Warning this one is long, but a great way to get to know me better. And the firing line questions are just fun! Need my favorite ice cream? It’s in there!
Last week I was privileged to speak at the Elgin Chamber of Commerce for their program, CEO Unplugged. An informal, no holds bar discussion about leadership and what makes us successful. The chamber hosts this program quarterly with recognized leaders of local businesses and non-profits in the community over lunch. I am grateful to Carol Gieske, their executive director and her board for selecting me and for sending me 50 questions in advance. They forced me to think about issues of leadership deeply and my role and style as a leader. What follows are my responses, the serious questions and the fun ones. Spoiler alert: my favorite ice cream is Almond Joy. The answers below follow the actual presentation fairly accurately. We sat on two bar stools just trading questions and answers. The answers were designed to be short. The program was just an hour. Each answer could have been longer I am sure!
- What is it that drew you to the rabbinate?
I wanted to help make the world a better place through the rabbinate. It stems from my being a Girl Scout and the ideas of tikkun olam and social justice from the ethics of Judaism. Apparently I told my 8th grade English teacher, before there were women rabbis that I would be. She remembered, I do not. I thought about it in college, even applied to rabbinical school. I became an educator. Shelved it both after my daughter was born. Then, I was driving to a sales meeting at IBM and realized that there was more I could be doing besides working as a marketing consultant, being my daughter’s Girl Scout leader and being a leader of a daily minyan prayer service.
- What are your day-to-day responsibilities as rabbi?
All of my responsibilities fit into the four pillars of Congregation Kneseth Israel’s vision statement. These pillars match the historical purposes of a synagogue, to be a beit tefilah, a house of prayer, a beit midrash, a house of study and a beit kneseth, a house of assembly.
- Meaningful observance—I lead services on Friday and Saturday, holidays, lifecycle events, keeping the kitchen kosher. I have an obligation and a desire to pray and to make prayer meaningful across a myriad of beliefs and observance levels.
- Lifelong learning—I have responsibilities for adult study, for the Hebrew School, for training Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and for my own ongoing learning as a rabbi. Inspiring people to want to know more and to find the relevance within Judaism. Encouraging congregants’ curiosity and deeper understanding, and how it fits into today’s world and each individual person’s life. That’s about meeting people where they are. I also have an obligation to model that life long learning, so right now I am taking a professional development class from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality on Contemplative Prayer. And here is the surprise, while based on individual prayer and spirituality it is improving my leadership style.
- Building community—that is both in-reach and outreach. Almost everything I do creates community. Whether it is sitting after services or Hebrew School, schmoozing, hosting a dinner at my home or at the synagogue, attending some of the wonderful cultural events in the City of Elgin, serving on some of the committees like Women on the Brink or the Martin Luther King Commission, CERL, and more. I serve as a police chaplain. Even now I am on call—because it is Tuesday. So if I get a call, that’s why. Creating that kind of visibility—builds community.
- Embrace diversity—we have a very diverse community, 17 foreign countries, interfaith families, a vast range of religious practice and belief. Much of what I do is navigate that range.
Day to day obligations include but are not limited to preparing Shabbat, the Sabbath services, and holiday observances, visiting people who are sick or are shut in, teaching, counseling, cheerleading, organizing, marketing, brainstorming, visioning, Then there is that whole other category—other duties as described. In a synagogue, much like many non-profits with constituents, each family thinks they are your boss and each person has a special project that needs your undivided attention. I am never bored. Unless I am waiting at a stop light. That might just be the title of my next book, “Waiting for the Light.”
- How did your education shape your career, and did it impact your decision to become a woman of faith? Where did you go to college?
I went to Tufts in Boston where I majored in American Studies and Hebrew Literature. I have a Masters degree in education also from Tufts and a Masters degree in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College. My ordination is from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and represents 71 classes beyond my masters. American Studies was a great major because it forced me to think in an interdisciplinary way. Tufts was great because as an American Studies major it taught me to think critically across many disciplines and to think outside the box. Let’s hear it for liberal arts education! It also enabled me to meet a wider range of Jews than those I met while growing up in Grand Rapids, and so even then I thought I might want to be a rabbi. I went to a celebration of Simchat Torah with Hillel and there was much dancing in the street and such joy. I thought the rabbis were having so much fun that I wanted to be a part of that and create that experience for others.
