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  • Caroline Dorn

Want to Be a Better Lay-Leader? It Starts In Your Inbox.

“And….TIME,” the synagogue religious school administrator calls, staring with intent at her watch. The seconds tick on.


No, it’s not a relay race. It’s noon on a Tuesday, the week of the K-5 Shabbat Dinner, that she and her colleagues have been planning for six weeks. She turns the online registration form off, exports the guest list, and begins sending emails. To the caterer, with the final number they’d been asking for, to the maintenance manager, who would have preferred to have known the amount of tables and chairs necessary last Tuesday when he was figuring out how much labor was needed for the month, and to the planning committee, who has asked her for a headcount every week since the registration went live a month and a half ago. The stated deadline to register has passed, and now she can finally begin to do all of the rest of the work that gets squeezed into the final 3 days before a big event: the room setups, the food, drinks and materials, the printed list of confirmed registrants to be checked off as guests arrive, and about a thousand other tasks. She works on this for days, excited to see weeks of meticulous planning come to fruition.


On Thursday morning, she opens her inbox to the following subject lines:

“Is it too late to register for tomorrow?” “Need to add 2 more to my registration - grandparents are in town.” “I know registration is over but can my family squeeze in? We don’t eat much! ;)”

“The link says registration is closed. Please fix it.”


It’s a familiar scene for anyone who’s worked in synagogue administration, and it’s one that Jewish communal professionals plan for. If the website said that registration is due by the 9th because the caterer needs a final number, it’s likely they needed it by the 11th. If the “final” headcount was 60 adults and 30 children, we count on that plus 15%, preferring to order too much pizza and salad than suffer the shul staffer nightmare of not having enough food at an event we organized. As people who are in the business of building community, we do everything in our power to not have to say no to anybody, knowing that plans change and that welcoming people in our Social Hall doors is our mission and our joy. Late registrations mean reprinted materials, frantic calls to the now-annoyed restaurant, and yes, a third pass at a room setup. We expect this and are able to navigate it with congregants and colleagues (it’s part of the job!). But when the ask to make an exception comes from someone who is in a position of synagogue lay-leadership, it causes more than a few extra pre-event jitters. We assume good intent from everyone, but we expect something much more basic of our lay-leadership: Please read the emails.


Please don’t be the leader who disrespects the work by being oblivious to a stated deadline. Please don’t be the leader who expects staff to move mountains to accommodate every congregant, but is first in line for dinner while the staff is holding back, wondering if there is enough, because of last-minute registrations. In the synagogue staffing community, frustration about the people we serve not reading emails is a common theme. (So much so that our RogueShul “It Was In The Email” water bottle has become a coveted accessory among synagogue professionals!) We understand this phenomenon. We certainly don’t read every email that comes to our personal inboxes, and of course sometimes things get missed, or plans need to change, or we are the ones to make a mistake in deadline or process. We are not asking you to be superhuman. We’re asking you to be leaders, and to set the example.

Please embody your leadership role by reading every email, even the ones that you don’t feel apply to you. They all apply to you, because you sit in board meetings and make decisions on these programs, these budgets, these visions. When one assumes a leadership role, it is no longer enough to know the bare minimum, or to check in to what’s happening at the temple only when you start to think about what your family might do for Shabbat dinner this week. It is the job not just to have an overall sense of the programs and happenings at the synagogue, but to participate in the congregation in the way the staff members have so carefully designed. Circumventing the process is not a benefit to lay-leadership, it is an undermining of the community values one has been nominated to embody. This goes beyond the inbox! The task of strong leadership is to make thoughtful decisions based on data and knowledge. Without up-to-date information, no board can make quality decisions that take every factor into account, and the totality of the information needed cannot be found on a spreadsheet at a board meeting. We want you to see the visions come to life, understand the work that is happening, and view with your own eyes how much it really takes to do the sacred work of building community. Please, come to the programs! Stop by to take a tour of the preschool, get a sense of what a Sunday morning at religious school is really like before participating in a discussion about budgeting for more educators or additional administrative support. If you haven’t been to a Mah Jong group or Brotherhood gathering ever, come! Come even if it’s not the program that fulfills you spiritually or socially. It is not enough to have been to b’nei mitzvah or Tot Shabbat services when your own children were young. Your presence is meaningful and important. The work happening in your community is robust and exciting, and the gateway to it all can be found in your weekly email. Please read it!


As for the school administrator with the tight Shabbat Dinner deadline: She’s going to find a way to accommodate you, because that’s what excellent shul staffers do. But next time, consider being the first to register, on time and with the intent of representing lay-leadership at an event your staff have put an exceptional amount of work into. Show up early and ask how you can help. Be the one to pick up the emergency extra desserts, without being asked. Grab more chairs, talk to the new members, run off a few extra copies when you notice the stack is low. Being a board member means being the first to step up, not the last to sign up.



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