Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices

Great Jewish communities require great Jewish leaders.”

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom
By Dr. Dean P. Bell

This year, as it marks its 90th anniversary, Spertus Institute launches the Center for Jewish Leadership to provide current and future Jewish leaders new and necessary opportunities to learn best professional practices in a Jewish context, informed by Jewish thought. On this occasion, offers a series of articles by faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs. They will share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.

The topic of leadership has attracted a great deal of interest across many disciplines. Historians have grappled with the idea of the “great man” and political writers have sought the defining characteristics of successful leaders. Sociologists, psychologists, and business experts have conducted sophisticated research while more mundane – but sometimes quite valuable – popular treatises and self-help guides have attracted significant attention in the broader world as well as in the Jewish community. A good deal of ink has been devoted to whether there are certain skill sets, character traits, behaviors, or styles that genuine leaders possess.

Studies have explored whether leadership can be learned and cultivated, even in those individuals who do not naturally possess such characteristics. In response, many authors, advisors, and coaches have searched longingly for training methods or experiences that can deepen an individual’s leadership capacity.

One thing is certain: great Jewish communities require great Jewish leaders. Therefore, it is essential that Jewish organizational leaders and those preparing for leadership receive training beyond that provided by business schools, publications, and consulting firms. To successfully and authentically serve their organizations and communities, Jewish leaders and aspiring leaders require the rich and enduring insights of Jewish tradition and experience.

Chicago-based Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership has stepped up to meet this need through the development of innovative degree, certificate, and professional programs that successfully prepare Jewish scholars, educators, and professionals for complex and often-changing roles.

While we know that strong leadership is important to sustain, nourish, and advance Jewish organizations and communities, within the Jewish community, we often lack a clear sense of what Jewish leadership entails. How do we prepare Jewish leaders? Do we simply take the natural talents of volunteers who work and succeed in other domains of professional life and give them a brief orientation to a particular organization and the larger Jewish community? Do we arm business professionals with basic Jewish literacy and stir their passion for a particular cause that prepares them to be Jewish leaders? Or do we train someone who has committed her personal and professional life to serving in a Jewish community or agency and provide some business training or professional skill building opportunities?

A range of Jewish leadership training programs have been developed within individual communities and across local, regional, and even global organizations that provide valuable opportunities for learning and skills development. At times, these programs leverage a range of assessment tools and the insights of the best theorists and practitioners from renowned business schools, along with leading rabbis, educators, or Jewish Studies academics. Rarely, however, do “Jewish leadership” programs integrate a comprehensive approach to skill building with vigorous reflection on Jewish thought, texts, and experiences and the important Jewish contexts in which individual leaders work and will work.

Effective Jewish leadership is essential to enable Jewish organizations to successfully serve and enrich the Jewish community. However, appointing someone to a position of authority on the assumption that success outside the Jewish community naturally foretells success in leading Jewish organizations is not sufficient, nor is piecing together an onboarding session or a series of training workshops. Top-level Jewish organizational leaders and those preparing for leadership positions need cohesive learning experiences and mentorships that both include and go beyond the training and insights provided by today’s business schools, publications, and consulting firms. Jewish leaders and aspiring Jewish leaders simultaneously need the rich and enduring insights of Jewish tradition and experience, and a sophisticated understanding of the Jewish contexts in which they work.

Judaism has a great deal to teach about leadership skills – from critical thinking and decision-making, to strategic planning and visioning, and the role of empathy, adaptability, perseverance, and humility. Jewish leadership training, like Jewish leadership itself, must be ongoing, consistently self-reflective and engaged with changes and larger issues within and beyond the Jewish community. To best serve professionals and volunteers of varying levels and years of experience, leadership training opportunities must be sensitive to individual and communal needs. They must also include access to the resources that leaders need, including a cohort of peers with whom to discuss core issues, and mentors from whom to learn and develop. The result of Jewish leadership of this kind will be stronger networks, more robust communities, and more engaged individuals.

At Spertus Institute we believe we have gained valuable experiences and insights through our degree, certificate, and professional development programs, and that what we have learned can help to advance the training and development of Jewish leaders broadly. We are equally convinced that we have no monopoly on this work. Many very important and successful programs exist and have informed the work that we do and the way that we see the worlds of Jewish leadership and community development. Indeed, collaboration, experimentation, and humility in leadership are among the core themes in our leadership programming. To this end, we hope that the various voices in this series will resonate with your own experiences and help stimulate ongoing discussions about Jewish leadership and the transformation of Jewish communities today.

Dr. Dean P. Bell is Provost, Vice President, and Professor of History at Chicago-based Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. He has taught at DePaul University, Hebrew Theological College, University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and the University of California, Berkeley.