- You have spent time in working in education and as a marketing consultant, before becoming a rabbi. How has your time in the various industries shaped your leadership style with your congregation?
As a marketing consultant for high tech companies my job was to listen to people and put the pieces of a story together in order to make strategic and tactical decisions for major corporations. My job is still about listening to people. Deeply, deeply listening. What is different is that now instead of making decisions for them, I use those skills to help people come to their own decisions, either about their own life choices or what the congregation wants to do as part of the greater whole.
- Please tell us about your leadership style.
It is funny that this is the month I am here because even before I was asked I had written my monthly bulletin announcement about leadership styles ahead of the Board Installation. I learned much of my leadership skills in Girl Scouts. They talk about Directors, Coaches, Supporters, and Delegators.
Director: Gives very good direction and makes sure everyone does his or her job. Makes certain that rules are clear and that everyone is expected to follow them.
Coach: Uses a style that provides both direction and supervision but encourages the involvement of everyone. Will explain the work that lies ahead, discuss decisions and answer questions.
Supporter: Works with other members of the group to set goals and list steps to achieve the goals. Encourages everyone to make decisions and gives each member the help they need.
Delegator: Gives everyone a share of the work. Lets group members make decisions and take on as much responsibility as they can handle. Is there to answer questions, but wants them to take as much responsibility for their actions as possible
(Previous definitions from the The Guide for Junior Girl Scout Leaders, copyright 1994, New York, New York
Convener: Calls the group together, inspires, organizes
So I have pieces of each of those styles. I inspire, I organize. I teach. I delegate (although that is not my strongest suit, a bit too much of a control freak and I would be wise to learn from Jethro who taught this skill to Moses. I do want people to take as much responsibility as possible without it becoming overwhelming, because I believe that is empowering. I encourage, that’s the cheerleader in me. I try to be optimistic and realistic.
I would ultimately say that my leadership style is collaborative. I like to bring people along with me. I also won’t ask anyone to do anything I am not willing to do. One of my rabbis, Everett Gendler, says that a rabbi is nothing more than someone who can move tables and chairs and in New England turn the heat on. I move tables and chairs. A lot. Sometimes that angers my people. But it is also humbling. I am not above my congregation.
I also am a cheerleader. If you can think up something you want to try and it fits our vision, I will help you figure out how we can do it. Together.
There is a new term—entrepenurial rabbi. And that describes me pretty well. And I took my homework for this very seriously. One of your later questions is about social media. So I promoted this event on Facebook and asked my followers about my leadership style. Essentially, I crowd sourced the question and learned a lot in the process about how others view me. Other words included welcoming, lead by example, serious with a wry sense of humor, and the one that I found the funniest, kumbaya meets Namaste.
- You worked as the educational director in four Hebrew schools. What did you learn there that you have brought to Congregation Kneseth Israel?
Just as there are many kinds of leaders, there are many styles of learners. That’s important when dealing with the kids or with adult learners. I find that the more hands-on and experiential—the buzz word is project based learning—the more likely the material will be remembered. Hebrew School for decades has been a dismal failure. The research shows that there are only four things that make kids want to remain Jewish—Jewish camp, Jewish youth group, a trip to Israel or a college level course. For me, then it is all about creating Jewish memories so that when students are adults they want to access the rich tradition that is Judaism and find the meaning and the joy within it. Passing on the joy—the tools for life when life is not joyous.
- Please tell us about your work on social justice issues. Define your role in the rabbinate as a being a bridge builder and peacemaker?
I was just asked this week by a congregant what is social justice and our obligation as individual Jews. For me, it is the essence of who I am as a Jew. We have an obligation to do tikkun olam—to repair or fix the world. It is not unlike Girl Scouts where we are expected to leave the place better than we found it. The devil is in the details, to use that phrase. Social justice, it seems to me, and others in the rabbinate, is the core of Judaism. Every time I think I am not going to write a social action sermon, it is in the central Biblical text. And in this age of “fake news” and alleged fake news how we read scripture is critically important. In Judaism we joke a lot about 2 Jews and 3 opinions. Last week I read a prayer about once we learned one truth and it was cherished or discarded but it was one. For me, it is clearly true that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The rest is commentary. Go and study it. And all of the social justice agenda comes out of that verse.
