We are What we Do

This past Sunday, at my synagogue’s Annual Meeting, I became Congregation Shaarei Shamayim’s President.  This is not the first time I have served as President of our inclusive Reconstructionist and Renewal Jewish community, which my wife and I helped to found 25 years ago. Of course, even though it is my 3rd or 4th time serving as President, I am still honored that our community views my leadership as helpful to its continued growth and development.

One of the advantages of founding an organization and sticking with it for 25 years, is that I have learned a lot about community building, organizational growth and leadership. During our early years, we were a very small, but incredibly creative and vibrant community.  We had no rabbi or any paid employees, met in the City of Madison’s historic Gates of Heaven synagogue (Shaarei Shamayim is the Hebrew for Gates of Heaven), and it even took a while before we had a name.

800px-Gates_of_Heaven_Synagogue_2010Thus, in our early years, our reliance on volunteers was 100%.  It was at that time, I coined the phrase, “We are what we do.”

I still use that phrase a lot because there is a tendency for some people in volunteer driven organizations to feel guilty when certain things simply do not get done.  It is my belief that rather than employ unproductive and negative guilt-tripping to motivate people to take on volunteer tasks, I simply remind them that, “We are what we do.”  In this way, whenever decisions must be made which add additional burdens, each person involved in potentially taking on the burden can assess whether they want our community to be known for either doing a particular thing or not.

Twenty-five years later, we:

  • have 115 member families;
  • are in the process of renewing our wonderful Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman’s contract for another 5 years;
  • have obtained grants for a second year of a summer Teen Service Learning program and community wide monthly Jewish Dialogue sessions;
  • have a beautiful home which we rent in the historic First Unitarian Society, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright;  50's-postcard-colorand
  • will welcome Soferet (female scribe), Yonah Lavery-Israeli, during a shabbaton weekend June 26-28, who is in the process of completing a new Torah for us,  through a generous grant from the Goodman Foundationrepairing torah

Indeed, we have come a long way, but that does not mean we are able to do all things for all of our members.  Like any organization, from time to time, we fall short of our hopes and dreams.  In each such case, I remind our community that, we are what we do.  These words remind us that for every task in front of us, we have a choice to be defined by what we do, or what we choose not to do.  No person or organization can do everything, but we can always remind ourselves that, who we are is defined by what we do.


For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.