Empowering the Next Generation of Community Builders

Moishe House group hug[Over the next few months, eJewish Philanthropy will be sharing a thought-provoking series of articles written by Schusterman Fellows in an effort to offer a glimpse of leaders in our midst who are approaching work in the Jewish sector with inspiring levels of care, strategy and heart. You can read the framing piece here.]

By Jordan Fruchtman

We need to change the way we help Jews in their 20’s grow as leaders – or better yet, as community builders.

In today’s lexicon, leader has become overly ambiguous. By contrast, a community builder is someone who brings people together around a common interest or cause in order to foster stronger bonds and relationships.

The Jewish community can grow tremendously so long as we find more ways to activate community builders from the ground up, putting the power in the hands of the next generation.

So what does this look like? At its core, helping young Jews develop as community builders means allowing them to use their unique passions, experiences and skills to engage their peers and bring young Jews together. Imagine the effect if Jewish organizations shifted focus from investing in general “leadership development” programs to opportunities that strengthen individuals’ capacities to create community. I believe that a shift like that would better engage a generation of young adults so that they might profoundly expand the depth and breadth of Jewish life.

Community builders need support to succeed. Working for Moishe House has taught me that community builders feel the most empowered when organizations do the following:

1. Allow passions to thrive.

Passions can come in many shapes and sizes so taking this approach can feel like a risk, but with the right structure, community builders will bring about unexpected, new and positive results. This means creating opportunities to support (financially or otherwise) a young adult in taking something they already love to do and making it beneficial to the Jewish community, even if – and this is the hard part – it is something the organization has never seen or thought of before. When given the opportunity, and I continue to see this every day in my work, community builders can be truly inspirational. We have to trust in that process.

2. Offer resources to support those passions.

Providing young adults with resources to pursue their interests is not a new concept and certainly there are plenty of examples we could draw from. However, I would argue that organizations find it especially challenging to truly “let go” and offer resources that will enable a community builder’s passion to lead to permanent change.

3. Follow their lead.

Our challenge as professionals is to follow. I find myself on conference calls at least once per month with an organization developing an “innovative leadership program.” Each time, and I wish I was exaggerating, the program is simply designed to complete work already being done in the organization. I offer that if the path is already set, then the program is not actually a leadership program.

A good litmus test for a leadership program has to ask the following questions: Is there a possibility that things will look different after this program? Is there a willingness to allow leaders to exercise creative freedom? Will leaders have the chance to put their stamp on the program?

We have a major challenge ahead: a cultural shift that gives real leadership opportunities to young adults. Meeting young Jews “where they are” means that they are encouraged to turn their passions into programs that engage their peers. It helps me to think of that form of leadership as community building leadership. Using this term, for me, means that leaders are able to put their unique stamp on their community of peers, because each community looks and feels a bit different.

If you ask me what that looks like, I would point to a recent example from our Moishe House Without Walls (MHWOW) program. MHWOW is an online platform with a clear and open structure that supports community builders with funding and resources. It is the alumni engagement tool for Moishe House (and two of our partners) as well as a successful pilot in three major U.S. cities. The majority of programs organized by hosts must have meaningful Jewish content, but how they foster their Jewish community is entirely up to them. As a result, some really wacky but totally powerful ideas have come to life.

In particular, I recall one Passover in which Joel, a host from San Diego who is passionate about food sustainability, created a distinctly unique Seder. The Seder plate and much of the dinner was made up of food foraged locally from public properties, friends’ backyards and even the ocean. He also used elements of the traditional Passover Haggadah and added his own food justice twists to it. That holiday, 25 Jews in their 20’s had a powerful Passover experience together, and Joel had a true leadership experience in its development.

Joel was able to work within the flexible framework of MHWOW and use his passions to create Jewish community. Furthermore he opted into creating a Seder, which was not something Moishe House necessarily expected of him. In other words, Joel used the resources MHWOW offered him to support and bring his peers together around his passion. We followed, he led.

If I can leave you with final thoughts, I’ll pose what I think are three important questions for us as Jewish professionals to ponder: How might Jewish organizations ensure leadership development programs activate community builders? What is preventing us from trusting young adults to drive new kinds of programming? And finally, are we ready to follow young leaders wherever they may take us? Whatever the answers, I look forward to doing my best to foster a culture that allows for and helps leaders to leave their mark on our community.

Jordan Fruchtman is the Chief Program Officer for Moishe House and a Schusterman Fellow.