I also think that in this age of rising anti-semitism, it is critical to be a bridge builder and a peace maker. But this is not new to me—or others. So I am active in civic groups that are trying to make Elgin better. I participate in CERL, the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders and a committee that is trying to find common ground between the three Elgin clergy groups. I am active with Women on the Brink. I chair the 16th Circuit Family Committee on Domestic Violence. I am on the Martin Luther King Commission. What all of these have in common is working for the most vulnerable amongst us.
- Has your role changed in recent times, with increasing social and political uncertainty throughout the religious world?
Yes—I am much more circumspect as a rabbi than I was as a lay leader or rabbinical student. A lot of my friends and colleagues, rabbis, ministers, priests have become even more outspoken but I know that we live in a political diverse world and so for me it is about the ethics and values of Judaism, which to me are very clear. It says 36 times in the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses that we need to welcome the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Even more we should love the stranger amongst us. We should love our neighbor as ourselves. We should be like G-d. Since G-d clothed the naked, Adam and Eve, we should clothe the naked, since G-d visited the sick, we should visit the sick, since G-d fed the hungry, we should feed the hungry, since G-d buried the dead, we should bury the dead.
- How do you balance civic engagement and your volunteer time with your professional and personal lives?
Balance. Haven’t mastered that one yet. Sometimes I choose to do things specifically on Mondays since that is my day off so that it is clear. Sometimes I do stuff in the evenings or the early morning. But it is hard to separate some of it out. I believe that in order to grow the congregation we need to be visible. So if I speak here or I do an invocation at city council is that professional or personal? And sometimes I do things with my family because they are committed to these same ideals. So while others might go to a movie or a concert, we do social justice. That means one Monday my husband who really cares about environmental issues wanted to go to a meeting at Congressman Roskam’s office sponsored by the Sierra Club. One year for our anniversary we went to a conference on refugees at the Oak Park Temple. Because that’s what we do. Even before we were married. And we will celebrate 30 years this March. But have I achieved balance? Less clear.
- What important leadership lessons have you learned from working in the religious sector?
There are many different leadership styles. Moses was different from Aaron was different from Miriam was different from Pharaoh. When the Israelites were building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the desert, they were each asked, men and women, to bring a gift, the offering of their heart. Everyone has a gift they can bring. Everyone has a contribution they can make. It is my job to find the right role for every person. Frederick Buechner, said it best, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I think the other thing I have learned—or keep learning—is that the rabbi is a symbolic exemplar. There is even a book with that title. It means that I represent much more than me, Margaret Frisch Klein. People see me as a representative of G-d or of their rabbi when they were growing up or one of their parents. Those can be very big shoes to walk in, but knowing about that kind of transference helps. The other thing that really helps is not getting caught by triangulation where one congregant tries to get you to engage against another congregant. Or one congregant brings a tale of what someone else wants. Like, “I heard people say” rather than owning it themselves or sharing who said it. It is important to be consistent and say something like, “Well tell them to come see me themselves.” Gossip can be a serious problem, especially in a small congregation. Learning to not engage in it is critical. Seeing a congregation as a family system, as Ed Friedman did in his book Generation to Generation is also useful.
I think another thing I have learned is that there are limits to collaborative leadership. Sometimes people want you to own your authority—which I believe comes from leading with compassion and leading from a place of knowledge. They want to be told what to do. What is right or wrong. So sometimes the buck stops here. It has to. Some where surprised that I, as a rabbi, would be invited to speak at an event called CEO Unplugged. But in many ways, as the mara d’atra, the master of the place, I am the CEO of the congregation.
11. Please tell us about your Energizer Rabbi blog.
When I worked at SAP, the German software company I was tasked with writing and editing am early blog and with doing some podcasts for the sales force. Those were new technologies back then. At some point, in the style of the Velveteen Rabbi who was also a rabbinical student then, I found blogging about my spiritual life a way to reach new people and to explore the depth of the experiences I was blessed to have with a wider audience and not as limiting as Facebook or Twitter. It is a way of promoting CKI.
Because there is a field for comments it is also an opportunity to deepen the conversation—but that field has been underutilized.
- Do your personal social issues align with your congregations?
Not always, and that can be a challenge. My views were pretty known before I was hired because of the blog and Facebook. I think the real challenge and I try to promote it, is to make sure that there is always civil discourse. I’ll be honest. That doesn’t always work because people are passionate about some of the issues. That can be especially true around Israel. There are many Jewish congregations that won’t even talk about Israel any more because it is so politically charged. I keep trying.
