Jonathan Spira-Savett is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class III. He is Rabbi of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire and has been a teen educator and active in the Jewish teen philanthropy movement. Jon blogs, he shares Torah, and podcasts at rabbijon.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For my first thirteen years after ordination, I was either about third in the hierarchy of a day school, or serving as a consultant. Either way, I was in a perfect position to practice what Dr. Ron Heifetz taught us during the fellowship. “Leading without authority” required me to build teams, manage up, ally with and sometimes creatively challenge my supervisor or the board. Never could I get something truly important to me done by the force of my will. Three months into my first position as a congregational rabbi, I was standing by the copy machine with the synagogue’s first vice president. She’s a knowledgeable, dedicated volunteer — active in many Jewish organizations, a true lifelong learner, and a repository of shul history. She was close with the prior rabbi. I figured that my past experience and my Wexner experience were all teaching me to take things in, learn, value the new team I was working with, and not try to do things by the force of my will.
The matter before us was small — how to organize a series of Sukkot dinners around the region. There were some ins and outs relating to logistics and sensitivities. But as I asked for her reflections and recommendation, she said to me: “Rabbi, tell me what you want me to do!”
“Really?” I think I asked.
It was the first time I understood that I would have to learn a new orientation: leading through my authority. This having-people-defer-to-me was a new professional experience. I realized I needed to learn quickly how to do two things at once. First, I needed to project a voice, to communicate my own core principles and paint some pictures of what could and should be. At the same time, I needed to enable lay leaders and congregants to participate thoughtfully in the really strategic questions the shul would face. They had to see that they hired me not only for my “new ideas” but for a kind of partnership that was also new to them.
At the copier, I made my decision about when and where to have the dinners. I tried to feel strongly about this. And since then, I have tried to grow my leadership profile for more weighty matters, and use it also to help others become true leaders as well.