Some people will say that the key to reviving Jewish community life, especially in the synagogues, is through charismatic leadership. Without question, such leadership is highly important and plays a vital role in the community. But if the renewal of our institutions and communities is primarily about charismatic leadership, then how do we define what qualifies as “charismatic?”
Consider the case of colleague Rabbi Andy Bachman as reported in the current issue of New York Magazine. Following a stint as director of the Bronfman Center at New York University and a short tenure at Reboot (during which he simultaneously developed a grassroots effort called Brooklyn Jews), he assumed the position of rabbi at Beth Elohim, which had been a rather standard Reform synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Since Rabbi Bachman’s tenure began at Beth Elohim, membership has increased — in part because he is merging “Brooklyn Jews” participants into it but also because of his leadership skills.
Lest those who read this blog think that we measure success in terms of dues-paying membership, allow me to repeat one of JOI’s mantras: “Engagement leads to affiliation. Affiliation does not necessarily lead to engagement.” Instead, it is best to see how Bachman leads and why his leadership style draws people to him. Partly, it’s “his relaxed style [that is] a breath of fresh air” as one of his new congregants notes; partly, it’s how he “balances worldly knowledge and approachability with a spiritual detachment therefrom,” as another new member commented.
Plus, Rabbi Bachman knows the diversity of the world around him. The son of a Lutheran mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father, he describes a mostly secular youth of obsessions with sports and politics. His brother is nonreligious, one of his sisters is Catholic, and one is a practicing Jew. Perhaps his success is in this simple formula: he considers himself more of a “neighborhood rabbi” than a professional Jew. In his words, “The concept of the ‘neighborhood rabbi’ is at the core of my work. If I forget to make a call to a sick person, if I was too brusque with someone, if I missed an appointment, I hear about it immediately because we all live in the same neighborhood.” So perhaps Martin Buber was right. All living is indeed in meeting—one with the other, the I and the Thou.
Andy Bachman doesn’t need JOI’s help. What JOI does is distill what works for successful leaders like Rabbi Bachman and shares those methodologies with the rest of the community: meeting people on a personal level, learning their needs and interests, and providing entryways into Judaism by directly addressing those needs and interests. It’s more than just charisma; it’s caring, listening, and knowing what to offer that will be most helpful. Some of this can be taught, some is learned over time, and some of it just comes naturally for those few great leaders.