By Rea Kurzweil
Have you heard enough about Houston’s Harvey problem? I certainly hope not because each of us needs to read more and think more about how it would feel to suddenly be without a home and all the comforts that we daily take for granted.
I didn’t grow up in Houston, don’t have family there and never lived there. As a matter of fact, it was only a little over a year ago when I visited Houston for the first time, as an executive search consultant, to meet with the search committee that was selected to find a successor for their long time CEO, Lee Wunsch. I knew one thing going in; Lee’s shoes would be difficult to fill based solely on his reputation. He is a devoted, tireless Jewish professional leader respected by his colleagues throughout the continent. I also knew they were fortunate to have a strong partner in the CEO of the JFS, Linda Burger, a former senior executive at the federation and an extremely kind and smart professional. What I wasn’t prepared for was what I subsequently found as I met so many other community leaders, volunteers and professionals alike who were equally committed to a strong Jewish Houston.
This really was going to be a difficult search, I thought, as we will need to find an extremely talented dynamic leader who will be able to take on this role. We will need someone who will inspire this community to continue to strive for yet more. The Jewish community in Houston is a special community; somehow it has developed into a place that has fostered an outsized sense of caring for the well being not only of its residents but also its extended family spread across the world. What special qualities did the members of the Houston Jewish community embrace that they would think of themselves as part of a broader all inclusive Jewish people? You might say, “Don’t we all especially during a crisis?” and the answer is that we give it lip service and do step up during a crisis but when it’s just business as usual, many of us forget those words and think only of those closest to us. Not in Houston. Business as usual was making sure people were welcomed, treated warmly and made to feel at home regardless of their religious beliefs, political leanings or personal orientation.
It was during this process – the search for a leader with vision and passion, with dynamism and drive that I learned how truly special Houston is. Each person with whom I met, whether intimately or marginally involved, was more respectful and thoughtful than the last. There was a common theme emerging from these confidential conversations; while they may have had different experiences in working with the federation, the JCC or JFS, they showed up and wanted to share their insights because they believed in the value of strengthening the Jewish community, all the while recognizing its challenges. Each was proud of their collective reputation as a warm and welcoming community. Without exception, regardless of age, they all recognized and wanted to contribute to the community’s continuity. “I don’t always agree with the decisions and actions taken but I know that the work is important.” said more than one participant in conversation. No matter who I talked with they all highlighted the importance of finding a professional who would lead. Members of their NextGen group couldn’t have been more dedicated and excited about their chance to take the lead and create their own future. And they were being given the opportunity to serve and to accomplish. What I found was when more senior leaders opened the door, their younger neighbors stepped in, took their rightful place and made significant contributions. They said what they had to say and were listened to carefully. They were just as concerned about the future of the community they cared for so deeply as their more senior colleagues around the table. I remember one younger professional recollecting that he wasn’t so excited about moving to Houston initially but once he arrived and started getting acclimated and involved with community work, he felt part of something larger than himself and that was life changing.
Members of the Houston Jewish community take pride volunteering to welcome and make out of town family members of those in need of medical care feel comfortable and cared for while their loved ones receive state of the art medical attention. I found this particularly moving. Houstonians want to make sure that people who are suffering through medical challenges, who had to leave their own homes to travel for medical treatment, have support and don’t feel alone.
The executives of the various community organizations care about each other and prioritize their communal mission above other more mundane matters. The members of different synagogues, the clergy, the educators and the fundraisers all respect each other. Different opinions were certainly expressed, respectfully and within the context of caring about the welfare of the larger community. Never did I hear the slightest sarcastic remark about a colleague. And there was never a slanderous word said about anyone, in jest or otherwise. Yes, they are just that nice. What I learned from my encounters with Houstonians was that this was a special place, a city filled with compassion and strength, with pride and warmth, with all the qualities each of us would look for in a community to raise our children.
Each candidate who came to visit the Houston Jewish community for an interview, whether successful or not, came away with that same sense of appreciation, for a community that knew how to put its people first. And I believe we did find a special talented leader who now will have the opportunity of a lifetime to lead in ways nobody could have imagined. She will need our help, financially and spiritually. Avital Ingber, the federation’s incoming CEO, knows how to accept help and she will appreciate all our assistance.
We have the opportunity to show these wonderful caring members of our extended Jewish family that we care about them and will help them get back on their feet. Please do what you can to extend yourselves so that our family network remains strong and resilient even when damaged. Let’s go out of our way and proudly lift them up this time. We will all be stronger for it.
There are many organizations hard at work in Houston now. All will gratefully accept our help.
Rea Kurzweil developed executive talent and consulted with numerous federations as Managing Director of Talent Acquisition for the JFNA Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence. She currently consults with clients in the areas of organizational and talent development.