Sulam Leadership Training: It’s Not Just for Presidents Anymore

KAREN BROOKS describes how United Synagogue’s commitment to leadership training has been expanded

by Karen W. Brooks

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A year ago, Nathaniel Sattler, incoming president of Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale, Wisconsin, was struggling with the day-to-day responsibilities of his role. Today his leadership has been fine tuned and re-energized through his participation in Sulam for Presidents, United Synagogue’s long-running training program for top synagogue leaders.

Sulam for Presidents gave Nathaniel the specific tools he needed to lead successfully. “I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing and what I was struggling with, but it helped crystallize some of my weaknesses as a leader and it provided ways for me to strengthen my performance,” he said.

Nathaniel’s comments echo the sentiments of over a thousand other kehilla presidents who have gone through Sulam for Presidents (sulam is Hebrew for ladder) over the past 20 years. This need and desire for high level training was just what United Synagogue had in mind when, in response to the sentiment of its kehilla (congregational) leaders, it included in its strategic plan a provision to actively guide all current synagogue leaders, not only presidents, as well as to cultivate a new generation of leadership.

Under the new plan, Sulam Leadership is the brand name for a larger, integrated set of leadership development resources. And now the highly regarded seminar for presidents will be a capstone training experience. Ultimately, this approach will ensure the succession of strong leadership within a kehilla. In Nathaniel’s case, he gained specific tools to enhance his leadership capabilities. But Sulam for Presidents also reignited a deeper connection to his synagogue. “The most important thing that I realized is how much passion I and others have for the Conservative movement,” he says.

One of the new Sulam programs, Sulam for Current Leaders (SCL), focuses on the specific challenges faced in every congregation – cultivating a compelling vision, balancing leadership and management, delegating responsibility to volunteers, and creating staff, clergy and lay leader partnerships. At its core, SCL is board training, yet its aspirations are much higher. “Our goal is to transform kehillot into visionary, strategic and intentional centers of Jewish life. This process begins with lay leaders, clergy and staff in alignment about where they are headed together,” says Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of kehilla enrichment.


What makes Sulam for Current Leaders unique is that it takes place on a local level. United Synagogue provides “train the trainers” webinars featuring Robert Leventhal, United Synagogue’s new leadership specialist, and Rabbi Savenor, along with a series of online program resources. These materials can be used by a local facilitator to implement the workshop and guide next steps.

One of the things participants have most appreciated about Sulam for Current Leaders is its emphasis on connecting contemporary leadership training to the ancient wisdom of Jewish texts. The textual component not only connects workshops to the larger values of Conservative Judaism, but also emphasizes its intention of preparing Jewish leaders, not just leaders.

“Many people don’t have Jewish board experience,” says Haran Rashes, United Synagogue’s Central District vice chair and immediate past president of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But this program focuses on putting the Jewish flavor in board development, relating back to the Torah and Talmud.”

For most, it’s also a solution to very real problems faced by Conservative synagogue leaders today. “Sulam helped me generate interest and enthusiasm from individuals who otherwise might not have been seeking greater involvement,” says David Reifler, past president of Congregation Ahavas Israel, Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I didn’t have the time, energy or wisdom to think of longer term strategic planning, bylaws and their future impact, leadership development, education, things that were foreign to me. Now I feel more comfortable with these issues.”

Sulam for Emerging Leaders (SEL) is a new initiative designed to engage potential leaders in the 35-45 age range. Like SCL, it is implemented within the local kehilla. The program provides a curriculum to inspire participants about how involvement in a Conservative kehilla and its surrounding community can enhance their lives.

Sulam1Part of the urgency informing the creation of Sulam for Emerging Leaders is the need to rebuild the leadership pipeline. Motivating young families on the margins of the community to remain engaged is integrated into the program’s recruitment strategy. “Half of our group has never been involved in our synagogue. Maybe some have been to services on the high holidays or send their kids to Hebrew school, but they don’t know how to be involved. They don’t know what’s expected of them. We haven’t done a good job of making it approachable. It’s important to make the experience as comfortable as possible, so at least they’re open to the possibility over the next year or two. We’re their doorway,” says Connie Liss, the co-leader of Shaare Torah, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

If Sulam for Current Leaders focuses on the hows of Jewish communal leadership, Sulam for Emerging Leaders deals with the whys. “It helps you discover what you are passionate about and what you need from the community to help you fulfill it. It helps you decide whether or not that’s something you’re ready to become involved with,” adds Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, of Shaare Torah.

At the closing ceremony for the newly revised Sulam for Presidents program, a tallit is passed around, and each kehilla president has a chance to talk about his or her experience.

“There is an intangible part of the program that is about the warmth and good Jewish feelings that you can’t advertise,” says Rita Ruby, president, Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. “That’s what makes it so powerful.”

The expansion of Sulam to include current and emerging leaders is not just fulfilling the intent of United Synagogue’s strategic plan. These extra rungs in the leadership ladder create opportunities for leaders at every level to have a powerful experience that inspires them to reach higher for themselves and their communities.

Karen W. Brooks has worked on staff at Vogue, Seventeen and YM magazines and was a contributing editor for Elite Traveler, Elements, Hamptons and Ocean Drive. She held many leadership roles in USY.