Building Community Leadership Step By Step

by Barry Rosenberg

Nearly 100 people, many who are or soon will be leaders of the St. Louis Jewish community, enjoyed an elegant evening of dinner and dancing, celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Rubin Israel Experience, an innovative leadership and Jewish identity building project of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Hosted by the program’s benefactors, Pam and Ron Rubin; the evening featured heartfelt tributes by representatives of each “class” of Rubinites, as the graduates are known. The room was infused with great ruach and love.

Each fall, ten individuals, ages 27 – 40 are selected from a pool of applicants for a free, first, 10 day trip to Israel. They reflect the full diversity of the community; the key criterion being current or future leadership potential somewhere within the St. Louis Jewish community. Participants attend several pre-trip workshops, blog during the trip, attend post trip meetings and serve as “Ambassadors” for Israel and Jewish life. Thus far, not much different than other programs.

What has truly elevated the program and its impact is the powerful message explicit in the Rubins’ intense personal involvement, combined with long-term, post trip follow-up. The Rubins meet with each cohort before and after the trip. During the trip they monitor the groups’ progress and communicate by e-mail. After the trip, they buy tables and offer seats to the alumni at various Jewish events. And this year, they even traveled to Israel to surprise the group by spending Shabbat with them in Jerusalem.

The message is clear. The Rubins, the Federation, the Jewish community is deeply committed and invested in them, their families and their Jewish future.

The project has been ably led, since its inception, by Federation staff member Margo Newman. Using the Federation’s “concierge model” of individualized engagement and follow-up; she works to find the right opportunities for each participant and monitors their communal leadership and engagement progress. Educational, social and family events are organized.

And the participants reflect this personalization with a sense of collective identity as Rubinites, and enormous appreciation for the opportunity Ron & Pam have provided. When the Rubins are honored; the Rubinites are out in force. And for the reunion, 42 out of 50 were present with spouses and significant others. The engagement statistics are also impressive:

Exclusive of the 5th cohort which just returned:

  • 100% demonstrate some level of ongoing Jewish leadership participation.
  • 58% serve as a member of a Jewish organizational board or committee.
  • 28% serve as Federation fundraising volunteers.
  • 18% are enrolled in the select Millstone Fellows program for Jewish leaders.
  • 15% have already returned to Israel for a second visit.
  • 93% support Federation’s annual campaign (up from pre-trip participation by 58%), with an average gift of $1018.
  • 2 marriages.

The program grew from a question the Rubins asked me six years ago about the needs of the community. Long time major philanthropists, Ron had served on the Birthright Israel Foundation board. The couple are also major supporters of Moishe House. The community’s need to build young leadership aligned with the family’s long-term commitment to Israel and concern for those who had aged out of Birthright. And the trip jived with Ron’s business sensibility. He is CEO and Minister of Tea of the Republic of Tea company. Ron, who also teaches entrepreneurship, related how he prepared his employees to process and sell premium teas by taking them to places where tea is grown. They had to see it for themselves. And that strategy carried over to Israel.

The Rubin Israel Experience is replicable in other communities. Although expensive, it is really just based on sound principles, applied effectively, with real care and love. The motto of the Republic of Tea is “sip by sip.” As I looked over the room of bright, successful, Jewishly committed younger adults, I could see how “step by step,” the Rubins are nurturing the next generation of leadership, right before our eyes.

And as we left, there was a canister of Special Edition, Kosher, Almond Coconut Macaroon Tea with the names of all 50 Rubinites on the can. Ron and Pam think of everything.

For more information on the Rubin Israel Experience, contact Margo Newman at mnewman@jfedstl.org.

Barry Rosenberg is the former President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and Senior Lecturer at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.