6 Practices That Empower Teen Leaders

Teen leaders; courtesy URJ.

By Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE

“It helps me feel more a part of the community to be in charge. I’m not just going to Shabbat services and not knowing what to do, who to talk to, where to sit… If I’m leading the service, then I don’t need to worry about any of that. I know I’m standing in front of the room and I know people will talk to me. I don’t need to worry about having plans on Friday night because I’m a leader and they expect me to be at the service. I’m being held accountable for showing up. It just makes me feel more comfortable, accepted, and a part of things.” – Reform Jewish college leader

Whether we come into Jewish communal leadership through elections, applications, enrolling in programs, choosing to step-up or even being “voluntold,” we know in our gut that we choose to be Jewish leaders because it brings us joy, gives us a sense of purpose, ties us to our community, and grounds us. If we are really good at this work and truly blessed, our efforts to lead and bring others in with us moves our world to one that is more whole, just, and compassionate.

A year ago, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) set out to explore how we can support teens who choose leadership as their path into Judaism. We held conversations with more than 350 teens and adults who see themselves as leaders in our movement, asking asked them: “What skills and knowledge do you believe leaders need today and tomorrow?”

Six core ideas emerged. When we explored them with the members of the North American board of NFTY: The Refom Jewish Youth Movement, they called them “practices,” they said, “because they aren’t things you master, they are ways of being that you are always working on.”  

We were inspired by this thinking and are excited that we are now applying these practices to all teen programming. We encourage you to explore these six practices – and some of the coaching questions developed for conversations, mentoring, and reflection – to see how you can apply them in your own community.

1. Embrace areforming perspective.

Leaders work to hold tradition and innovation in dynamic tension while they embrace transition and view “reforming” as a healthy part of organizational life.

  • What is at the core of this moment? What is holding you back, and what is compelling you to move forward?
  • Think about your proudest accomplishment. Why does this accomplishment come to mind, and what strategies did you implement to achieve it? Now consider approaching this current challenge with the same mindset. How does this change your approach?
  • If you knew you couldn’t fail and no matter what you choose, everything would still be fine, what would you do?

2. Be creative.

Looking “backward from the future,” leaders have the courage and empathy to see different perspectives and craft new, original ideas.

  • What brilliance do you bring to this challenge?
  • What does success look like to you? Let’s name five completely different ways you could get to this same outcome.
  • If you were the bravest version of yourself today, what would you do?
  • What other voices or ideas have you heard that could be applied to this opportunity?

3. Apply Jewish wisdom and create meaning in Jewish practice.

Leaders strive to embrace Judaism as a resource for strength and endurance, bringing in Jewish wisdom and practice that helps them and their community flourish.

  • It seems you are having a challenge similar to [insert a biblical character or modern Jewish role model]. This is what they did when faced with such a challenge. What can you draw from that?
  • Is there a Jewish ritual that we could create to mark this moment for your community?
  • What might an original blessing for this moment include?

4. Seek out, recognize, and appreciate sacred partnerships.

Leaders have enough humility to recognize their limitations and seek out a diversity of sacred partners to share the responsibilities.

  • Are you the right leader for this moment?
  • Who else should be leading alongside you? Whose voice are you missing?
  • Can you identify an opportunity where you might step back and let other leaders come forward?
  • Who challenges you as a leader? How can you bring those voices into the middle of this work?

5. Build the community.

Leaders surround themselves with diverse, thoughtful community members who share their commitment and excitement.

  • Who isn’t showing up to this program/experience who should be? How can we bring them in?
  • Imagine someone with different experiences than you. How could you explain what you love about this community to them?
  • What are you hearing from others in this community? How can you integrate that into your way of thinking?

6. Embrace constructive conflict.

Leaders view disagreements as “conflicts for the sake of heaven” and create environments in which issues can be debated with curiosity, openness, and bravery.

  • What are you curious about in the other person’s view? What is interesting to you?
  • Let’s take a moment and assume that the other person is also “right.” Explain how both of you are right.
  • How can you help “lower the temperature” of an argument while still lifting up the differences of opinion?

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE, is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of learning and innovation for youth and a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. A longtime Jewish educator, author, and speaker, she holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Michelle is a recipient of the 2015 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog.