A Center for Jewish Leadership – Why Now, Why At All?

By Hal M. Lewis

[This article is the eleventh and final in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs shar

For the past several weeks, at the gracious invitation of Dan Brown and eJewish Philanthropy, faculty, students, alumni, and mentors of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership have, on these pages, explored issues of Jewish leadership in very thoughtful and sometimes highly personal ways. This series, timed to coincide with our 90th anniversary, marks the launch of Spertus Institute’s Center for Jewish Leadership.

It seems appropriate to conclude this series with some reflections about why we created the Center for Jewish Leadership at Spertus and why we think such an entity is essential at this time in American Jewish life.

There are seven seminal beliefs that underlie the Spertus Center for Jewish Leadership.

  1. We believe that great Jewish communities need great Jewish leaders. The challenges confronting American Jewish life today are simply too complex to be responded to with outdated modalities. We cannot hope to address twenty-first century problems with twentieth century organizations and antiquated solutions. Our community must invest in the training and development of those who will lead a very different Jewish world from the one in which they were raised.
  2. We believe that Jewish leadership is real; it is neither an artifice nor a fabrication. Not simply that which is practiced by those in positions of influence who happen to be Jewish, or that which transpires in the boardrooms of Jewish institutions, Jewish leadership derives from a thoughtful and ongoing read of classical and modern Jewish sources on leadership. Because there is no such thing as masekhet manhigut (a singular talmudic tractate on leadership), or a separate book of the Torah that encapsulates leadership teachings, these principles must be extrapolated from Jewish texts by means of careful study, thoughtful analyses, and what might be called contemporary midrash, the creative application of venerated sources to new realities. When that happens, it becomes clear that Jewish wisdom, on subjects ranging from effective decision making to the use and abuse of power, has something of great value and resonance to say to today’s leaders.
  3. We believe, as Maimonides taught, that when it comes to leadership training we should “consider the truth regardless of the source.” Much as we contend that those who purport to be Jewish leaders ought to be familiar with the richness of classical Jewish sources on leadership, ours is not a triumphalist or exclusivist approach. On the contrary, there is much to learn from others about effective leadership, as well. Insights from the corporate world, the military, and the academy must also be part of the training of Jewish leaders.
  4. We believe that Jewish leaders are made not born. For far too long, leadership studies were dominated by the false notion that only certain types, endowed with select characteristics, were capable of leading. If one lacked those traits she would never succeed as a leader. Over the centuries, Judaism has proffered a counter-narrative to this myth of the great man theory of leadership and similar inanities. The Torah, for example, instructs that all Israel is mamlekhet kohanim – an entire polity capable of leading. To further prove the point that leadership is learned not innate, one need look no further than the case of Moses, the Jewish leader to whom all others aspire. Moses defies all of the stereotypes about great leaders. He begins his career reticent, inarticulate, placid, and unwilling to share power. And yet as his own life makes clear, over time, with training, guidance, support, and experience, he grows to become the paradigmatic Jewish leader.
  5. We believe that leadership training must include both theory and practice. Classroom work is important. As the logicians might say, however, it is necessary but not sufficient. Opportunities to “practice leadership” for all who desire to grow their skills and increase their responsibilities must be woven into the fiber of all serious programs of leadership training. And mentoring, which the Jewish world has often been too slow to embrace, is essential for the development of communal leaders – volunteer and professional. Practical, hands-on experiences, including those that challenge participants to get far beyond their leadership comfort zones, are important in making effective leaders.
  6. We believe that when it comes to Jewish leadership good enough is not good enough. Excellence (not perfection, but excellence) is the only acceptable standard. The notion that nonprofit organizations are, by virtue of being nonprofits, expected to be nothing more than mediocre, poorly managed, and ineffective is anathema. The Jewish world must demand excellence from its leaders, because Judaism, Jewish life, and the Jewish future deserve nothing less. We anticipate that individuals who participate in our training programs will be every bit as talented, skilled, and effective as their for-profit analogues.
  7. We believe that leadership training is an ongoing process. To suggest, as many in our communities would, that leadership development can be accomplished in a daylong workshop or a weekend retreat is insulting and misleading. The best leaders understand the need to constantly reassess and grow their leadership on a continual basis. The widespread tendency to dismiss the need for leadership training in the Jewish world because success in one arena (the corporate sector) can be conflated with success in another (the eleemosynary) has insidious consequences. To be sure, gaps can be bridged and syncretistic benefits can ensue (see # 3). But as the rabbis taught in their commentary on Song of Songs, “Anyone who would exercise control over a community in Israel without considering how to do it is sure to fall and take his punishment from the hands of the community.”

Spertus Institute’s advanced degree, certificate, and professional programs are predicated upon each of these seven principles. We invite others to join us as we continue to help today’s Jewish leaders build tomorrow’s great Jewish communities.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.” He can be reached at president@spertus.edu.

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach
Why is this Degree Different? by Aaron B. Cohen
The Important Role of Newcomers to Jewish Communal Service by Brian Zimmerman
Professional Education Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Community by Michael B. Soberman
Prioritizing Learning by Karin Klein
The Aesthetic Lives of Jewish Identity by Judah M. Cohen

Jewish Leadership Training: Insights from a Lay Leader by Deanna Drucker
Putting the Jewish in Jewish Professional by Joshua Donner