New Jewish Thought Policy Paper 1: Shalom @ Schul

Posted on November 2, 2008 in Default

This paper can be  downloaded as a pdf by clicking here.

By Jonathan Hoffman

Rabbi David Soetendorp

Professor Ruth Soetendorp


  1. The three authors of “Shalom@Shul” came together as a result of a letter published in the JC on 20 December 2007, written by David and Ruth Soetendorp.  Jonathan Hoffman is a lay member of Woodside Park United Synagogue where he led the “SaveOurRabbi” campaign. Publication of the letter in the JC came shortly before the departure of Rabbi Rader from Woodside Park. Rabbi David Soetendorp was Rabbi of Bournemouth Reform Synagogue for 33 years. His father, Rabbi Jacob Soetendorp, was Rabbi of Amsterdam LJG from 1954 to 1973. Rabbi David Soetendorp served as Chair of the Movement for Reform Judaism’s Rabbis’ Assembly from 1993 to 1995, during which time he dealt with cases involving employment of community Rabbis. Professor Ruth Soetendorp married David Soetendorp in the penultimate year of his rabbinic studies. She has been a community Rebbetzin since 1972.  During that time she has been a member of a UK support group for partners of progressive Rabbis and continues to be a member of HUCspouse – the USA online support group for partners of progressive Rabbis.

  2. What emerged from our initial informal meetings was that we had been involved in a number of cases where attempts (sometimes successful) had been made to oust Rabbis, by a small but powerful group of congregants, often operating undemocratically.   We agreed that when this happens the process is inevitably divisive and costly.  We knew that it deters good candidates from wanting to be communal Rabbis.  For example, for at least some of these candidates, Aish and the Jewish Learning Exchange are the employers of choice. We had personal and anecdotal evidence that it damages the social fabric of the community, and deters people from seeking synagogue membership and engaging in lay leadership.  We understand that it is very costly, in severance packages, expenditure on training Rabbis who seek careers beyond the pulpit, and in loss of synagogue membership revenue.

  3. We therefore resolved to see if we could contribute to thinking how better to manage the employment of Rabbis (though we recognised – see Boxes below – that some tension between Rabbis and their congregations is an age old integral part of the fabric of Jewish Life dating from the time Jews first lived in communities — and that it can even be ‘creative tension’).

A recent opinion survey of members of UK synagogues indicates that the preferred length of a Rabbi’s sermon is exactly fifteen minutes. He must condemn sins but must never upset anyone. He must work from 8:00am until midnight and is also a caretaker. He earns £30 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives Tsedakah of about £30 weekly. He must be no more than 28 years old (to bond with the Youth) but must have been giving sermons for 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 phone calls a day to families within the community – especially to those confined to home and the hospitalised, and is always in his office when needed.

If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this Job Description to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and post him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Please have faith in this procedure.

“The rabbi whose congregation doesn’t try to get rid of him isn’t a rabbi, and a rabbi who lets them get away with it isn’t a man” (after Rabbi Israel Salanter, on the walls of the Museum of the Diaspora, Bet Hat’futsot, Tel Aviv)


  1. In case of breach of contract, the legal route to dismissal for communal rabbis should be no different to that for any other vocational employee.
  2. But in cases where there is no breach of contract, there are rarely governance procedures in place to assess whether severance of a Rabbi’s employment reflects the views of the wider congregation.  Nor are they in place to assess, and minimise, the risk to both the Rabbi and congregation.

  3. We are aware of a number of cases where factions of congregations have attempted to terminate the employment of Rabbis who, by objective measures, are performing their duties perfectly satisfactorily.  The cases invariably involve terminations which take the form of undemocratic ‘dawn raids’ by a powerful faction of congregants which has planned the event in secret. Where a democratic vote is not required they cannot risk one, since typically they would lose it, because their negative view of the Rabbi is usually unrepresentative.

  4. Any resistance to the ‘dawn raid’ is hampered by ‘confidentiality agreements’. These make the reason for the termination impossible to ascertain, and so virtually impossible to challenge.

