I should have handled it differently. I wish I had handled it differently.
I was a synagogue executive director, and having worked at several congregations, I knew that a big part of my job was responding to complaints. The complaints could be as mundane as a room that is too cold or too warm, or as harrowing as a family who did not feel supported during a time of emergency or did not feel welcome in our community.
And as an executive director, I represented everybody, but the order of priority and importance of who I represented was a constantly moving target. If someone expressed a concern about an approved policy, I needed to represent the board of directors and talk about why that policy was adopted. If a member could not get an appointment to see the rabbi, it may be that I needed to represent the rabbi to the member, and talk about a busy schedule and sacred commitments, or it may be that I needed to represent the member to the rabbi, and help the rabbi understand the importance of finding time for that particular meeting.
(and now, the story)
A new rabbi had just begun at our congregation. A young woman, newly ordained, she joined our congregation as her first pulpit. She came to us with energy, creativity and passion. She found ways to create community through teaching, social action and worship. People loved just being around her, and her enthusiasm spread quickly. Our congregation fell in love with her right away.
Our new rabbi had just led Shabbat services, and afterwards a member of the community with school aged children approached me. She said “Larry, I have a complaint.”
(Ok, I thought to myself, here we go.)
The complaint was not about a room that was too warm or too cold, but rather it was about the fact that the new, young female rabbi wore pants on the pulpit while leading worship. The woman making the complaint had grown up in a traditional synagogue, so having a female rabbi was a significant enough departure for her. The fact that the new female rabbi was also wearing pants rather than a more traditional, modest skirt was cause for complaint.
In the moment, with kids running through the room, music playing and people talking and rushing by me, my first thought was to share compassion and empathy.
“I’m so sorry you feel that way.“
The woman told me that she just didn’t feel it was right for the rabbi to dress the way she did, and she wanted someone to know.
I was stymied. Having grown up in a liberal, Reform Jewish congregation, it never would have occurred to me that a woman wearing slacks would be anything but completely proper and acceptable.
(Who do I represent?)
I wanted this member of our community to feel like she was being heard, and that we took her concerns seriously. I did not want the complaint to make its way to the rabbi without going through proper channels, and I wanted to be sure the board of directors knew I was doing my job. I heard these words come out of my mouth.
“Let me talk to the president of the board.”
Later the next week, I shared the concern about the rabbi’s pants with the president of the board of directors, noting I felt it was my responsibility to do so. The president shared the concern with the rabbi. When choosing an outfit for services, the rabbi was encouraged to reflect on the concerns and preconceptions that people from different backgrounds might have when they come to temple.
(I wish I had handled it differently)
Though I was not in the meeting when the president talked to the rabbi, I did hear later of the rabbi’s response. Rightfully so, she did not feel she had done anything wrong, and she felt that it was out of line for anyone to tell her how to dress, especially when the clothes she wore were all tasteful and completely appropriate for any work place.
The president reported to me that the conversation had taken place, and that I was able to report back to the woman who made the complaint that we had talked to the rabbi…and I regretted every word that came out of my mouth.
I have learned a lot since then about gender inclusion. I have learned about the words we should and should not use, and I have learned about how the actions we may take (for granted or not) can have lasting, negative effects, and I wish I had done things differently.
Upon hearing the complaint in that busy, Shabbat sanctuary, I wish I had done a better job of representing the rabbi. I wish I had done a better job of representing myself.
“I’m so sorry you feel that way. We encourage our clergy to dress in a manner that they find appropriate and comfortable. If you have a concern, I encourage you to make an appointment with her to discuss further.”
I could have then talked to the rabbi myself to make sure she knew to maybe expect a call, but I was there to support her however I could, and that should have been it.
(Who do I represent?)
The only person I should have felt the need to represent that busy Shabbat evening was the person about whom the complaint was being made. I should have represented the person who had done nothing wrong.
I think about that experience often, and I have used the memories of that experience to try to be a better professional and a better person.
I wish, I just really wish, I would have handled it differently.
We all have moments in our lives when we wish we could rewind and re-record. I thought your comment to the congregant was understandable although your revised one was certainly better. Those instances belong on a personal list entitled “what I learned “. Sounds like you refer to that list which demonstrates your sensitivity and your understanding that we all continue to be a work in progress. Thanks for the reminder.