Heroic Leadership

by Misha Galperin

A few years ago I was in Israel with a group of JCC directors at a mifgash – an encounter – between us and Israeli volunteers at the Israel Forum, then headed by Avraham Infeld. I will never forget one of the leadership exercises they did with us. They asked us various questions to draw attention to our cultural differences despite our strong ethnic or religious similarities. One of the questions was to name a personal Jewish hero. Many of the Israelis put David Ben Gurion in the top seat, often followed by Menahem Begin or Yoni Netanyahu – the hero of Entebbe. Many of my American colleagues said Sandy Koufax.

Even not having been born in America but now residing in Brooklyn – Koufax’s hallowed ground, I am all for left-handed baseball players who get into the Baseball Hall of Fame (and he was the youngest person at the time to have been elected!). His decision not to pitch in game #1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell out on Yom Kippur is iconic in American Jewish history as an example of personal and professional conflicts being resolved along ethnic lines. His act was symbolic for a generation of American Jews who took pride both in his achievements and in his act of loyalty to his heritage.

I picked the biblical figure of Joseph. I felt that in answering this question, I needed to turn to someone who was authentically Jewish, not only someone who was heroic. And I thought about this immediate choice later and Joseph’s appeal. He was able to turn adversity into triumph, and he used his leadership gifts for good purpose, devoting his service into saving others in times of great distress. He was a dreamer and was moved by his visions of the future.

Joseph was also the first person in Jewish history to have great influence on his own people because he succeeded in the difficult royal court of others. In other words, he expanded his influence with the Jews and was finally accepted by his brothers only after his work outside the community was universally acknowledged. I am not saying that this is an ideal course, but it is one we recognize. Often we do not appreciate the gifts in our midst until they leave the Jewish community professionally and advance in the general world of business or academia. We then welcome them back with open arms, forgetting that we earlier pushed them away or marginalized them.

Joseph’s ultimate success came because he found a way to achieve personal victory by staying committed to his own sense of confidence even in environments where his leadership gifts were not fully recognized or nourished. And he leaves an enduring lesson for our people. We have to recognize and grow talent within. Unfortunately because we marginalized Joseph, he took his talent elsewhere, as so many native leaders do today whose gifts are not recognized by our community.

It’s not enough to name a Jewish hero. We have to examine the leadership qualities of heroes across a lifetime and ask if their contributions feel genuinely Jewish from a values perspective. Heroism is not about a sterling act; it’s about a lifetime achievement award.

Misha Galperin is president and chief executive officer of Jewish Agency International Development. His forthcoming book “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations: Ten Practical Lessons to Help You Implement Change and Achieve Your Goals”, published by Jewish Lights, will be available July 19th.

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