During a recent trip to Israel, I participated in a three-week course at Pardes Institute,1 where I studied the life of Jacob, the halacha (laws) of Shabbat, the history of Jerusalem, and the theme of exile and return. Every day in each class we spent 30 to 45 minutes reviewing the assigned texts with a learning partner, called a chevruta. This daily practice brought diverse individuals together in a house of study (Beit Midrash) and set the tone for the whole Pardes community. It was transformative to wrestle with the voice of ancient texts and to do so with gifted, faithful teachers and contemporary partners.
Both the class assignments and the chevruta practice quickly taught me that if I was to deepen my experience at Padres I would have to embrace the discipline of what my teacher called a “close reading” of the text. We often focused on only 10 or 15 lines for a whole session. I realized that I (a self-confessed deep generalist) would have to pay more rigorous attention to what the text said. I would have to move out of my comfort zone, avoid the tendency to generalize and editorialize, and patiently look for clues among the various commentators and teachers to illumine the text. I was no longer reading the text just for myself. I had to consider my chevruta. I could not cut corners.
In one frustrating session on the halacha of Shabbat, I was partnered with a business grad who had received a Jewish orthodox education from kindergarten through high school. He was comfortable with the Hebrew and the Talmudic process. I, on the other hand, whined about the density of the material. At the end of our 45-minute discussion he smiled and said, “It was a hard passage, but you won’t soon forget it. That’s part of the wisdom of the Talmud.”
In another class, I was partnered with a recent graduate who was spending a year in Israel. At 56, I was able to make connections between the texts and other important parts of the Jewish tradition and life experience that he initially was not. However, the connections I made helped my partner make them as well. In chevruta we are both student and teacher. We are puzzle parts for each other—we help complete each other’s story.
My Bible class focused on the life of Jacob, and it, too, offered me new insights. As a synagogue consultant, I find congregations all over the country called Beth Jacob. As my class on Jacob progressed, I began to wonder what it meant to be a house of Jacob. What might Jacob have said about his life? If he were here today, what questions might he raise for congregational leaders of a house of Jacob?
As I reviewed Jacob’s evolving story, I also recalled how congregations I had worked with had sought to write a new chapter in their congregational story. I began to see how Jacob’s story addressed many of the issues congregations so often face, and raised many of the questions leaders of congregations need to be asking. As I studied the text at Pardes and thought about the many congregations I had worked with, I began to see more and more connections.
Even the beginning of Jacob’s story offered insight into congregational life. Jacob was born in a state of unease (they say he grabbed his brother’s heel in the womb). There was a prophecy that Esau would serve him even though Esau was the older brother (Gen. 25:23). Jacob entered the world with a fateful legacy (Abraham and Isaac) and a story that had already been set in motion.
Likewise, congregations have their own legacies, their own stories that frame their current experience. How, I began to wonder, do we manage the legacy of our past? How do we bring the best of our past to the service of our future?
This brought to mind a congregation that was struggling with a legacy of clergy turnover when I first began my work with them. They had lost confidence. It was therefore hard for them to move forward on the remodeling of their facility or to develop new programs. When a new rabbi came, they began to be more hopeful. Out of their hopefulness they chose to try something new—a visioning and planning project. The process provided a safe place to explore the need for multiple approaches to worship and new ways to attract different kinds of members. The traditional critics of new things (whose thinking was colored by memories of the congregation’s troubled past) were still heard, but the size of the planning team protected new ideas and invited some new chapters to be submitted. Clearly, difficult legacies can be overcome.
Embracing a New Story
Elsewhere in Jacob’s story, we see that he is fearful as he approaches Esau. He chooses to prostrate himself so that Esau can look at him in a new way. Jacob wants to represent a different story. He no longer looks triumphant. He limps. He bows “low to the ground seven times until he is near his brother” (Gen. 33:3). The man who embraces Esau is now in a different place. Together they can write a chapter of reconciliation.
The congregation that came to my mind as I studied this passage was one that had struggled with governance issues. They had faced serious trauma over the years, and many members had felt betrayed by staff and lay leadership. When a congregation doesn’t know what went wrong, they will look for who went wrong. This particular congregation had developed a pattern of blaming each other. After the initial visioning and planning work we did with them, the governance task force continued to function. In the first year there was little progress. The board did not have enough trust to work through changes. Conceptually, people were open to the idea of term limits and a smaller board, but not for themselves. However, over time new approaches to board planning and executive committee/board relationships began to evolve. Leaders saw that the governance committee had proceeded humbly and respectfully. They had bowed low. In response, some new people stepped forward to serve on the board, and some longstanding members saw that it was time to step back. The leadership began to be less fearful and embraced change. Both Jacob’s story and the wise ways of this congregation have much to teach other congregational leaders wanting to learn how to help others embrace change.
Restoring a Reputation
In another passage of Jacob’s story, we learn that Jacob was concerned that his sons had slaughtered the people of Shechem in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah. Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land” (Gen. 34:30).
Jacob knew that he—through the acts of his family members—had lost credibility in his community. The same can happen in our churches and synagogues. So how do we restore our credibility once it is lost?
The leaders of one congregation I consulted with lost credibility with the members when the actual cost of their building project was way over budget. To restore trust, they worked to share the real facts—to explain what had happened. They then agreed to do a visioning and planning project. They had more than 100 people go to parlor meetings to share their visions, and they had 60 people come to workshops on values and goals for the future. The costs of the overruns still had to be managed, but the leaders had begun to write a new more hopeful story. New people stepped forward to embrace that vision.
Changing Our Pattern
Later in Jacob’s story we find that he gets caught up in building a fortune. While he has reversals (deceived by Leah, swindled by Laban), he still prospers. He becomes focused on the material world as he counts his sheep (Gen. 30:3), but God shakes him out of this pattern by calling him to “arise and leave this land” (Gen. 31:13).
How do we avoid getting caught up in the managerial details? How can we remember to “arise
” and deal with our mission and ministry?
In a board development workshop that I led, when synagogue leaders described their culture it became clear that the focus of all of their meetings was money. The treasurer was a committed, capable, and longstanding volunteer who had felt called for many years to warn the board about every possible financial risk. He gave his report at the beginning of the meeting, thus effectively putting a damper on all future ideas and proposals. After some reflection, the board members agreed to move the treasurer’s report to later in the agenda. They decided they needed to be aware of the data, but that they needed an agenda that went beyond counting sheep. They needed a process and a story with more vision.
Arise and Lead
Clearly, Jacob’s story is still alive and well in our congregations. How we respond to our own versions of his and other biblical characters’ stories, however, is up to us.
The chevruta-oriented learning community builds capacity to understand people’s different stories. I came into the Beit Midrash at the Pardes Institute with fear of the unknown, but, as a leader, I knew I had to “arise” to write a new chapter. After three weeks I had not only learned to live with the challenges of close text study, I had also found a home in the Beit Midrash. Our ancestor Jacob was not perfect. And the land of Canaan—rocky, arid (without oil), and surrounded by difficult neighbors—was also far from perfect. But God’s promise is not that we will be a nation at ease but that we will learn to be at ease with the tensions of real learning and living. Jacob’s story resonates with synagogue leaders because they can see their lives in its pages. Our congregations may be truly called Beth Jacob because, like the land of Israel, they provide the opportunity for a life fully lived and a mission worth wrestling with.
Robert Leventhal is an Alban Institute senior consultant specializing in synagogues. Prior to joining Alban, he worked as a marketing executive and management consultant. Bob is the author of Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning (Alban, 2007) and Byachad: Synagogue Board Development (Alban, 2007) .