- Who has been the most influential person in your life?
I think this was the hardest question because I have been influenced by so many. If I have to pick one. I am going with Rabbi Albert M. Lewis, my rabbi in Grand Rapids when I was growing up. There is so much that I do, that he did. And apparently back then, it was cutting edge. I just thought it was the way it was. He was very active in GRACE, the Grand Rapids Area Council on Ecumenicalism. They worked passionately to make sure that buses ran past 6 amongst other social justice issues. He took me to the track and introduced me to running. There is not a day, especially around the High Holidays that I am not grateful for his leadership. Others would be my parents who set me on a road of social justice, based on their understanding of Jewish ethics, my Girl Scout leaders, Dr. Jesper Rosenmeier and Dr. Sol Gittleman at Tufts, Dr. Rev. David Ferner who I still call my spiritual director, and my chevruta partner, my study partner in New York, Rabbi Linda Shriner Cahn.
- Discuss the impact of the religious intermingling within your congregation.
It is hard to balance the range of religious observance at CKI. We range from some who grew up Orthodox or describe themselves today as Orthodox to people who grew up Reform, even classical Reform like my husband. Some thought that Conservative Judaism would be a good, middle of the road, egalitarian option but some found it too limiting and too rigid. The lines between denominations continue to blur. Perhaps the better description is “Just Jewish”. I am using “fiercely independent.”
- How do you connect interfaith activities with your leadership and the congregation?
Interfaith can mean several things. I proudly belong to the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders, an interfaith organization in the city. I also serve on the U46 Clergy Council. We are members of Elgin Cooperative Ministries. All of those have the desire to work on basis of what is good for the city of Elgin based on our shared moral and ethical values. I serve a congregation that is roughly 65% intermarried. That also can be called interfaith. Again it is about balance and meeting people where they are.
- What is the most important thing you learned since joining the rabbinate?
Good Segway. It is about meeting people where they are—wherever they are on their Jewish or religious journey. I’ve learned that while I went into the rabbinate to make a difference in the world, it is even more important to make a difference in the person sitting in front of you. I know that we live here in the shadow of Willow Creek a great example of a mega-church. There is a new movement called “slow church.” Sometimes slow church is better, or more effective. What people want is to be in relationship, to be in community, to feel people care about them. Right now. Today. So giving a manicure to a dying grandmother because she really cares about her nails (see mine are horrible) can be more important than how many people attended the Passover seder. Bringing hamantaschen or chicken soup or a corned beef sandwich to a senior could be more important than the numbers at adult study. Working with a Bat Mitzvah family to find the right readings and the right project can be more important than bringing in the big, well known speaker. Those are all about meeting people where they are and creating safe, non-judgmental space where people are connected and integrated. They become invested and want to be involved in other ways. Ultimately, that model should help to fund the synagogue as well. But we know that the models are changing. Millenials seem to be involved in different kinds of ways. So this is a C-change moment for many congregations.
- What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into religious services?
It is really important to set boundaries. Everybody in the congregation thinks that they are your boss—and your friend—and they are. It would be possible to work 24×6, in order to meet all of their needs. That is impossible. Sometimes the criticism needs to roll off your back. It is important to take time for you. It is also necessary to remember that the ultimate boss, in this case is G-d. Above our ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, it says Da lifney atah omaid. Know before whom you stand. It keeps me humble. A good quality for a leader.
- How do you connect your religious responsibilities into social media?
As we talked about, I have a blog. The synagogue has a website and a fairly active Facebook page. I use Facebook a lot. It is how I most frequently learn of someone who has died or is in the hospital. It is also a way to model what I am doing in a Jewish manner. I keep it upbeat and optimistic.
- What was your most challenging professional moment, and what steps did you take to resolve the issue?
The most difficult moments are ones where as a mandated reporter I have to make a decision about confronting a parent about whether there might be abuse or I actually have to report. It doesn’t happen very often but I always wrestle with the best avenue. Usually there are not obvious bruises, it is much more subtle. And I never want to make the situation worse.
- What is one mistake you are willing to share with us, and what did you learn from it?
Sometimes being a collaborative leader is difficult. Particularly in a diverse congregation, I feel it is important to build consensus. But sometimes people just want the answer
- Where do you go for advice?
