Transition and New Beginnings
By Elliot Salo Schoenberg
Adapted from The Highway,
a complete search manual for rabbis seeking new rabbinic positions
William Bridges, an internationally acclaimed transition consultant, teaches us that the “New Beginning” does not start right away, but is a process that takes time. In the transition, both the rabbi and the organization are creating a new identity together. The New Beginning can set the tone for the relationship and the future.
What can you do to manage the “New Beginning” well?
The search committee needs to become a transition committee. When you first enter a new community, there will be all kinds of questions. Some members of the transition committee dedicated to your success should be available to supply practical information in a timely fashion. Questions of a personal or private nature will likely come up, such as which dry cleaners your family should use. The transition committee should supply a list of doctors, dentists, accountants and other professionals that your family might need.
The most important thing you can do to build success is establish many relationships with numerous people as soon as possible. Creating relationships is priority #1 for both the rabbi and the institution. New rabbis and institutions often rush to create new programs, but the rabbi, the transition committee, and the officers need to slow things down and emphasize building personal relationships. Stakeholders want you to know their name more than to propose a new activity. People are more important than programs. Building relationships takes time.
The rabbi’s role is to be open, to listen, to learn about the community’s needs. You should speak about values, not specific programs. The goal is to make people feel heard and appreciated for their prior achievements in the institution. Afterwards, there will be moments to reflect on all the different observations and see if patterns emerge or priorities appear that can become the basis for future programming. You should try to meet one-on-one with as many members of the leadership as possible to create relationships and begin to build trust.
Learn the Culture and Identity of the Institution
It is important for you to learn the community's culture promptly. It can be difficult to learn local institutional culture and customs since they may be hidden or not yet formally articulated by the lay leadership.
When rabbis appreciate the community’s culture, they build trust and rapport with the membership. If there is a conflict between the culture and a proposed change, the culture wins. If a rabbi wishes to introduce a change, the rabbi should position the change as congruent to the existing culture. Learn the new culture so later the change process will proceed smoothly.
First impressions count. Research continues to teach that first impressions make long lasting impressions that are difficult to change. What do you want your first act of leadership to be? Your first visible act should showcase your rabbinic talents. Consult with your leadership in order to determine the best opportunity to make the first impression.
It is my experience that one of the greatest tools to success in a new rabbinic position is feedback. Feedback and open lines of communication can be critical to a rabbi's path to success. Six months or so into your term, hold a discussion with the transition committee to see if there are any surprises and take note of them.
As a candidate, you received a lot of information orally, you heard stories, you received answers to many questions. Now, ask the transition committee to provide it all in writing. Review with the lay president or your supervisor the minutes of the board for the last two years. Ask the chairs of key committees to provide the minutes of their past meetings for at least two years. Ask for bulletins or newsletters for the last two years because it is an excellent way to learn about the history and records of achievement and also about the communities' hopes and intentions. Written documents will help you be sensitive to the history and culture.
Anticipate that First Change
There is always a certain pressure on the new rabbi to make changes. The competent rabbi will come with an agenda and normal institutional growth will mean changes as well. However, now is not the time to make quick changes, but to stress the continuities. The task of the rabbi is to let people know you want to learn their needs and their priorities before you introduce a change.
The first change will make a memorable impression; it will have great symbolic value. So, you and your transition committee might consider together what that first change will be, growing out of reflections of the communities' needs and priorities. What do you want your first impression to be?
The ability to transfer our rabbinate from one work setting to the next is a sign of a mature and healthy professional. How do rabbis and institutions make successful transition? With intention. With time. With patience.