My Years with Hillel

Where are the Jewish models, best practices, and inspiring stories of social change?

by Tzvi Raviv

Recently, I found myself reading the works of two very different managers, Alfred Sloan and Rick Warren. Alfred Sloan was the head of General Motors from 1937 to 1956. Towards the end of his career, Mr. Sloan published a memoir, My Years with General Motors. In his memoir Sloan presents his views on management and the corporate structure. Even today My Years with General Motors is considered one of the best business books ever written.

The other book I read doesn’t immediately seem like a fit for someone working at a Jewish communal organization. The book is The Purpose Driven Church by Pastor Rick Warren. Mr. Warren is the head of a megachurch in southern California. The book is a how-to guide for how to create a successful congregation. Although Mr. Warren writes for a Christian audience, his lessons are valuable to all mission-driven organizations, regardless of faith and culture.

What drives these two very different men to share their passion and successes with the world? One source of motivation might be altruism, providing others with tools to be as successful as the authors. In the case of Mr. Warren the motivation might also be to promote Christian Evangelicalism.

The bigger question I have is why not enough Jewish professionals take the time to write about their work. Where are the Jewish models, best practices, and inspiring stories of social change? Yes, some of us blog and use social media, but why aren’t Jewish communal servants writing in more formal ways? I am sure that the lack of written work is not because of a shortage of success stories.

It is disappointing for me as a Jewish professional that I must look outside the Jewish world for professional knowledge. I’d much rather learn from senior Jewish leaders’ first-hand accounts of their experiences serving in the Jewish communal sector. Those written works will serve as the foundation for the training of current and future Jewish professionals, writing a roadmap to organizational success for Jewish executives.

As a Hillel professional I will first ask that question of the organization I work for. Some Hillel professionals work on campus for decades, and I imagine those professionals have a story to share. Therefore, I want to raise the question: where is the book My Years with Hillel? Or even the bigger question: where are the books by the iconic leaders of the Jewish community about their work serving the Jewish community? Certainly, there’s no dearth of scholarship coming from Jewish thinkers. But there’s very little written about transformational change and, the examples that do exist are rarely written by the people in the case study. For example, the story of Ralph Goldman’s leadership at the Joint Distribution Committee is told by others. Some write practical books about the work of others without having practical experience themselves.

Maybe the lack of extensive written work may be explained by Thomas Kuhn’s theory about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thomas Kuhn wrote that textbooks are rewritten only after a paradigm shift. There are no textbooks on Jewish communal leadership written from the first-hand account of a seasoned Jewish leader, leaving no books to be rewritten. I hope that the world of Jewish communal service is on the verge of a paradigm shift, a shift that will lead to knowledge sharing through case studies and first-hand accounts.

If senior leaders don’t share their successes and failures, we are destined to make the same mistakes over and over again. Finally, Rabbi Tarfon would say, “the day is short, the work is significant.” I believe that my work in the Jewish community is significant and the reward is great, making the world a better place. This task can be better accomplished through learning from each other.

Tzvi Raviv is Director of Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement.

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  1. says

    Interesting you should end with the truncated quote from Rabbbi Tarfon, the rest of which reads roughly, “…the workers are lazy, the reward great, and the Master is pressing.” I would challenge us to consider each of these last three elements when it comes to producing the kind of materials you are proposing – are the workers lazy? Is the reward so great? And is anyone really pressing Jewish professionals to begin seriously documenting their stories and their accomplishments (and their failures)? This article, of course, is a great start on that end.

    While I appreciate and sympathize with the premise, and would genuinely enjoy reading a “My Years at Hillel,” there’s also a part of me that’s glad that there is no industry pumping out Jewish leadership manuals. While I believe that there is much we can learn from one another, there is also value in having to look outside ourselves for inspiration. The Jewish organizational world, however fractured, is a fairly small, fairly closed system which must always be wary of becoming an echo chamber. in network-speak, I would argue we have to tend to our periphery and not just our core.

    (That said, I would LOVE to see a publication of Jewish ideas and initiatives and success stories that had such resonance and power that it was not only a must-have in the Jewish professional world, but a hot item in other communities. I’m looking forward to reading the blog post on EChristianPhilanthropy, so to speak, which references a great book on successful Jewish leadership!)

  2. says

    I would take a slightly different tack to the one taken by Tzvi Raviv. So, while I agree that there are lots of lessons out there in the Jewish (and non-Jewish world) that we should be learning from, the book that always inspired me the most was not focused on an individual per se, but a book called “The Good High School” written in 1983 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. It isn’t exactly a best-seller (unless you are an educator) but she describes in powerful narratives the story of 6 excellent high schools. Using detail and thick descriptions she creates portraits of the schools, and their leaders, which inspire and teach at the same time. From my own years at Hillel I always wanted to copy this book and share it with Hillel professionals and others. So, rather than “My Years with Hillel”, I would rather see a book called “The Good Hillel” (or “The Good Jewish Day School” or “The Good Camp”), which shares portraits of the institutions (and their leaders and students) that we can all learn from. Not a leadership manual focused around an individual, but a series of pictures that share valuable lessons and create meaningful conversation about what we are doing and what we would aspire to do.

  3. tzvi raviv says

    Thank you for your feedback.

    I will be presenting at the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America conference on June 5. The topic of my presentation is the importance of communicating values. I hope to see you there.