Is the Leadership Glass Half-Full?

Once a month, in three locations as of this day, young Jewish parents gather in neighborhood associations with their young children to play Hebrew games. One part educational opportunity for children, another part friend-making opportunity for parents, HebrewPlay – a new venture founded by Michael Goldstein (a CJP/PresenTense Fellow 2010) and now headed by Shirah Rubin – engages approximately a hundred Jewish couples in New England in the act of raising bilingual children with deep Hebrew language roots.

Looking through the lens of a new study published by the AviChai Foundation called “Generation of Change,” Michael, Shirah and the hundreds of parents who join them are young Jewish leaders, staking out the terms of their engagement with the Jewish community and setting the tone for our collective years to come. Thinking in this way, Jack Wertheimer and some of the Jewish communities leading names in sociology (including Steven M. Cohen, Ari Y. Kelman, Shaul Kelner, Sylvia Barack Fishman and Sarah Bunin Benor) conclude that the Jewish community’s pessimistic projections of its future are unfounded. They write, “it is simply not true, as some contend, that the American Jewish community is suffering from a dearth of committed and knowledgeable leaders among its younger populations.”

Setting aside the policy implications of the report, it would do us well to recognize the questions the distinguished authors of the report recognize they cannot currently answer – and how very important it is for our future that our community research those answers and get clarity on the needed infrastructure for our continued community.

Specifically, the report authors note that, “members of the research team interviewed over 250 leaders across the country. This interviewing work was augmented by and also informed by surveys that elicited responses from over 4,466 Jewish leaders of all ages, providing a basis to compare younger with older Jewish leaders. For reasons explained in the Appendix on the Research Design, this report does not claim respondents to the survey are precisely representative of the entire population of Jewish leaders. The absence of up-to-date demographic data on trends in American Jewish life makes it impossible to know for sure. In the current study, we can report on the Jewish leaders we encountered but cannot know with certainty how many others there are, let alone how many of their age peers participate in the range of Jewish options.”

This is a rather large caveat. While I as a young Jewish adult may agree with the report’s conclusions about the shift in the mental paradigms of myself and my peers, this caveat leaves me to fear that we as a community do not have the data necessary to know what policies we will have to enact to ensure the future leadership of our community.

In other words, the report, I believe, provides more value for the fact that it highlights a number of questions we have yet to study – and answers which are crucial to determining policy that will be effective. Here are the top five (out of more than twenty) research agenda related questions I came up with on my first read of the report:

  1. If summer camps and day schools graduates make up a large percentage of ‘leaders’, but not all summer camp graduates or day school graduates become ‘leaders,’ where do the rest of the individuals who were engaged in summer camp and day schools go? Are they completely inactive? What factors kept those individuals who are involved, involved? What are the topic area directions that the graduates tend to gravitate towards – and is that direction determined by the educational content of the camp or day school?
  2. If a (smaller) percentage of day school graduates go on to be active in Hillel and Jewish prayer groups on campus, and a (smaller) percentage of college-involved individuals go on to join independent minyanim and even smaller number join the synagogue, how many individuals are lost along the way? Why do they not join independent minyanim – and what is the value of those minyanim from a philanthropic perspective if they develop independently based on the interest of their members – who are from the hard-core of the summer camp/day school set?
  3. With so many leaders, how many ‘followers’ or ‘group members’ are there? Is there a related coefficient that can help us identify individuals who are ‘leaders’ who inspire others to join groups who are not already considered ‘leaders’ themselves? Or is every young adult involved in Jewish life a ‘leader’? This is important to study due to network effects; can we mobilize the Jewish People by addressing a relatively management group, or do we need to individually connect with all active Jews because there are no core ‘leaders’ who can mobilize masses?
  4. This question is crucial for policy decision: What are the relative cost/benefit ratios of the programs and experiences that produce leaders? Particularly, if summer camps produce X leaders, but cost Y, and day schools produce A leaders and cost B, and birthright israel produces M leaders but costs N, is X>Y>A? And is X/Y>A/B>M/N? If you’d try to find the cost per leader amount, what are the most cost efficient ways for our community to develop leaders? To use examples from the report, Is Moishe House more cost efficient than JDub in engaging the next generation of Jewish leaders? Hadar than Club 1948?

For example: I can say that PresenTense worked with 408 volunteers last year, and launched 27 ventures who are impacting people in the hundreds as of 18 months out of the gate. Our expenses for last year were around $520K, adjusted. If we are to assume the 408 individuals who volunteered on a Steering Committee, wrote in a magazine, etc, are ‘leaders’ by the report definition, and if we are not to include the individuals impacted by our total 77 ventures from the past five years but to account for that impact in previous years and we only include the 26 ventures from 2009-2010, and assume the ‘leaders’ involved in those ventures number 1000 (to keep it conservative), then we have, with a cost of $520K, impacted 1408 leaders in the past year.

This results in a total cost of $369/’leader’. Is that a good impact ratio? A bad one? Will the fact that this year’s projected budget being $1.2M and this year’s projected volunteers going to 800 and ventures launched going to 76/year change this ratio for the good? For the bad? And how does this stack up against other organizations and their initiatives?

Since we’re all in it for the common good, knowing the answer to that question would help us save a lot of time and philanthropic dollars – as we could make better decisions concerning what to invest in, what to sustain, and what to say, ‘sorry, nice idea, but doesn’t have the same level of impact of other projects out there’.

5. And this is the most important one, in my opinion: what is the size of the glass? The report speaks about the tremendous amount of initiative and passion among the younger generation of American Jews. I’ve been a witness to a lot of that. But the larger question is: is it enough? This question is tightly tied to the ones above: how many leaders do we need in order to fulfill the replacement level needs of the organized Jewish community?

A 2009 report by the JFN and ACBP found that 75-90% of Jewish organizations will have to change over their leadership in the next five to ten years – and that most of these organizations are worried about lack of leadership. So, before we can conclude anything concerning the future of our People’s institutions, the first question we need to ask is: what is the optimal replacement rate of leadership? Or in other words, how many individuals with aspirations to manage Jewish organizations do we need to have in the system – or reachable to be brought into the system – in order for the system to continue to operate at full capacity?

Once that is determined, we can have a policy discussion concerning the optimal needs of the Jewish community – and particularly if it is necessary to perpetuate the number of organizations in existence, or if it is better to force efficiencies by reducing the number of ‘leaders’ in the system. But any decision on policy made without that knowledge is like driving blindfolded down a highway, with someone unfamiliar with the road sitting in the back seat whispering in directions.

The work that Wertheimer did is blessed labor. Whether they intended it or not, they opened up a broad research agenda that is very important to get to the bottom of if we are to build the necessary infrastructure for the Jewish People’s institutions. That said, if this report does not generate additional studies, and readers remain content with the policy answers and not the open questions left by the researcher’s work, we may end up in a destructive spiral that in Systems Thinking is called Success for the Successful. And that is a worst case scenario for the community, because not only will we be diverting necessary funds to projects and initiatives who do not fundamentally ensure the future of our People – but we will be singing our self-congratulation all the way to the bottom of the sea.

Ariel Beery is the co-founder and director of the PresenTense Group.