Building together, and the rotating rebbe chair
January 28, 2018
When my colleagues and I came together to form Bayit, we brainstormed not only the kinds of projects we want to take on, but also the kinds of structures we need to build in order to support the work. Our bylaws offer a governance structure that's not quite like anything else I've experienced elsewhere, and I'm super-excited about it (because yes, I'm the kind of geek who gets excited about nonprofit governance!) It also feels emblematic of much that we hope to do and be.
Bayit has a group of Founding Builders. At any given time, we have a board chair and vice-chair, as is standard on most boards of directors. We also have a secretary and a treasurer, and an ethics chair who leads our ethics committee, and those latter three roles last for a year. But the chair and vice-chair roles will rotate twice a year. We all get a turn.
At our December Senior Builder meeting we picked a first board chair, and the next person down the alphabet gets to be our first vice chair. When that term is up, the vice chair will become chair, the next person in line gets to be vice chair, and the first chair gets to be a regular founding builder like everyone else. It's also built into our bylaws that anyone who wants to do so can "pass," so no one is obligated to serve in the chair or vice-chair role if it's not a good time for them to take that role on. But everyone is entitled to a turn. Serving as board chair is something each of us gets the opportunity to do.
Bayit's founding philosophy is that we're all builders. That's core to our vision, both within the organization (in how the founding builders relate to each other, and to the other folks who collaborate and build with us) and in the organization's relationship with those who (we hope) will embrace and use and adapt and respond to the resources we'll provide. We want to live our values and to model mutual empowerment and healthy collaboration. As we rotate board roles, we each get the opportunity to grow in different ways, and to collectively take responsibility for balancing our skill-sets and energetics around the board table and across the organization.
We made this choice with loving awareness of one of the stories people like to tell about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers: the story of the rebbe chair and the Shabbes tisch. (I've told this one before, but it's worth sharing again.) Reb Zalman used to hold a regular "tisch" on Shabbat. A tisch (טיש) is a festive gathering around the table, often featuring food and a l'chaim (a toast) and singing and hearing the rebbe give over some Torah.
At the beginning of the tisch, he'd be sitting in the "rebbe chair" at the head of the table. And when he was done teaching, he'd ask everyone to rise, and all move over one seat, and whoever was then in the rebbe seat became the rebbe, and whatever they had to teach, the table received with the same attentiveness they had given to Reb Zalman. And so on, and so on, until everyone had had the opportunity to sit in the rebbe seat and to experience being in the rebbe role.
A rebbe, taught Reb Zalman z"l, doesn't have to be a singular individual in a position of power. Rebbe can be a role we fulfill for each other, a role into which each person is nurtured and nourished to grow. The person "in the rebbe chair" isn't the permanent vertical top-down leader. The person occupying that leadership role is meant to be a fount of inspiration and collective guidance -- and that inspiration and guidance can, and should, and arguably must, come through each of us in turn. This means it's the job of each of us to honor our own rebbe spark -- and also to let it go so that the flow can come through others, too.
Each of us can be the rebbe, and can honor the rebbe spark in the others around the table. Each of us can be empowered to lead, and to support others in leadership. Each of us can be a builder of the Jewish future of which we dream. That's part of what I understand Reb Zalman's vision to have been, and that's the activating philosophy behind Bayit. So tell us: what do you want your Jewish future to be, and what tools do you need in order to bring that vision to life?