  5. Often those plotting against a Rabbi have succeeded in being elected to office, possibly unopposed. Their subsequent conduct exemplifies the phenomenon described in management literature as ‘toxic leadership’ .   This may be the result of inexperience, lack of training, or a desire to transplant expectations from the commercial world to the synagogue context.

  6. When news of the attempt to oust the Rabbi breaks, it is inevitably divisive. It is costly, both in terms of the time spent fighting the attempt and in legal and other fees – even if the attempt to oust the Rabbi is unsuccessful. We were told of one unsuccessful case in the United Synagogue where the legal bill met by the congregation amounted to £10,000. We were also told of a case where £50,000 was spent to defend a Rabbi. If the attempt is successful then there is a severance fee to be found as well as the overlap costs of housing both the outgoing Rabbi and the incoming one.

  7. Furthermore when a Rabbi begins to be targeted by a hostile group of congregants, a ‘downward spiral’ is often triggered.  The Rabbi loses confidence in the face of the hostility. his performance suffers, and the hostility deepens and widens. As things stand, the departure of the Rabbi is inevitable.

  8. In some cases when a Rabbi has been targeted, he (or she, in the Progressive movement) stands alone to face the attack from the congregational group.  The group can support each other, while the Rabbi stands alone. Often he faces “heavy legal battalions” who are members of the congregation, whereas he has no legal expertise and is expected to pay for his own legal advice (see section on “trade union membership” below).

  9. The costs of attempts to oust Rabbis are imposed far beyond the synagogue itself (‘externalities’). For one thing, the frequency with which these attempts are occurring is having a definite deterrent effect on the supply of communal Rabbis. Not only are communal Rabbis faced with unpredictable and frequent changes of lay leadership, they must also be constantly vigilant for signs of an impending ‘dawn raid’.

  10. We have anecdotal evidence that this problem is deterring people from joining synagogues and taking leadership positions. It encourages apathy (“I had no say in the departure of Rabbi X – whom I liked – so why should I take an interest in the synagogue?”). It is expensive in terms of expenditure on training Rabbis who then seek careers away from the pulpit, and in loss of synagogue membership revenue.  And it gives the Jewish Community a bad name. As a community we promote democracy, and expect to be treated democratically.  We will be seen as practising double standards if we continue to act undemocratically in a fundamental area of communal life, namely the termination of rabbinic engagement contracts.

  11. There is emotional damage done to the Rabbis (and their families) who are the targets of the “dawn raids”. They are left traumatised (this word was used by one such victim to us). Most serious still was a Rabbi who suffered a heart attack soon after failing to repel a ‘dawn raid’.  Even for Rabbis who do successfully repel the attack, effectiveness is impaired. For the rest of their career, part of their energies will be devoted to watching for the signs of another attack. The Rabbis who do not manage to repel the attack are left not only traumatised but also stigmatised.


  1. In the United Synagogue at least, the selection process for Rabbis is much more demanding than the severance process.  Astonishingly therefore, the rules allow the ‘dawn raids’ to happen, even though Rabbis are employed by the United Synagogue, not by local congregations.

  2. In the United Synagogue to appoint a Rabbi requires, first, a 75% majority within the ‘selection committee’. Then the Board of Management and the HOs have to endorse the candidate with a 75% majority. Then there has to be a simple majority of the membership at an EGM. Contrast this with the termination process which can be achieved by just the HOs (who normally number five). If the HOs – as is not unusual – are dominated by a few strong characters, then that puts an inordinate and unreasonable amount of power into their hands.

  3. The selection process in other movements is similar. A search committee makes a choice of one or two candidates for the Rabbinic position and presents that to the Council [or Board of Management, etc] The Council makes a recommendation to be presented to an EGM. A significant vote in favour of the recommended candidate leads to an appointment.

