Sulam: Creating a Cadre of Effective Synagogue Leaders

About a year ago,  USCJ set out on an unprecedented mission:  to create over the next three years a cadre of 5,000 visionary, strategic leaders who would strengthen and transform Conservative kehillot in the 21st century.

While our goal was ambitious, the path to revitalized Conservative kehillot is to transform them into meaningful, vibrant centers of Jewish life. The building blocks of this enterprise are to strengthen the skills of current leaders and expand the leadership pipeline for the future.

 One year later, through USCJ’s Sulam leadership initiative, we have made great progress toward achieving our goal. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2010-2011, Sulam was a program only for synagogue    presidents and reached a total of 32 people. This past year, in 2011-2012, we expanded Sulam dramatically. In addition to Sulam for Presidents, we created two new programs, Sulam for Current Leaders and Sulam for   Emerging Leaders. Through these initiatives, Sulam Leadership expanded its reach tremendously, serving nearly 500 individuals in roughly 120 kehillot, or some 20 percent of USCJ members.

But numbers tell only part of the story. Equally important is the paradigm shift in Sulam itself. More than a program or workshop, Sulam today is an integrated system, a process of leadership development that truly provides a sulam, a ladder, for identifying and developing kehilla leaders. It is also a model for how United Synagogue can serve as a strategic partner with our kehillot, providing the expertise and valuable resources they need and want.

Sulam for Emerging Leaders (SEL)

The ladder begins with finding and engaging potentialleaders. Rabbis and trustees identify members who they believe are ready to become more involved. Over the course of the program, we work as partners with local SEL leaders to deepen these members’ commitment and connection to the kehilla, and to build their personal Jewish knowledge and leadership skills.

Sulam for Emerging Leaders was piloted this year with 12 kehillot, each of which had a cohort of about 12 people, including the rabbi and a leader from each congregation. Some 30 kehillot have already signed up for the next session. One measure of success has been that Sulam groups in half of the participating kehillot decided to keep meeting after the formal SEL curriculum ended.  We have directed them to several resources, such as two of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s excellent learning and engagement  programs, Context and The Mitzvah Initiative. And we’ve encouraged them to participate in our Sulam for Current Leaders program when they feel ready to take the next step.

The feedback we’ve received from participants has been positive and heartfelt.  Some examples:

“This program was about moving one rung at a time. I felt encouraged to take the next step in areas of my Jewish development, and contribute in my own way what I have to offer to the Beth David community.” – Shelley Timmins, Congregation Beth David, Saratoga, California

 “We’ve seen an increase in service attendance from participants who didn’t come before. They’re enthusiastic in the congregation now that they have a better connection.” – Steve Goldstein,Congregation Or Chadash, Scottsdale, Arizona

“Sulam has changed me as a person. It has brought me closer to working with the president…it brought me a different kind of relationship with each individual, with new congregants. I see how holy relationships can become.” – Rabbi Micah Kaplan, Congregation Or Chadash, Scottsdale, Arizona

In addition to anecdotes, a preliminary study by our research consultants, Professor Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Koplowitz, found that Sulam for Emerging Leaders is reaching exactly the right people. (Also see Kathy Elias’s piece on evaluation in this issue of Leadership Update.) Specifically, a large majority of participants have not held congregational leadership roles and have been at their kehilla only three to five years. On the other hand, the trainers in each group – the rabbi and congregational leaders – do hold influential positions. This, the study said, is a perfect pairing in terms of integrating future leaders into the kehilla.


Sulam for Current Leaders (SCL)

SCL trains synagogue boards to become visionary, strategic and accountable. It teaches boards the difference between managing and leading, as well as the vital role of governance.  The program has engendered an extraordinary response, showing a hunger for this sort of training that was not being met. To reach the most people possible, we have run seven webinars for current leaders. Each has attracted roughly 70 attendees. A recent webinar on finding and engaging volunteers attracted so much interest that we are running it live again. What’s more, all the webinars are accessible online for kehillot to use at any time on their own. (To see the Sulam webinars, go to and click on “Leading a Kehilla.”)

Again, some feedback, this time from participants in Sulam for Current Leaders.  Here you’ll see praise for the Sulam model of “training the trainers.” By creating a curriculum and having our professionals train synagogue leaders to use it, we expand tremendously the reach of Sulam and strengthen its sustainability as a tool for leadership development.

Having materials online, and the training-the-trainer model is beneficial, so that we’re not reinventing the wheel. Why should each synagogue have to create its own training session?” – Haran Rashes, past president, Beth Israel Congregation, Ann Arbor, Michigan

 “It’s about moving the community from a place where we exist [merely] to perpetuate ourselves to having a vision and mission and working toward that.” Rabbi Ben Goldstein, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, Cranford, New Jersey


A Revamped Sulam for Presidents and a Rebranded Sulam

Though Sulam for Presidents has existed for many years, our team has worked to bring it to new heights. The goal was to identify what exactly presidents needed to learn and to reshape the program to meet those needs. Sulam for Presidents is now a capstone experience during which presidents learn how to orchestrate success and mobilize all the talent in their communities. We are also serving more people, from 32 in 2010-2011to 52 this past year.

One of the big challenges as we’ve expanded Sulam has been communicating to kehillot that the program is no longer simply for presidents. This led to a major rebranding effort that’s included creating new printed materials, a new logo, and publicity efforts such as an article to appear in the fall issue of CJ magazine.  It appears from the number of participants in the past year that our message is getting out.

Still there is more work to be done.  That’s why in 2013, we are launching Sulam for Strategic Planners, which will train kehilla leaders to create strategic planning committees that can envision and implement a winning path to the future.

Our Sulam accomplishments reflect the work of many people, both here at United Synagogue and in our kehillot.  At USCJ, our Kehilla Strengthening Team includes Kathy Elias, Chief Kehilla Officer, Bob Leventhal, Leadership Specialist, and myself, Rabbi Charles Savenor, Director of Kehilla Enrichment.

As noted above, our ambition is to create nothing short of a major cadre of current and future leaders for Conservative kehillot.  Over the past year, we have seen this transformation move from an abstract vision to a concrete reality. It is an effort that we hope will continue to strengthen and transform Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Charles Savenor, Director of Kehilla Enrichment


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