5 Things To Do When Developing Your Congregational Code of Ethics

It’s hard to overstate the importance of maintaining the highest ethical standards in our sacred work together. In light of this reality, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) joined our Movement partners – the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and National Association for Temple Administration (NATA) – and adopted a formal ethics code in 2017.

The URJ Ethics Code applies to URJ volunteers, most notably North American Board members. However, for lack of jurisdiction, it doesn’t apply to conduct inside a URJ member congregation.

Yet we know our synagogues are challenged by unethical conduct. In fact, the URJ Knowledge Network regularly receives inquiries from congregations about ethical issues that have surfaced in their community. And when individuals engage in inappropriate or unethical conduct, they both harm others and damage the community itself.

To maintain the synagogue as a sacred space and a spiritual home for all who enter its doors, everyone in the community – members, lay leaders, clergy and professional staff – must act according to Reform Jewish values. Towards this end, the URJ strongly encourages congregations to develop and implement a code of ethics that all understand they must adhere to if they wish to participate in the community. To support our congregations in this effort, a URJ task force developed resources for congregations wanting to develop their own code of ethics.

Such a code demonstrates that the entire community aspires to act according to the highest ethical standards, gives your congregation an opportunity to examine its values, and preserves and reinforces the integrity of the synagogue as a sacred – and safe – institution for all. It also informs members of acceptable standards of individual behavior and provides clear guidelines to help them determine if their actions and synagogue decision-making are, indeed, ethical.

As leaders of their spiritual communities, rabbis are uniquely positioned to make creating a synagogue ethics code a congregational priority. Doing so alongside their temple presidents, rabbis can also model sacred partnership, which itself is a foundational element of a healthy and ethical synagogue culture.

Here are five specific actions to consider as your congregation develops and implements a code of ethics:

1. Obtain leaders’ buy-in.

Lay and professional leaders should clearly articulate and endorse the need for an ethics code and support its development and implementation. When possible, temple leadership should establish a dedicated team or task force – representative of the congregation’s composition – to construct the ethics code, engage key stakeholders, and report regularly on the process and progress-to-date.

Once it’s been developed, synagogue leaders should inform and educate the entire community about the code in a way that reflects the congregation’s culture. Ultimately, the board should ratify the final document – with an understanding that it’s a “living document” that, based on experience, periodically will need to be reviewed and revised.

2. Determine the breadth of the code.

Consider whether the code of ethics will apply only to lay leader volunteers and professional staff or to every member of the synagogue community and whether certain provisions need apply only to partners with financial responsibilities.

Complaints of ethics violations against individuals who are members of a Reform Movement professional organization – CCAR, ACC, or NATA – should be referred to the specific organization’s ethics committee.

3. Select values to highlight.

The foundation of your code of ethics should rest on a set of well-articulated Jewish values. To determine which values your congregation wants to highlight, you may wish to reference your existing values statement and/or conduct an evaluation with lay and professionals stakeholders to determine your community’s top values. Whenever possible, ground the supporting values in Jewish texts.

4. State desired behaviors.

Your ethics code should go beyond describing unethical conduct and include desired behaviors as well. For example, regarding financial management, you may note an unethical behavior that is prohibited such as, “Misappropriation of synagogue funds for unauthorized use.” A corresponding desired behavior might be “Scrupulously and transparently handle synagogue assets.”  In addition, be sure your code of ethics complies with local, state/provincial, and federal legal statutes.

5. Position the code as a brit or covenant.

Framing the congregational code of ethics as a brit, or covenant, will remind those to whom it applies of their responsibility to maintain a sacred relationship with their synagogue community. You might consider including the ethics code in new member membership packets and post it on the synagogue’s website. Lastly, your congregation is encouraged to sign this brit with the URJ to demonstrate your commitment to ensuring respectful and safe congregations and communities.

To learn more about developing a code of ethics, visit the Congregational Ethics Codes group, or search the #CongregationalEthics topic tag in The Tent. Here you can access a detailed resource for creating your own code of ethics, view a sample template of an ethics code, and collaborate with other congregations engaged in this endeavor.

Dr. Steve Weitz is a past president and current trustee at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. He is a URJ vice chair and chair of the URJ Ethics Council.  He serves on the Oversight Committee and the North American Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism. He is also a member of the CCAR Ethics Process Review Committee.