  4. However for a severance, the procedures in some other movements are (in theory though not always in practice) democratic, insofar as they require an EGM (though there is in practice a distinct lack of uniformity). First the Rabbi needs to be advised by the leadership of the synagogue that they are “not satisfied with his/her performance of their Rabbinic duties” and are considering moving a vote of “no confidence” in him/her at the Council.  The Rabbi will usually not be invited to that meeting.  Following the passing of the vote of no confidence, the Rabbi may well be given a chance to make suggested adjustments in the way that Rabbinic duties are carried out.  Whether or not that is the case, when the Council decides that it wants to end the Rabbinic appointment (and they have not been able to secure agreement from the Rabbi) it sometimes is obliged to call an EGM, giving in general at least three weeks notice.  The Rabbi may be given the choice to attend the meeting.  A simple vote in favour of dismissing the Rabbi is sufficient.  However unless there is an overwhelming vote against the dismissal, Rabbis tend to leave.

  5. What selection committee, Board of Management, or congregation is going to vote to employ a Rabbi who has had his contract terminated by another synagogue?   Especially when the reasons for the termination cannot be probed since they are the subject of a confidentiality agreement? The employment problem is made worse by the absence of alternatives to the main movements as employers of communal Rabbis; they are close to ‘monopoly’ employers.


  1. We are strongly of the view that there has to be a better way to manage the relationship between Rabbis and congregations.

  2. In order to assess the scale of the problem, we have carried out a number of interviews with Rabbis and Community professionals. To encourage them to speak freely, these have been on an unattributable basis. No-one has refused to speak to us and we are very grateful to those who have contributed to our findings.

  3. A number of synagogues in the United Synagogue movement have suffered undemocratic ‘dawn raids’ where HOs have put Rabbis under great pressure to sign an agreement to terminate their contract. The most recent example was Woodside Park. In January 2007, the five HOs (reportedly led by a subgroup of two) persuaded Rabbi Rader to sign a resignation letter, with the usual combination of carrots and sticks. The ‘carrot’ was a large sum of money. The synagogue accounts suggest a sum of £80,893 (and this may be seen as a minimum since there will also be costs associated with housing, see above). The sticks are not as clear, but may be may have included a very strict interpretation of terms and conditions.

  4. Other clergy have been subject to similar pressures.  See the Jewish Press for examples. These have included Belmont, Clayhall, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Ilford, Wembley, Marble Arch, Borehamwood and Highgate. (All have now been resolved).

(a) Trade Union membership

  1. Membership of the trade union Unite! (formerly Amicus) has been identified by a number of Rabbis as being a sensible procedure, whether or not they have had personal experience of ‘toxic leaders’.  Here is a quotation from a Rabbi of the Movement of Reform Judaism (September 2008):

“The assembly does act as a support in times of crisis, but I do urge colleagues to join a union – I think it is Amicus who have the clergy group though I belong to GMB. A union membership costs very little per month and they give free legal advice and also possibly representation and actually have departments to help in these cases… historically the assembly has never saved anyone’s job or livelihood and the reality is that the movement is always going to care for the congregations first. Rabbis are seen as being able to move away from the problem and they do, often to massive financial and family detriment…”

  1. Yet astonishingly, none of the synagogue movements encourages its Rabbis to join a trade union. Some actively discourage it: Around five years ago, when United Synagogue Rabbis were considering joining Amicus (now Unite!), we were told that the US said it would not recognise Amicus and we were told of verbal suasion to deter Rabbis from joining the Union.

  2. Membership of Unite! among Rabbis is growing and we feel that if the Rabbis want Unite! to represent them, it would be wrong for Synagogue movements to discourage this in any way.  On the contrary, it would be beneficial for Student Rabbis to be introduced to what trade union membership can offer during the practical stage of rabbinic training.

  3. Unite! has much to offer both Rabbis and employers.  It can bring its experience of other faith groups to bear to enable ‘best practice’ to be adopted to employment terms. For the Rabbis, Unite! brings the expertise, detachment and support that are so important in negotiations with the employer. It provides Rabbis with legal advice, redressing some of the imbalance noted above. We recommend that the employers of Rabbis (both centrally and locally) should recognise the trade union, if that is what Rabbis want.

