5766 is almost over

Originally a locked post.

Rosh Hashana is in a week. This is a time for introspection. I certainly won't be sharing all of mine, but here's some stuff I'm willing to share with (some) others.

I've been thinking a lot about leadership. I want to have more opportunities to help lead a community, even while knowing that leadership can interfere with one's personal development. I need to explore that tension and also my desires here.

Leading a community in prayer can create an enormous wave that you get to ride too -- or it can shut down your own prayer, because in being responsible for others you give up too much of your own focus. Or it can be neither -- in the morning minyan that I lead once a week, it usually feels like we're just all there doing our thing together, and while I am on the bimah I don't feel a large weight of responsibility (only a small one). I'm sure the fact that most of the attendees have been davening since before I was born helps; if I stumble they're not going to get confused or follow me down that path. They'll just shout out a correction.

Leading that service has become comfortable and routine. There is one bit of "original content" each week, the parsha bits that I post here. Doing that has helped, slightly, to bolster my self-confidence in public speaking. (I speak from memory, not from notes and certainly not from a written-out copy. They're short; that works.) This comfort means it's time for me to push my limits again; there are some passages that other leaders usually do in Hebrew that I'm doing in English because I was initially overwhelmed by the volume of Hebrew. Now it's time to bump it up.

A service where I get to "ride the wave" is our Shabbat morning group. It is very very rare that I get to lead the whole service there; after all, most of the time my rabbi is there so he leads, and I wouldn't have that any other way. So maybe once a year I get to lead. It's great, because it's an established community where people know what to do and, really, the service would go even if there weren't a designated leader. What I get to do in that case is to guide it, and set a tone with the question and with kavanot that I can sprinkle in here and there. It would run itself, but I like to think that my leadership helps impart a mood, some things to think about, and some overall coherence. And do not under-value merely having a definitive source of pitch in a-capella singing.

More often, leadership in that group comes from reading torah, which I do about every 4-8 weeks. The torah reader also leads the torah service and concluding prayers, reads haftarah (in English), and gives a short d'var torah. I'm very comfortable with the liturgy and choreography, pretty comfortable with torah and haftarah reading, and still working on getting comfortable with delivering a d'var torah. I think I write them fairly well by the norms of that group (when I write them out); delivery isn't there yet. If I read from a written-out text (I've been experimenting with this), it feels a little flat because I'm reading rather than orating. If I speak from notes or an outline, I sometimes fumble and the text that comes out isn't as finely crafted, but I'm connecting with the congregation more. I think I need some actual education, not just trial and error, in homiletics. I wonder if my rabbi would be willing to spend some time with me on this.

Very occasionally, I get other opportunities, like this summer when I led (much of) a Friday service and a bar mitzvah (huge thrill!). Opportunities here are, of necessity, limited. My rabbi knows I want to do more. We have a tentative date in a couple months when I'll lead part of Friday night -- kri'at sh'ma and t'filah, and not torah service, kabbalat shabbat, or concluding prayers. This division doesn't surprise me, given that we have two rabbis (one new and being integrated). It's more than I have a right to and less than I'd wish for, but I am absolutely not going to push for more for the first time out. I can do good things with this. Let's not get greedy (greedier?).

Over the last couple of years the role of our cantorial soloist has been increasing. I'll get to lead those two parts of the service, except that the congregation is used to having her lead everything that's chanted or sung, which doesn't leave as much as you might think. I think I may try asking her if I can do some of her parts in that one service -- not all of them, but a couple of carefully-chosen ones. When groups (committees, school groups) lead services that usually happens, so that's my basis.

And when I started thinking thoughts about the balance and volume of the service, I was forced to ask myself why I care and what my motivation is. I'm finding that hard to answer.

I'd like the motivation to be that I (think I) have an ability to guide people, that my leadership is good for the community. Yes, of course I get something out of it too; I've never been good at pure altruism. If it were altruism, I'd have to accept that the best way to serve the community might be to spend the service time in the social hall setting up the cookies and lemonade, and I wouldn't do that. (I do do behind-the-scenes stuff, a fair bit of it, at my synagogue, like helping to set up the room before morning services. But generally not at the expense of things I really want to be there for.)

So I'd like it to be about the community to some significant level, but what if it's really about me? Am I being some sort of a primadonna, looking for opportunities to perform for my own benefit? I don't think it's just that, but how would I know? When I am leading and things are going well, I feel elevated, a little closer to God, and that maybe others are a bit closer than they were too. But for all I know I'm just feeling the rise of a swelled head, not a divine connection. In truth there's probably some of each.

A way to test it would, in theory, to be to go into situations where people don't know me, where any status that's coming to me through this would be utterly irrelevant, and see what happens. Nursing homes, shiva minyanim for people I don't know, that sort of thing. I said "in theory", because I think part of what makes me feel the good stuff I do is the community, specifically the regular, steady group of people who know each other (and me) and come together regularly. And while I do lead shiva minyanim at times (often for people I don't know well), I must admit that nursing homes give me the willies. (See what I mean about lack of altruism? If I were to go into the rabbinate, clinical pastoral education would be a long, slow road for me, I think.)

Some of the motivation is probably a desire to make my rabbi proud. We have spent a lot of time talking and learning -- not nearly as much as I'd like but much more than any one member of a large congregation has any right to -- and I've grown a lot under his tutelage. Maybe I want to show him that he's done good. There are many ways to do that, but putting an obvious talent to use in accordance with things he's taught me would certainly be a big way.

And equally important, if not more important, is that he's my teacher and mentor and I want him to critique me so I'll get better. Any time I lead a service a bunch of people tell me "good job" afterwards; that's certainly nice, but more valuable is "did you consider X?" or "you might try Y" or "Z was wrong; let me correct you". Because I almost never lead if he's available, I don't get that kind of feedback from him.

It sometimes makes me a little sad that most of my opportunities to lead worship are in a different congregation. I suspect this worries my rabbi even though we did talk about it once. If I had more opportunities in my own congregation would I drop them? Well no, at this point I've made a commitment. If I had had more opportunities in my own congregation when they offered me this role, would I have taken it? That's a good question. If that congregation (or minyan) were to go poof would I seek out another? No, I'm there for the people.

(No, it's not practical for my rabbi to go to that minyan and thus give me the kinds of feedback I crave.)

I've been talking about leadership specifically in the context of leading worship. There are other kinds of leadership, formal and informal. In the informal realm, I know that I have had a significant effect on certain other members of my congregation, helping them to grow or sort out issues or reach out to God. Too many people have told me that I inspire them for me to ignore the possibility. Even when I have no official job, I am apparently something of a significant force in my congregation. People look up to me and respect me; that's pretty neat and a little unsettling.

Formally, well, I've been a committee chair and remain active on my committee, and I could see myself on certain others. I've been on the board, and I could do so again. Occasionally members of the executive committee try to feel me out; if I wanted to I think I could get onto the path that leads to synagogue president with ease. But that's not something I want. I could do the board again; I think I did some good there. As a member of the executive committee and ultimately president, I might have to deal with more sausage-making than I want while also not being able to give certain people the beatings with the clue-by-four that they so desperately need. (To be clear, I do not have specific individuals in mind. It's just that there are always some.)

So if I don't have the patience or diplomatic skills to be a synagogue president, does that also mean I'd be a bad rabbi? A fair bit of that job is management and diplomacy and individual counselling, after all. It feels different to me, as if the rabbi's core value is religion while the president's core value is money. That might be a naive, idealistic idea from outside both domains, though.

So, lots of unanswered questions about why I want to be a leader (and the kind of leader I want to be), and what it says about me more broadly. Lots to chew on yet.