Are Today’s Innovators “Leaders?”

LEADSBob Goldfarb, in his recent piece Innovation, Management, and Leadership, raises an interesting question about the relationship between “innovation” and “leadership.” He writes: “From a structural perspective… [innovators] have simply added independent, entrepreneurial elements to Jewish communal life that complement the established, centralized bureaucracies.”

But is that really all they have done?

Goldfarb points out that leadership and management are two separate activities. He claims that “leaders [should] resist institutional inertia, challenge fashionable ideas, question the trends of the moment, articulate new visions, and rally a broad following so that true transformation is possible.” Leadership, then, is as an activity that draws attention to a community’s pressing hidden issues, and that challenges and mobilizes the community to deal productively with those issues. I would argue, then, that the innovation movement as a whole, and many of today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs, are exerting vital leadership in our community.

The San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s 2004 demographic study revealed that the vast majority (80%) of Bay Area Jews do not participate in programs offered by existing Jewish institutions. This is a profound challenge for the Bay Area Jewish community. People do not agree on the problem – why do these people who self-identify as Jews not participate in communal offerings? Is it a problem with the institutions? Is it the nature of the Bay Area Jewish community? And people do not agree on the solution – should we reevaluate our existing institutions, and change them? Should we offer new programs for this 80%? Should we focus on providing quality programs for the 20% who are engaged?

The Bay Area Jewish social entrepreneurs are exerting leadership around this issue by virtue of the nature of the work they are doing. Organizations such as Jewish Milestones, which provide meaningful Jewish ritual opportunities outside of synagogues, and G-dcast, which creates Jewish literacy opportunities outside of formal Jewish school environments, are “articulating new visions, questioning trends, and rallying a broad following.” In founding these organizations, thereby drawing the community’s attention to the institutional inertia and tried and no longer true patterns that are plaguing this community, the innovators behind these projects are beginning the process of communal transformation, and, therefore, are exerting leadership.

Today’s Jewish innovators are part of a movement that is squarely facing the challenges and opportunities in today’s Jewish communities. They are grappling with some of our most pressing questions – at the end of the paradigm shift currently underway in Jewish life, what will Jewish life look like, and who will be living it? Leadership is a reflective act, and, if nothing else, the flurry and bustle of the innovation ecosystem is giving our community pause, and challenging the perceptions we have taken for granted. Today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs are constantly adjusting their directions in light of their learnings, and, therefore, are poised to profoundly alter human relationships. Let us hope that the broader Jewish community joins their conversations and engages with them in the risky, difficult processes that leadership involves.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities. Maya regularly shares her thoughts with our eJewish Philanthropy community.