(b) Synagogue Leadership Training

  1. All synagogue movements should provide appropriate training for lay leaders in matters of rabbinic employment. Some training is provided but the shortfalls are widely evident. They can be seen in some of the practices that give rise to the kind of criticism that can be the catalyst for a “dawn raid”. Examples that have been shared with us in the preparation of this report include such diverse practices as (i) the appropriateness of timesheets for a Rabbi involved in confidential pastoral work (ii) responsibility for halachic authority within the community (iii) the appropriate extent of ‘deference’ to be shown a rabbinic incumbent.


  1. We recommend that each Synagogue movement, in consultation with the President of the Board of Deputies, appoint an ‘Ombudsman’ (a man or a woman). The Ombudsman would be a respected communal figure who is transparently independent of the Synagogue movement.  HOs who wish to terminate a Rabbi’s contract would then be encouraged to approach the Ombudsman with the grounds for their action. S/he would then take soundings among the Congregation and produce a Report. If the Rabbi agreed, that Report will be made available to the membership. We recommend that in the United Synagogue a vote of the Board of Management is held on an HO proposal to terminate a Rabbi’s contract, with the requirement of a 75% majority to proceed to the next step, an EGM. A 75% majority (of those present) at the EGM would also be needed for termination to proceed. At the EGM, if the Rabbi agrees, confidentiality should be lifted. If he does not agree, there should be a discussion as far as is practical (given confidentiality) and then a vote.

  2. If the HOs refuse to go to the Ombudsman, we recommend that that fact should be made public by the Ombudsman and the President of the Board of Deputies. (Note that there is no compulsion for the government to consent to the Parliamentary Ombudsman investigating cases of alleged maladministration; but it knows the opprobrium which would follow if it refused. We would hope that the same would apply in the case of Synagogue movements).

  3. We believe that these recommendations would significantly improve the employment relationship of Rabbis and congregations while preserving the ability to terminate their employment in cases where duties are not being performed.

  4. We believe they will increase the confidence in the Jewish Community as a professional employer which in turn will increase the pool of candidates for communal jobs.

  5. We believe they will lead to improved performance of Rabbis and give community members a far greater sense of involvement in – and ownership of – their synagogue communities.

  6. Our final recommendation is that our Report should form the springboard for a deeper communal study of these issues, ideally led by the Board of Deputies.

Jonathan Hoffman

Rabbi David Soetendorp

Professor Ruth Soetendorp

November 2008

Appendix: The United Synagogue: Other Recommendations

  1. We have four additional proposals to improve governance of the US, designed to improve democracy and thereby the sense of ‘ownership’ of US Members. We believe that none of these proposals requires a change in the by-laws; they could all be implemented now.

  2. The US Trustees are elected by the US Council, comprising mainly nominees from the synagogue Boards. We see no reason for this degree of separation from the membership of the US. We recommend that the US Trustees should be directly elected by the members and that candidates should be able to send to the electorate a description of themselves and their aims, if elected. We recommend that there should be a ‘hustings’ meeting, where members can question the candidates. We recommend that some of the Trustee places should be reserved for women. (Note that direct election of the Trustees would need an amendment to the US Statutes but the Council has the power to make this happen).

Whicker, Marcia Lynn (1996): Toxic leaders: When Organisations Go Bad. Westport, CT. Quorum Books.

A detailed Grievance Procedure has been in use for many years in the Reform Movement.  This procedure involves the Movement from the onset of the problems deemed to be considered serious enough by a synagogue Council for actions to be taken. When the Rabbi is notified that the shul council is considering dismissing him he will be expected to contact the chair of the professional organisation: the Assembly of Rabbis, who would henceforth be involved in both the Grievance Procedure and any subsequent meetings in the position of the Rabbi’s ally if he so chooses.

In practice Council leaders who are not happy with the Rabbi’s conduct tend to complain to the movement quite promptly and not always before telling Rabbis that they are doing so.  That is where problems often emerge because it is has proved hard for Movement leaders to stay unbiased in their appraisal of the situation presented by synagogue Councils. That is where the Grievance Procedure may have fallen short.  On the other hand when Rabbis have approached the Movement leadership with problems, they have risked encountering a “no smoke without fire” response, to their detriment.