Changing of the Guards: The Need to Focus on “How”

What tangible steps are today’s leaders taking to carve out organizational space for tomorrow’s leaders?

by Frayda Leibtag

As the “Changing of the Guards: The Tomorrow of Jewish Leadership” panel began, audience member Jaap Meijers remarked to fellow veteran Keren Hayesod leader Julia Koschitzky on the importance of the panel, stating “we can’t keep the cork on the bottle forever!” The inclusion of this panel in the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference was appropriate for a conference dedicated to the role of quality leadership in shaping our tomorrow.

The panel featured leaders of major Jewish institutions as well as a young, up-and-coming Jewish leader and it promised discussion of two questions: “What can be done to ensure that the finest of the Jewish People’s sons and daughters take on leadership roles?” and “What is the profile of a fitting Jewish leadership and is it possible to cultivate the future leaders of the Jewish People?” Panel participants waxed poetic about the passion and love for the Jewish people that emerging Jewish leaders should possess. Solid, concrete advice on how to engage new, young leaders was harder to come by.

The theoretical profile of fitting Jewish leaders was vigorously discussed by several panel participants. Johanna Arbib-Perugia, Chairman of the Keren Hayesod-UIA World Board of Trustees, spoke of the importance of “acting in accordance with moral values and placing these values at the heart of a vision for a better future” and noted that young people of today “are no less talented, capable, and willing to claim a stake in the Jewish future.” According to Arbib-Perugia, future leaders must be visionaries and people of action committed to the welfare of the Jewish people.

In response to a question from panel moderator Shmuel Rosner regarding what qualities he is looking for in a successor, Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called for “an individual who is strong in their convictions and has the courage to act on them.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Mechon Hadar, was asked what the “essentials of a Jewish curriculum” are, i.e. what knowledge and values are critical for a Jewish leader to possess. After a joking comment from Rosner that he had failed to answer the question, Kaunfer mentioned knowledge of the Hebrew language as an important curriculum element for Jewish leaders.

Hoenlein and Arbib-Perugia both spoke of the younger generation’s desire for meaningful, nuanced engagement and the need to provide vehicles to express passion. Arbib-Perugia noted the importance of focusing on the exciting successes of the present rather than the bitter tragedies of the past. Hoenlein agreed with the need to talk about Jewish victories, but emphasized the need to remember that we are rooted in our past and to learn lessons from Jewish history to meet the challenges of the future.

Arbib-Perugia, Hoenlein and Kaunfer all seemed confident that it is possible to cultivate the future leaders of the Jewish people and even expressed several lofty characteristics that these leaders should possess, such as vision, courage and passion. These speakers did not, however, offer concrete recommendations on how to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders step up to leadership roles. What “vehicles” are being given to the younger generation to enable them to engage in a meaningful way?

Fortunately, the other two panel speakers, Jeremy Newmark and Eliana Rudee, offered several practical steps that today’s leaders and organizations can take to secure a strong Jewish leadership for tomorrow. Newmark, Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council in the UK, recounted his own personal journey to leadership, which stemmed from a response to a threat to Israel’s legitimacy and being referred to as “Jeremy the Jew” on his college campus. He attributes his rise to leadership in the Jewish world to the peer-led activism of his university days. The trust that the adult community placed in his competence to manage strategies, budgets and complex decisions empowered Newmark and his peers to take on active leadership roles. He emphasized the danger of relying on a crisis to produce the next generation of leaders and promoted the need to create active leadership roles for young people within the Jewish community, while providing these emerging leaders with a strong backbone. Newmark described the investment of mentorship and time that he received from established Jewish leaders when he was in university and stressed the significance of nurturing today’s young leaders. When one of today’s Jewish leaders clears time in their schedule to have a cup of coffee with an impassioned young, Jewish individual, this plants the seeds for an engaged, strong leadership for tomorrow.

Rudee, a senior at Scripps Women’s College in Claremont, California and founder and president of Claremont Students for Israel, came to Jewish leadership as a result of a positive educational experience in Israel. Captivating the crowd with her enthusiasm, she spoke to the importance of creating structural opportunities and incentives for students to lead, alongside arenas in which young leaders can encounter and interact with their mentors. At the conclusion of the panel, Rudee declared that “education starts at home.” To fervent applause, she challenged everyone in the room to provoke young leaders at an early age with positive experiences such as the ‘Shabbat pajama parties’ that her own parents hosted in her own home when she was a child.

The need for new Jewish leadership is inevitable. The need to inspire confidence in these young leaders and accentuate the positives of Jewish life is fairly obvious. As is the need for tomorrow’s leaders to be courageous, driven and passionate individuals with strong senses of Jewish identity and mission. Less obvious is what is practically being done to ensure that the “finest of the Jewish People’s sons and daughters take on leadership roles.” What tangible steps are today’s leaders taking to carve out organizational space for tomorrow’s leaders? To encourage leadership, mentor and guide the individuals who will be taking over in the years and decades to come? It is too easy to talk about the challenges, the ideal leader, the need to learn from the past and the centrality of education. For today’s generation to actually take on leadership roles, our discussions must focus on how and what we are doing to foster engagement and cultivate leadership.