A Young Leadership Lesson, from 1960?

by Sarah Eisenman

What does an iPad and leadership, Kodak and Jewish organizations, Google and Torah study have in common? Possibly more than meets the eye.

When companies create a new product they have to consider how to futureproof it: meaning, how do they create something now that is responsive to market trends and demands, yet doesn’t become obsolete within a moment? And given how fast trends come and go, one can easily be here today and gone tomorrow, especially at today’s feverish pace.

So when organizations create a ‘new product’ – be it a new vision, a new strategy or, in our case, a new approach to leadership – they must follow the same futureproof test. Will this be relevant to the “consumers” in two or even five years down the road? If the answer is no – or even maybe – an organization had better change, fast.

So let’s take a lesson from a Jewish inventor who revolutionized American Jewish organized life half a century ago, Herb Friedman. Most of my generation, and I would say a vast number of others, will have never heard of the guy. Yet there is a lot we can learn from him and the world he led. After all, one would be hard pressed to find a professional in the Jewish community who did more for developing younger leaders than Herb.

In November 1960, 250 young leaders from across North America were brought together for a national Jewish conference. What took a year for him to develop became the start of something that was actually revolutionary for the Jewish community – national Young Leadership Cabinet. Some may be surprised by this statement, but Cabinet was nothing short of cutting edge. This first effort created a mass movement and led many Jewish organizations across the spectrum to create young leadership programs for the first time. And while we have become so accustomed to young leadership programs, the astonishing thing is that before 1960 and Herb’s effort they simply did not exist.

Herb, who created YLC (and later led another cornerstone institution, Wexner Heritage Foundation), essentially realized what got the community to here, would not get it there. In his book Roots of the Future, Herb wrote the “idea grew from a feeling I had at the end of the 1950’s that a new generation of leaders would have to be created to replace those I had first met more than a decade earlier.” Most crucially, he understood that one generation of leaders could remember the “shtetl and ghetto” and had an “automatic, gut reaction” to Jewish needs, but that the “next generation lacked the necessary historic memory. It possessed instead a university degree.”

And although history does not repeat itself in an identical manner, I would argue that in many aspects we are now at a junction in American Jewish life that resembles the 1960’s. As we say goodbye to another generation of leaders who vividly remember the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re figuring out what to do with a generation that can barely recall life without a wireless signal who may feel wary of organizations in general and lukewarm to the notion of more leadership training.

Herb’s idea for young leadership was rooted in the notion of preparedness for the future – and he realized his vision. Yet this preparedness-style young leadership will not take us from here to there.

So what’s needed today?

1. We have to acknowledge that education and training are not enough. Yes, educating and training young people impacts them in many ways and helps produce an emotional commitment to the work an organization is doing. But those young people, identified as “leaders,” can’t be trained over and over. Put them at the table or they will simply find another table or build a new one: the societal norms that said young people needed to be “seen and not heard” have simply been shattered. Training will help them make informed decisions, but it is not a leadership position.

2. We have to make space for these young leaders in our normative governing structures. There is no young leadership if the young people branded as such have no real place in these bodies. Observing may be informative and donating a certain minimum gift is nice too, but to have young leadership means that they have a proportional share of the leadership body of the organization. And the word proportional here is important – meaning a cohort, critical mass, a minyan, if you like. This can be hard as organizations may have minimum giving requirements that the vast majority of young people can’t meet yet. But it can’t be had both ways on this point and willingness to change, be nuanced, is king.

3. Once they are at the table, let them get to work. There are challenges that many Jewish organizations are facing that young people are uniquely positioned to impact and solve for us. While maybe they aren’t experts on planned giving yet, most certainly have an intuitive understanding of networking, marketing, social media, problem-solving, team work, and how to make Judaism resonate anew.

4. Provide the tool sets needed for leadership today. The world is highly globalized and most academic institutions have taken note and started educating their students to lead in the new world. Centers in global leadership and citizenship now exist at some two thirds of the top 30 universities in the United States. The Jewish community needs to catch up. If we are going to train people then we have to ensure it is cutting edge (preferably bleeding edge). And that training needs to speak to how they’ll makes decisions in this new context; make moves and build networks between borders; and help them understand the world through a Jewish lens, as well.

Certainly, these are not easy changes to make. In my own professional role, I have come to understand these challenges acutely. And as it turns out, at JDC, where I created and direct Entwine, our young adult platform, we have looked closely at the question of leadership with seasoned Board members and young adults, together. As a result of that collaboration, we are doing new things to ensure that our leadership bodies will include young and old.

Starting this year, through our Global Leaders Initiative, we will be educating and training 15 young leaders while simultaneously placing them on JDC’s Board of Directors. This effort, championed by lay and professional leadership, will also include a new set of tools focusing on equipping these young leaders to look at the world as it is and where it might be going, all with a Jewish point of view.

A long period of time has passed since Herb Friedman changed the face of Jewish leadership. In a Jewish community that trains its young people from bar mitzvah age on to know how to allocate resources, we shouldn’t be surprised that they have grown up a little faster and wiser. As one young person recently said to me: “why is it young Jews can run businesses, their families, and create Facebook, but the only place in the world that doesn’t seem to trust us yet to make decisions is the Jewish community.” And that’s wisdom, at any age.

Sarah Eisenman is Executive Director of JDC Entwine and an Assistant Executive Vice President at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).