I have a group of very close friends and colleagues, mostly outside of Elgin that I rely on for advice. I also have what I call my “sermon panel” who read important sermons before they are delivered or published. I also, and I think this is very important in the rabbinate or clergy, I have a very good therapist. And then there are my husband and daughter
Firing Line Questions – quick answers, please
- ice cream flavor? Almond Joy
- Book, “How Good Do We Have to Be” by Rabbi Harold Kusher
- Movie, Miracle on 34th Street
- Tv series, MASH
- Vacation spot, Jolli Lodge in Leland, MI or Ogunquit in ME
- Flavor of jelly—raspberry or apricot
- Adult beverage—currently–mojito
- Musical group—Peter, Paul and Mary
- Song—depends on my mood
- Concert you attended—Billy Joel
- Bagel flavor–Everything
- Deli—Katzs in Connecticut (halfway between MA and school in New York) with a special mention this week for Schmaltz’s in Naperville, just hit with some anti-semetic grafitti
- Season—which ever is in season
- Physical activity–running
- Traditional Jewish meal—Shabbat dinner of roast chicken, sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes. Chopped liver and fresh challah are a definite bonus.
- What are your bucket list items for retirement?
What’s retirement? Oh, yeah, Alaska, Paris to go to Giverny where Monet painted, Savanah to go the birthplace of Girl Scouting, more time on the coast of ME or in Northern Michigan, more painting or photography.
- What are your favorite things to do with your husband, Simon, and your daughter, Sarah?
Hiking, cooking and running. Simon and I have now hiked in roughly 25 states and five foreign countries.
- What do you do like to do on your days off?
Read, write, run. Coffee with friends
- What was one the worst jobs you’ve ever had? Best job?
A small marketing company that did sales lead generation. Management by fear. Life guard at a community pool. I quit when the adult supervisor told me when I didn’t return after a tornado warning that I was just Jewing her down. I then worked in my parents’ bookstore the rest of that summer. Best: SAP. Bright group, fantastic manager who really saw the good in people and expected us to excel and work together as a team. And was supportive of my becoming a rabbi.
- What are some of your favorite things to do in Elgin?
Walk/run along the river trail. Go to Gail Borden library. The Harvest Market, the Symphony, theater. Meet friends for coffee at Blue Box or Arabica.
- What is your favorite sport to watch or play? Favorite athlete?
Michigan football. So that leads to Tom Brady. Or Joan Benoit Samuelson as a runner.
- Movies or theatre? Theatre
- Thin crust or deep dish, Thin Crust
- Coffee from McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts? Tricky question.
- What time is your alarm set for most mornings? No alarm. Wake up naturally by 6. Wish I could sleep later.
- Cubs or Sox? RED SOX
- Bears or Packers? PATRIOTS
- Blue ink or black? BLACK (or purple)
- Tea or coffee? If coffee, regular or decaf? Coffee, high test, one cup per day.
- What kinds of movies do you like? Favorite movie? Sappy movies. Simon loves the Hallmark Channel. Miracle on 34th Street, Frisco Kid, Keeping the Faith
- If there was a movie made about your life, who would play you, and why? Meryl Streep or Mayim Bialik
- If you were on an island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? A book (kindle?), a bathing suit, sunscreen
- Which do you prefer – dress up or dress down? Depends on situation—and I debate it constantly
- What was the best vacation you ever had? Jolli Lodge or Ogunquit. Bar Harbor.
- What’s the last gift you gave someone? The last give you received?
A book to a newly engaged couple. Bubble bath for mother’s day.
- What was the most fun thing you did in high school? Mini-Week chair. In college? Running the Boston Marathon. After college? Running through the castle at DisneyWorld
- Favorite fun hobbies? Reading, painting, photography
- Do you like to cook? What’s your favorite meal to prepare? Love to cook. Thanksgiving Dinner with all the family recipes.
- If you could only have one food for the rest of your life, which food would you choose?, steak, baked potatoes and asparagus
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without (not including family)? Bubble bath
- What’s your pet peeve? People who change appointment times or show up chronically late.
- Whom would you pick to have dinner with (dead or alive)? Columbus and Pope Francis and Simon
- Tell us one thing about you that we don’t know. I sang at Carnegie Hall.