No one taught Rabbi Ahud Sela how to read a budget when he was in the seminary. Talmud and pastoral counseling took precedence over the basics of planned giving.
So when the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly teamed up with American Jewish University (AJU) to create the Rabbinic Management Institute—a certificate program in nonprofit management offering business skills, management training and more—he jumped at the opportunity.
“Every part of the synagogue has to function well, including the business side, and it’s important for the rabbi to understand that,” said Sela, 35, of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge.
“I needed help in everything,” he continued. “I needed to learn how to read a budget sheet. I didn’t know what it meant to lay out a strategic plan. I didn’t know the different kinds of fundraising that can be done. I didn’t know the latest trends in board management.”
For years there has been a growing need for rabbis to be able to run their institutions, or at least understand how they operate, said Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, director of the institute and associate dean of AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which is a partner in the program with the university’s Graduate School of Nonprofit Management.
“While rabbinical school might offer a little bit of that training, that’s not really how they spend their time,” Peretz said.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the membership organization for Conservative rabbis, said in a statement that the program equips rabbis with important skills to address the myriad challenges facing religious institutions with creativity and foresight.
“In today’s economy, it is more important than ever for rabbis to learn effective business models and management skills, ones guided by the deepest values of Judaism,” she said.
An initial cohort of 14 Conservative rabbis graduated last month following a year of activities and coursework. Participants came from across the country—as far away as Maine and Florida—for two in-person seminars. The rest of the curriculum was completed through videotaped lectures, paired-learning exercises and individual conversations with faculty.
Topics included leadership, supervision, board development, accounting, marketing, conflict management, budgeting, and development. These skills are needed now more than ever, Peretz said.
“In today’s world, organizations are having a rough time financially. There was a great need to gain an understanding of how to look at the financial picture and brainstorm ideas,” she said.
Ditto for issues of nonprofit management and helping clergy create healthy relationships with lay leaders, boards and volunteers.
Richard Siegel, director of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles, said the importance of all of these issues becomes magnified as rabbis take on more responsibility in their congregations.
“In recognition of this, increasingly we’re encouraging rabbinical students to either take management courses with us or take the full graduate certificate [in Jewish nonprofit management],” he said. “We have found that those rabbis in the field who have participated in our program have found it incredibly valuable. It’s clear that this is something that will be even more relevant in the years ahead.”
Siegel said that creating a program similar to the one at AJU for rabbis who already have been ordained is on his agenda.
A number of changes already are in the works for the certificate, Peretz said. First, it will be opened up to rabbis of all denominations, not just Conservative ones.
“The truth is the issues are the same when we’re talking organizational management,” she said.
Web-conferencing technology will supplant the videotapes and allow for interactive lectures, and individual mentoring will be significantly increased. Additionally, the next cohort will begin in the fall instead of February, and the price will drop from $2,200 to $1,800.
Rabbi Mark Bisman, a veteran clergy member preparing to retire in May, signed up for the program more out of curiosity than necessity. He had been learning about similar topics in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is rabbi at Har Zion Congregation, and it sounded like an opportunity to explore them in more detail.
What he ultimately got was insight into his synagogue that paid dividends quickly.
“I learned how to look at the books in a different way and that makes all the difference,” he said. “It certainly has been helpful to me in terms of understanding how we can put our house in order to [prepare] for the next rabbi. I’m much more secure in some of these matters than I would have been.”
It has proven particularly helpful in dealing with the challenges of a 220-family congregation that has seen its membership decline, the rabbi added.
“We’re reorganizing … and finding donors and lenders to help us. We have a plan laid out, and it’s going to work,” he said. “Certainly the education that I got through this program helped me be a better articulator of what the situations are and how to move them along.”
For Sela, being part of the program has empowered him to make a number of changes to a 315-family congregation with no executive director that has seen its membership and revenue decline in recent years.
“I wanted to be able to help the synagogue with some of the administrative functions, and I didn’t have the capacity [before],” he said.
Now he’s helped create a five-year programmatic plan and revamped the temple’s fundraising strategy. Instead of simply distributing envelopes and hoping they come back filled with checks, everyone receives a phone call or personal conversation from a member of the fundraising committee as part of the annual appeal. Already the change is showing results.
“We’ve raised more money this year than in past years even though we have a smaller membership,” he said.
Sela brought in the dean of AJU’s Graduate School of Nonprofit Management to work with Temple Ramat Zion’s board, reduce its size and discuss its responsibilities. And from a marketing perspective, the rabbi learned to expand the synagogue’s offerings outside of its physical structure.
“You have to bring it to the people,” he said.
That realization has led him to hold classes periodically at local coffee shops. That way, congregants who work in the area can drop by during lunch to study Talmud or other topics.
Who knows how many more changes may be on the way for Sela and his congregation, but the rabbi said it’s a great beginning thanks to the new certificate program.
“I recommend it to all of my colleagues, especially ones working in smaller congregations,” he said. “It was all new information that has helped me tremendously.”
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