Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
The Tisch Rabbinical Fellowship and
Leadership for Tomorrow’s Synagogues
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, N ’69, Ph.D. ’73;
Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual, HUC-JIR/New York
Blessing and Responsibility
Nicole Roberts, C’ 12;
Tisch Rabbinical Fellow;
Rabbinical Intern, Temple Micah, Washington, DC
y “summer residency,” a 7-week internship arranged by the Tisch Rabbinical Fellowship, has given me the opportunity to shadow a rabbinical mentor in a congregation
known for its dynamism, willingness to push boundaries, and success in, as our Fellowship leader Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman might say, “doing synagogue differently.”
The Tisch Fellowship seeks to help us become reflective leaders who think differently and
about what Jewish life could be, and about what vibrant synagogue life
might look like in the years to come. But most of all, the Fellowship strives to encourage us to think deeply about who we are and what we believe, so that we can “lead from a
place of authenticity.” I have emerged from this process with a clear and exciting vision for my rabbinate and feel deeply that with this blessing comes responsibility – a com-
The greatest leadership challenges, I feel, come from within: our tendency to get mired in the mundane when we ought to be thinking
our fear of failure or opposition,
which keeps us from being creative; the ease with which we lose touch with who we are and neglect what makes our souls soar. But when I reflect on what I have experienced
in the Fellowship and how much has been invested in my rabbinate – and when I picture the sixteen of us sitting in a circle engaged in stimulating conversation, ritual, and wor-
ship – I remember that I am
to think big, try new things, and take the time to nourish my spirit. HUC-JIR has been the experience of a lifetime. The Tisch Fellowship
has been the Sinai of that experience – a gift that commits me to a lifetime of
With blessing comes responsibility.
A Spiritual Language of Leadership:
Philosopher Richard Rorty holds that we
make progress not by arguing better but by talking differently. Students learn, there-
fore, to speak differently about challenges rather than to replicate old conversations
that go nowhere. They vision theologically, bring Jewish insight to bear on secular
phenomena, and take positive approaches to what others see as intractable prob-
lems (intermarriage, and the generational changeover beyond baby-boomers, for
example). We insist on speaking differently about the world.
Leaders need their own spiritual moorings: attention to
their interior spiritual journeys and
tention about their approach to the journeys
of others. Students develop personal statements of autobiographical theology: the
truths one learns by experience, the doubts one must own up to, and the realities
of pursuing religious lives in the 21st century.
In earlier eras, the College-Institute’s curriculum admitted newly relevant
disciplines to its offerings: first (the 19th century), preaching; then (20th century),
education and counseling; and now (the 21st century), leadership. Each one has re-
sponded to its own perceived crisis: preaching accompanied the very rise of Reform;
education addressed the need to transmit Jewish culture across generational gaps
caused by the Americanization of immigrants; counseling filled in for the loss of natu-
ral communities, the families and neighborhoods that once held people together.
Today’s accent on leadership fends off the possibility of institutional irrelevance.
Every crisis is an opportunity. The very threat to synagogues as we know them
illuminates a vision of synagogues as we would like them to be. The Tisch Rabbinical
Fellowship is committed to those synagogues in the making.
hese are the kind of questions that make the Tisch Rabbinical Fellowship a
unique foray into a new form of leadership. Over their three-year Fellowship
tenure, students visit mega-churches, read widely in contemporary culture,
and visit with such experts like David Harris of the American Jewish Committee
CAJC), David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Richard Vosko (the world’s
leading expert in sacred space), Federation executives like Boston’s Barry Shrage,
sociologists of the American religious condition, and masters of new disciplines like
Practical Theology and Congregational Studies.
the leaders are expected to lead. Yes, lead-
ers share common characteristics, but they must also respond to the specificity of
their own institutional environment. The Tisch Leadership Initiative focuses on syna-
gogues as the key institution for a Jewish future – no small matter, given the many
critics who trounce synagogues as out of date and unable to compete in a post-
denominational era. We disagree. We believe in the synagogue’s transformative
capacity, and wonder constantly what synagogues must know in order to thrive.
It is not enough for synagogue leaders to read leading books and journals on corpo-
rate leadership in general. They need to know more about our current moment in
time and place, the newest insights in intellectual thought, trends in American
spirituality, and the emerging models of congregational life.
The Tisch Rabbinical Fellowship puts all this together in the nurturing environ-
ment of an ongoing think tank, where everything is grist for the conversational mill,
and where nothing is beyond being said, as long as it is in service of higher truths and
the Jewish mission toward greatness in the 21st century. Students are urged to de-
velop boldness of thought, singularity of commitment, and depth of character. We
meet outside of class – at the end of class days, perhaps, and sometimes, for entire
weekends or days on end – to pursue this curricular enrichment. The Fellowship is
constructed around four planks that constitute, together, a vision of synagogue
Standard Leadership Theory:
Although insufficient in and of itself, secular leader-
ship theory is nonetheless necessary. Students, therefore, learn basic principles and
best practices of organizational dynamics – applied, however, to synagogue life.
Sociology of Religion:
Since synagogues are part of North American religious life
generally, students study the impact of large-scale religious trends upon identity.
Part of this sociological understanding comes from exposure to the fullness of Jewish
institutional life – the geography, so to speak, of the Jewish institutional map: every-
thing from the changing nature of religious denominations to the role of leading
non-synagogue Jewish organizations like Federations, community foundations, and
other institutions of note.
Why, overall, is liberal religion declining throughout North America,
and how can synagogues flourish nonetheless?
What can we learn frommega-churches, the most successful
religious experiment of the last three decades?
What can we learn from highly competent observers of the American scene?
Tisch Rabbinical Fellow Nicole Roberts, C ’12,
with mentor Rabbi
Daniel Zemel, N ’79, and congregant Martha Adler.