September 14, 2011
The business of spirituality
When Eric J. Diamond wants to understand something, he’s very methodical in how he goes about it. So when he was elected president of Sinai Temple in June, one of the first things Diamond did was to ask Howard Lesner, the synagogue’s executive director, to arrange for a tour of the building.
“I know the building very well. I’ve been in the building for 25 years,” Diamond, 50, said over a Friday morning breakfast in August. “But I don’t want to hear there’s a problem in a particular part of the building that I haven’t been to.”
So, Diamond said, he and Lesner and the building’s chief engineer will open every door and check every floor of the synagogue, from the roof to the sub-basement.
“Visualization is far better than hearing,” said Diamond, who works as chief operating officer of the real estate investment firm Hackman Capital Partners.
But make no mistake: This synagogue president, who wants to see every last square foot of a synagogue building that takes up a full city block, is no micromanager.
Diamond has ideas about how the synagogue can be run more efficiently and how vendor contracts might be renegotiated. He’s suggested that Sinai Temple up its membership recruitment efforts. But Diamond also insisted that he not have a mailbox in the synagogue office, because he doesn’t want anyone to expect that he’ll be there on a regular basis.
Brought up in Queens, N.Y., Diamond first came to Sinai Temple because an older fraternity brother got him a ticket there for the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah student service. But it was the synagogue president at the time who got him to stick around.
In 1983, Diamond had just graduated from University of Virginia. He had been in Los Angeles for all of three weeks, living in the graduate-student dorms as a first-year law student at UCLA, when he headed to the gym inside Sinai Temple for the service.
“It came time for the sermon,” Diamond said, “and then-rabbinic student David Wolpe introduced Mr. Don Rickles, who was going to give the sermon on Rosh Hashanah.”
Rickles is best-known for the insults he used to hurl during his comedy acts — at audience members, hosts, anyone, really. But speaking to the student service in 1983, he wasn’t there to call anybody stupid (as he did when he roasted then-Gov. Ronald Reagan) or tell aging comedians how he never liked them (as he told Lucille Ball in 1974).
“He was charming without being funny,” Diamond said. “He was lighthearted, but his serious message was how excited he was to speak to a room of young Jews and how important it was for young Jews to remain involved in the community.”
The message resonated with Diamond: “I got involved in the Jewish community in part because of what Don Rickles had to say.”
And when Diamond became president, he wrote to Rickles, asking if he’d come and speak again on Rosh Hashanah, this time to Sinai’s ATID service, which is for young professionals.
Not too long afterward, “Mr. Warmth” called Diamond back.
“I said, Mr. Rickles, it’s so nice of you to call me,” Diamond recalled. “He says, ‘How could I not call you after that note you wrote me? It was like a haftarah, it was so beautiful.’ Those were his exact words.”
The occasional haftarah-quality note aside, Diamond knows that in a synagogue of nearly 2,000 member families, the feeling of belonging is, in part, the result of seemingly small touches.
“I hate getting letters that begin with ‘Dear Congregant,’ ” Diamond said. “I want a letter that says ‘Dear Eric,’ or ‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. Diamond.’ It’s part of being part of a community.”
And to facilitate that kind of personalization, Diamond said, Sinai Temple is in the process of collecting the information contained in seven different databases and integrating it into a single one.
“It’s very heavy in terms of when I talk about systems, procedures,” Diamond said, “but you can’t deliver the services that our members expect, that we want to provide, without an integrated database.”
But even as he pays attention to these operational details, the business of keeping a synagogue running, Diamond remains focused on the big goal at Sinai Temple — providing a spiritual home for members of a community.
Which is why Diamond is so happy about the numbers of people who come to synagogue on otherwise ordinary Shabbat mornings — around 800 to 1,000 every week, by his count.
“Powerful is the word,” Diamond said. “It’s moving. It makes you feel part of a community. Standing in a three-quarters-empty room all by yourself doesn’t have that feeling.”
This article has been edited from the original version, which incorrectly stated that Don Rickles was the president of Sinai Temple in 1983. Aaron Fenton was president of the synagogue at the time.