By Ross Beroff
In August of 2010, Sandy Cardin, president of The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, published an op-ed on the need for more programs to empower and develop the next generation of Jewish leaders. In the op-ed, he quoted and disagreed with the late Charles Schusterman z”l, who said, “Another leadership development program? Don’t we already have enough of them in the Jewish world? What I think we need are some ‘followership’ programs.”
Now, 17 years after those words were first spoken and six years after the op-ed disagreeing with them was published, the paradigm has once again shifted back, and, as a community, we must once again explore the concept of “followership.”
The issue that we face is not necessarily that we try too much to develop leaders, but rather how broadly we define leadership. To my generation, millennials, leadership has become the Jewish version of a participation trophy. At nearly every conference, seminar, or meeting, my peers and I are told that we are the future of the Jewish community, that we are the next generation of Jewish leaders. At that point, what have we done to show leadership? We showed up. Logically, it makes no sense. Not everyone can be a leader, because, in the end, who will they lead? More importantly, not everyone has the capacity or the capability to lead. Instead, many in my generation want nothing more than to be consumers of their Jewish experiences while leaving the production to others. The focus on everyone being a leader and such broad-based leadership development is leaving those with actual capacity and vision in the lurch.
If Leading Edge is reporting that, within five to seven years, the heads of Jewish organizations across the spectrum – from synagogues to federations to advocacy – will need to be replaced, then what will happen in 20 years? Will my generation, which is supposedly the future, be able to step up? I would venture to guess that the answer is no. What will happen instead is a generation of people that think they are leaders with few that can actually lead – as those with the drive and innate ability are not given the genuine resources and development that is necessary to help them grow as a Jewish leader.
We must drop the facade that we are all leaders and start acknowledging that it is ok to just be a consumer. When Moshe Rabbeinu led the Hebrews to the sea, it was one of his followers, Nachshon, who took the first step into the water. Teach my generation that it is ok to be Nachshon. We do not always need to be at the forefront of the story, plotting the path. Tell us that it is ok to step up and take action when the time is right, and, after our moment is done, take a step back and let others move us all forward. The next generation of Jewish followers is here; they just don’t know it yet. The next generation of Jewish leaders is here; they’re just waiting for the chance to lead and people to follow.
Ross Beroff is a student in the University Scholars Program at Northeastern University. He is a member of Hillel International’s inaugural Student Cabinet and is the Director of Partnerships and Outreach for NETWORK: The American Union of Jewish Students. He is also the creator of what2jew.com – a comprehensive resource for Jewish college students looking for opportunities to explore their Judaism.