At the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly this coming week in Dallas, Texas, my two-year term as President of the Assembly will come to an end. Not surprisingly, I approach this transition with mixed feelings – glad to hand over the considerable day-to-day responsibilities of the presidency of an international professional organization to a colleague, but also aware that a door is closing on a very special opportunity.
I began my presidency just as I was marking my thirtieth year in the pulpit rabbinate, all at the Forest Hills Jewish Center here in New York. The spiritual leadership of this major New York congregation had been thrust upon me at a relatively young age, and I learned quickly that people who look to you for leadership don’t care if you’re young or old. They care if you lead. If you do, and you do it well, there is a good chance that others will follow. If you don’t, there’s an equally good chance that they’ll look elsewhere for leadership, and you’ll find yourself looking for another position. I have always believed that a leader who doesn’t lead is betraying the trust that others have placed in him/her.
Rabbinic leaders, however, have to deal with a very different dynamic than their corporate counterparts. Most corporate leaders don’t care if they’re liked. They care about bottom lines. They are responsible to their boards for the wellbeing of their companies, for how much money is being made and what the value of the company’s stock is. Make no mistake; synagogue boards care about their bottom lines, and they expect their rabbis to help in that regard. But at the same time, rabbis are also expected to be likeable, sympathetic figures, a cross between the CEO of IBM and the Baal Shem Tov. A rabbi who is not likeable is going to have a hard time succeeding in the pulpit world.
And therein lies the conundrum. To lead is to take a stand, not to make all decisions based on the fickle winds of public opinion, or on which powerful people in your community might differ with you. But the very act of leadership itself, in its capacity to alienate those being led, makes the work of the rabbi that much more difficult. The simple truth is that, if you are truly a leader, you will never be universally loved, or even liked.
What I learned these past two years, again and again, is that being a rabbi to rabbis is pretty much the same deal. One would like to be able to please all of the people all of the time, but it just doesn’t work that way. In today’s global village, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter have created a need to be “out there” on the major issues of the day quickly and coherently, and if you’re not, you become yesterday’s news. There is precious little time for reflection and contemplation when the issues are coming at you fast and furious. It is inevitable that some of the stands that you take will not be greeted with equal enthusiasm by all, and that can be a painful place to be. And frankly, even if there were the kind of time that serious consideration of all issues deserved, there would still not be unanimity of opinion. Rabbis are schooled in the world of the Talmud, where disagreement is the lingua franca of daily interaction.
During my term of office, issues like the rights of Women of the Wall and the future disposition of prayer space at the Kotel, the release of the Pew Report and its implications for the future of our movement and, most recently, the controversy over the denial of membership in the Conference of Presidents to J Street, of which I wrote last week, have made my tenure in office challenging. In each of those instances and in others as well, stands that I have taken have angered some colleagues even as they pleased others. Neither the rabbinate nor the presidency the Rabbinical Assembly is for the faint of heart.
The timeless words of Polonius, spoken to Laertes in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet, say it best: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. As regards leadership, truer words were never spoken.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.