Rabbinic And Executive Skills Don’t Always Overlap


The Jewish world has been abuzz since the appointment in recent days of Dr. Andrew Rehfeld as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), my alma mater. An accomplished academic and Federation CEO in St. Louis, Rehfeld is the first president of the Reform Movement’s seminary who is not an ordained rabbi—and my newsfeed has exploded with questions and often critiques about his qualifications for the post.

I believe that the majority of this critique stems from anxiety about declining rabbinic authority in our era more than any real lack of qualification of Rehfeld’s for the role itself—especially as he has an able partner in HUC-JIR provost, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, who can confer smicha (ordination) and bring content expertise to complement a non-clergy president.

However, the response to this appointment demands clarification of where rabbinic and executive skills and competencies may or may not overlap. As more senior Jewish leadership positions transfer from one generation to the next, this clarity is critical as we consider how we can evaluate, train and hire the right leaders for our future.

Certainly, there is a different expectation of content expertise in general between a CEO and rabbi, and certain organizations will need leaders with specific content expertise. It is arguable that a seminary could desire academic or Judaic expertise along with non-profit executive competencies. There is no single answer as to what an organization or Jewish community wants in its leaders, and certainly each graduate program and seminary differs in which competencies and sets of expertise it seeks to impart. While some rabbis have developed the executive skills and competencies to serve as an organizational executive, standard rabbinic education and any major seminary does not necessarily confer these. Certainly my time in rabbinical school at HUC-JIR gave me excellent training to serve as a Reform rabbi, but there are many competencies I have needed to develop as an executive that were not, and arguably don’t need to be, part of rabbinic education.

There are many shared competencies that we seek in our rabbis and in our executives. We want our rabbis and our executives to be thoughtful and reflective; ethical, forward thinking and inspiring; decisive while being inclusive; good team builders who develop others; emotionally intelligent but not overly sensitive; and excellent oral and written communicators.

Rabbis and CEOs may need skills in board management and in fundraising, though these skills are obviously critical for all non-profit CEOs, but not all rabbis.

Current management trends suggest that successful organizational executives are calculated risk takers, strategic and tactical; and excellent managers and administrators. This likely includes skills and experience not only in governance and fundraising, but also in strategic and business planning; staff and human resource oversight; operations, including capital, facilities, data and technology, legal and compliance; and communications, including public relations and marketing. These are not critical skills for most rabbinic positions, and no seminary would be wise to put these ahead of other necessary rabbinic skills.

One might hope that a rabbi is a good teacher, public speaker, Jewish behavioral role model and an established moral leader tied to Jewish ideas and ideals. A rabbi needs expertise in Jewish texts, traditions and narratives; pastoral care and counseling; Jewish rituals and behaviors; Jewish teaching and learning; Jewish observances, history, culture and folkways. Depending on denomination, a rabbi might need expertise in halacha and be able to make decisions according to Jewish law. Aside from a demand of ethical Jewish behavior on the part of our executive leaders, most of these competencies are not necessary to core of an executive’s job description.

Many rabbis hope to lead Jewish organizations, and many Jewish organizational leaders would benefit from more Jewish content expertise. Rather than bemoaning the decline of rabbinic authority, the lack of Jewish expertise of many Jewish non-profit executives, or the lack of executive competencies of many rabbis, we can strengthen the field by better articulating the critical skills and competencies necessary for these roles. Then, search committees can more clearly delineate to stakeholders and job applicants which skills and competencies are necessary for their positions. Clarity on the necessary skills and competencies the field expects of their leaders can better inform the many seminaries, graduate programs, and training programs for clergy and Jewish communal professionals—and we professionals can also better understand which skills and competencies we must develop in order to be successful in the roles that we hope to attain.

Perhaps HUC-JIR president Rehfield, with his executive competencies, in partnership with provost Rabbi Dr. Weiss, and her rabbinic competencies, will provide exactly the leadership team to help model the type of shared leadership with clearly delineated and complimentary skills and competencies necessary to advance HUC-JIR, and provide leadership to our field. Certainly they are in great positions to allow HUC-JIR to become the standard-bearer for training for rabbis, cantors, and Jewish communal processionals.

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is executive director of the 14th Street Y in Manhattan.

is executive director of Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation.