A Comment on Cabinet

This past week UJC’s National Young Leadership Cabinet retreat took place in Arizona. Here with some comments, a guest post by Seth Cohen, alumnus of the Atlanta ‘07 class of the Wexner Heritage Program and engaged member of the Atlanta Jewish community.

This week I am writing from upstate New York (and when I say upstate, I mean the Adirondacks, not Poughkeepsie). But in the past day or so I have received several emails from friends from Atlanta and elsewhere in Jewish America asking, “Why am I not here?”

Where is the “here” they are speaking of?

Scottsdale, Arizona, This year’s location for the yearly summer gathering of UJC Young Leadership Cabinet.

No thank you – at least not for now.

Now to be clear, I believe there is value in the Federation system (see my prior posts on the topic) and I believe bringing young leadership together to meet, connect, learn and discuss the future of the Jewish people is an important effort that we should be undertaking constantly. Unfortunately, I think the way Cabinet is currently structured falls far short in reinforcing its value to the Jewish people and unlocking the value in its participants.

So what would I do to fix it? A few thoughts.

Participants.  One thing that I think UJC needs to do to make Cabinet a more meaningful convergence of national young leaders is to open up the way UJC defines those young leaders in the first place. Right now, the criteria to attend/participate in Cabinet is a substantial commitment to Federation campaigns and a demonstration of leadership ability within the system. While criteria is different in various communities and the ‘Cabinet brand’ holds different sway in different quarters, there is one fundamental trait shared across all communities – you already have to be investing heavily within the UJC system, financially or otherwise to attend Cabinet.

Right there is the major challenge and limitation of Cabinet. While we say it is the Cabinet of the ‘united Jewish communities”, we are convening leaders who are within the system, not those exceptional leaders in our communities who are not “in the system.” For example, I know several individuals in Atlanta who give a multiple of the minimum Cabinet commitment to various Jewish organizations locally and nationally, but have not yet understood the value (or personally appreciated the value) of federated giving, so they are not eligible for Cabinet.  What a lost opportunity (for our communities and our campaigns) – to exclude these impactful young Jewish philanthropists from Cabinet because they are not yet “in the system.” And what about those young leaders involved in innovative change in our various religious communities. What about our best young teachers? Our most influential young writers/artists/bloggers? Why not welcome them as well?

If we want a Cabinet to represent a collection of individuals that truly represent the diversity of young Jewish America and infuse UJC with the ability to engage and harness next generation leadership, we need to invite different people to be part of cabinet. People who challenge one another from inside and outside the existing institutions of Jewish life. We need to reimagine cabinet participation.

Location. The biggest complaint I often hear about the Cabinet conference location is  ”beautiful resort, but really, really hot.” It is hard to empathize with those types of complaints, but having experienced Jewish retreats at beautiful resorts I can appreciate the value of taking individuals to a place where there is a fun and relaxing environment to develop relationships with one another. But Cabinet is more than a retreat, and we should treat is as such.

Why not have Cabinet conferences in communities that need a vibrant injection of young leadership thinking?  Why not set Cabinet conferences up so that, as part of the program, these young leaders fan out across the host community to meet with volunteer and professional leadership facing local challenges and opportunities.  Cabinet members can then share ideas and engage in groupthink about creative solutions for local problems, helping impact the host community as well as themselves.  What community wouldn’t want to help host 400 Jewish leaders who bring with them fresh eyes, fresh thinking and fresh energy? The social element of Cabinet could still be maintained, but we could make Cabinet as much of a concentrated service experience as it is a social and educational one.  Where we host Cabinet says as much about it as the individuals who participate.  If we are reimagining the participants, lets reimagine where they meet.

Vision.  Lastly, we need to reimagine what we expect to receive from Cabinet, We don’t need only engaged individual coming back to our communities with increased pledges to our annual campaigns, but we need innovative visions for the future of the Jewish people. We need them to walk out of their meetings with collective ways not just to transform Federation campaigns, but also to transform community institutions. We get some of that today, but we need a lot more.  Where are the concluding statements and commitments that are made at so many other assemblies of great leaders? Where are the action plans for national initiatives? We need those too – and not just UJC action plans and initiatives but community plans and initiatives.

In this week’s hafotrah, we week read selections from Jeremiah, and in particular Jeremiah’s transmission of God’s lament that “… My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me, the spring of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water.”

With Cabinet, UJC and young Jewish leadership have powerfully responded to part of God’s lament as conveyed by Jeremiah – by caring enough to gather as a group and to recognize the importance of servicing and strengthening the Jewish people it is clear this significant group of you Jewish leaders (and the organization that hosts them) have not forsaken God or His people.

But we still have some work to do on the second part of the lament. While he have been provided the spring of living waters – in this case dynamic young Jewish leaders, by continuing to engage a Cabinet with a process in need of reimagination, we may be digging for ourselves broken cisterns that do not hold the water.

Lets us built a better Cabinet, a better cistern, to hold a lifeblood of the Jewish people – our current and future young leadership. And then next year, when my friends write to ask, “why am I not here,” the “here” will truly be a center of Jewish future. And I will hope to be there.

You can read more from Seth on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation. Of particular interest to many of you will be his most recent post, The Search and the Searchers, on the process underway for a new UJC-CEO.