butt of your jokes tells you they do not mind. It is inappropriate to make fun of others and people will think less of you because of it. Also do not make self-deprecating comments or publicize your flaws and weaknesses, unless you are doing so for a specific reason; congregants generally do not want to hear about what their rabbi does not do well.
e. Do not talk during davening or allow it in your shul. First, it is the halacha. Second, your congregants are expecting you to set the tone for davening and ensure proper decorum. For how one shul addressed the issue of talking during davening, click here.
f. Do what you say you will do. When you keep your word, people will respect and trust you.
g. Apologize. Everyone makes mistakes. Great leaders, who command respect, apologize and take responsibility for their mistakes.
h. Be decisive and definitive. This gives congregants a feeling of confidence in their rav and in the halachic process. Part of being decisive is to prepare in advance, making sure you are familiar with synagogue customs and upcoming changes to the davening.
i. Command respect. Do not act obsequiously with congregants. You represent the dvar Hashem and must act in a manner that commands respect. When a rabbi tolerates slights to his honor, the authority of his position is weakened. Enlist the help of the gabbai and lay leadership, to teach your congregation to treat you respectfully, e.g., lining up to greet you after davening on Shabbat, speaking deferentially, standing up when you enter the room or pass by, honoring you before others etc.
j. “Be bold as a leopard” (Avot 5:20). A rabbi must be willing, if necessary, to confidently tell the president of the shul, a board member or a big donor, “No, the shul cannot do that.” Refuse to yield to pressure. This is where your Yirat Shamayim will be tested. Formulate your position and for controversial issues, when possible, quote a respected rabbi to back up your position. Ironically, if your congregants feel they can push you around and that you lack backbone, you will lose their respect. Although your congregants will test you, deep down they want a rabbi who has principles and who will be their moral compass. (At the same time, know how to choose your battles and be flexible when possible. You do not want to be unnecessarily rigid or confrontational.)
A rabbi must always act like a mensch, being considerate of others and treating them well. At the same time, avoid the mistake of being “too nice,” a people pleaser who is overly concerned about not upsetting others. Congregants want their rabbi to be a strong leader, one who is not afraid of confrontation, when necessary. They want a leader who will do what’s right, even if that means taking an unpopular stance.
3. Teach. A major role of a rabbi is to be a teacher. Here are some ideas on how to make the most of this role.
a. Give a daily empowering message. Many congregational rabbis speak at least twice daily, after Shacharit, and between Mincha and Maariv. After Shacharit, consider giving an empowering message, perhaps related to the parsha, so that your congregants will begin their day with a positive mindset. Between Mincha and Maariv, if you teach halacha, keep it simple and practical. During that small window of time, avoid halachot with difficult to understand rationales or those that involve uncommon or complicated scenarios.
b. Teach both halacha and spirituality. Have classes where you systematically go through halacha, so congregants know what to do. Before each holiday, give a refresher course on key halachot or email a summary. Also teach spirituality. A number of rabbis have said that one of their biggest struggles is teaching spirituality, the heart and soul of Yiddishkeit. To help people learn and teach spirituality in a comprehensive fashion, I formulated, “The Chazak Plan, a 12 month journey to spiritual strength.” Each month focuses on a different area and each week, I email subscribers a pertinent article. You and/or your congregants can subscribe for free at www.yaakovweiland.blogspot.com and more information is available at www.thechazakplan.com. Alternatively, devise your own plan, where each month you focus on a different topic.
c. Give them a geshmak in learning. Share with your congregants the sweetness of Torah. If there is a topic you are especially passionate about, teach that. While any area of Torah study can give people a geshmak – if taught well and if they are so inclined – some areas to give especial consideration to are: In-depth gemarah, responsa (concluding with how we paskin) chassidic thought, midrash, Ein Yaakov and Tanach. Try different areas to find what resonates most with your congregants.
d. Advertise and promote your classes. Use all means at your disposal to promote your classes, e.g., social media, email (individual and mass), and speak about your classes both one on one and publicly. When advertising a class, do not send notices at the last minute, as this does not give people time to arrange their schedules. Send multiple notices, at least one before the class and one the morning of. In addition, include the topic and teasers – things of interest to be covered in the class which will help draw participants. (Make sure to cover your teasers in the class, otherwise you lose credibility.) If possible, serve food during at least one of your classes as an added draw.
e. Aim high when teaching. Often, you teach classes with participants from varied backgrounds. Try to use language understandable to all. At the same time, do not try to get everyone to understand each point before moving on. If you do this, the advanced students may lose interest and you may be mistakenly perceived as a lightweight who lacks scholarship. Better to teach with an eye toward the mid to upper level of the class. (If you have many beginners, offer a class specifically geared toward them).
f. Be judicious in taking questions. To maintain the flow of a class, sometimes it is best to put questions on hold. In addition, some questions are best answered after the class. If you take too many questions, especially tangential ones, people may lose interest and not come back. It is a delicate balance of encouraging participation but still keeping the pace moving.
g. Include the rebbetzin. If possible, enlist the rebbetzin to teach a weekly or monthly class for women. Rebbetzins who do not like to teach can find someone else to do so and look for other ways to have a positive impact on the women and be a role model for them.
h. Give a take home message. In the drasha, focus on a practical and empowering message, with examples on how to apply it. Do not be afraid to express your passion and enthusiasm for Judaism. Aim to encourage and inspire; chassidic vorts are treasure troves of inspirational thought. People love jokes and stories. But do not overdo the jokes or use lowbrow humor; they detract from the reverence and awe one needs to have when conveying a Torah thought. When possible, start off with a joke or a humorous story and weave in anecdotes throughout your speech to drive home your point. Keep the drasha on the short side, as there is a point of diminishing returns. Pay attention to the ending of the drasha, aiming to end on an uplifting note.
i. Build, do not destroy. Some rabbis give classes where they take a cherished concept of Judaism and dismantle it, telling the participants that everything they thought they knew about this concept might not be true after all. At the end of the class, the rabbis try to put the pieces back together with the hope that a deeper understanding emerges. While perhaps intellectually stimulating, this type of class can do more harm than good. If the rabbi does a better job dismantling the concept than rebuilding it, the participants leave with their faith in foundational beliefs shaken.
A similar tactic is to take a Jewish hero or heroine and come up with new flaws and failures not mentioned by the Sages. The hope is that this makes these personalities more real. Unfortunately, what can happen is that our respect and reverence for these great leaders becomes compromised. Better to stick to the failings mentioned by the Sages, and not conjecture about new possibilities.
j. Have a clear goal. Before teaching a class or lecture, think about what you want the participants to walk away with. Optimally, they should come away with one or more of the following: 1. Inspiration 2. Practical advice or instruction 3. An appreciation for the depth and beauty of the Torah.
k. Look for varied settings to teach Torah and have a positive impact on your congregants. For example, invite them for Shabbat meals, have onegs, melava malkas etc.
l. Encourage your congregants to grow. Try to keep track of objective measures of growth so you can get a sense of if they are growing spiritually or not, e.g., how friendly they are to newcomers, the amount of chessed they do, synagogue decorum, their dress (more women dressing modestly and more men wearing kippot or caps outside the synagogue) the halachic and hashkafic questions they ask, their attendance at classes and minyan, the number of people learning with a chavrusa, the types of schools and summer camps they send their kids, etc. If your congregants remain stagnant – i.e., they have not improved their character traits, Yirat Shamayim, Ahavat Hashem or Shmirat Hamitzvot – that is a sign you have to go back to the drawing board. Some rabbis coddle their congregants and do not encourage them to develop spiritually and strengthen weak areas. Your congregants are depending on you to guide them to proper behavior. Do not let them down.
Some mistakenly measure the success of a rabbi based on the number of people who attend his drashas. The true test of a rabbi is the level of impact he has on his congregants – the extent to which he helps them fulfill their potential to live a Torah life.
A tool which can help your congregants grow is for them to pick one change they will implement on a daily or weekly basis to enhance their relationship with Hashem and their connection to Judaism. For some ideas, see, “The 10 Item Daily Checklist.”
4. Grow. Grow with your congregants, both spiritually and professionally. Here are some suggestions how:
a. Increase your humility, Yirat Shamayim and Ahavat Hashem. Perhaps the most important quality of a synagogue rabbi is genuineness: Genuine caring for others and genuine humility, Yirat Shamayim and Ahavat Hashem. The more genuine you are, the more your congregants will be receptive to your teachings, and vice versa; without sincerity, one’s impact will be minimal.
Genuineness cannot be cultivated directly; it flows from a wellspring of humility, Yirat Shamayim and Ahavat Hashem. To enhance all three, consider engaging in Hitbodedut and learn works which focus on these topics, e.g., Mesilat Yesharim, Chovot Halevavot etc. Also learn Nidchei Yisrael by the Chofetz Chaim, a work suffused with these qualities. He wrote this work, recently translated into English, for people who left their European communities to settle in places like America. He discusses how to strengthen one’s commitment to live a Torah life.
b. Enhance your skills. Develop your strengths and shore up key weaknesses. Watch videos or listen to recordings of yourself to give yourself feedback. Watch videos of gifted speakers to see what works for others. Ask people for feedback on your drashas and classes – both the weak and strong points. Continue to develop the skillsets you draw upon most, e.g., public speaking, voice projection, interpersonal relations, leadership, time management etc.
The rabbinate, from the perspective of a congregant, could arguably be divided into three key areas: 40% the drasha, 40% interactions with the rabbi and 20% everything else. If the congregants do not like the rabbi as a person or do not like his drashas, it does not bode well for him. Consider focusing first on the area within which you are most weak, either public speaking or interpersonal skills, and then move on from there.
c. Have a mentor. A senior rav you speak to regularly for guidance and with whom you discuss your struggles. One of his roles will be to help you stay anchored in the authentic mesorah and not drift off course and be poreitz geder, God forbid.
d. Have a support network. Develop relationships with respected colleagues and friends to whom you turn to for advice and encouragement.
e. Set aside a significant amount of time each day for Torah learning. That is the only way to deepen your Torah knowledge and continue to be a mayan hamisgaber, for yourself, your family and your congregants.
When your congregants sense that you really care about them and about doing the ratzon Hashem, they will respect you and want you to teach them Torah; together you will grow to great heights.
Being an amazing congregational rabbi is very challenging. But with effort, natural ability and lots of tefilla and Siyata Dishmaya it can be done. The impact you will have will last for generations.
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