Jewish Leadership at the Water’s Edge: A Call for Action

With all of the change swirling around us, it has been challenging to organize, synthesize and verbalize my thoughts on the state of the Jewish community in 2009. The organizations in which I am involved, like all of the organizations in which we are all involved, are struggling to reconcile the challenges with the needs and the resources with the requirements. And while normally I am one to encourage systematic and methodical planning, now I feel like we must boldly  lead by action. And in order to encourage action by others, we must do more than just evaluate and understand the nature of our adversity; we must fearlessly lead our communities through our challenges to reach the other side of greatness. Until now, I have not been able to articulate this strong desire to see my fellow community members, volunteers, and professionals, rise up and lead. I have listened to planners and prognosticators, seers and scholars, each one of them expressing their voices… their view of what we need to do. But now I have finally found my voice that I have been searching for and below is my encouragement, my cajoling – my plea – that we not let this moment pass without a great uprising of Jewish leadership… strong and visionary leadership that will lead us through these stormy waters. This is not a plan… it is a call to action for Jewish leaders at the water’s edge.

From time to time in the history of the Jewish people, moments arise that challenge us to reinforce our Jewish faith and reassert our Jewish purpose. There are, at these moments, great leaders that help us understand and define the decisions we must make and the paths we are offered to follow. In some cases they are leaders that are shaped by the moments, and in other case they are moments shaped by the leaders. In each case, they help achieve clarity of vision in foggy milieus of difficulty. They are leaders that take bold steps while providing gentle reassurance. They are leaders that do not just stand with us at the water’s edge, but who lead us into the sea and across the river. Such leaders are called forward in each generation of adversity and drink from the well of Jewish strength that runs deep through our generations and refreshes each succeeding generation of leaders that come to drink from it. These leaders appear in the chronicles of Jewish history at the moments of their calling and leave legacies of faith and fearlessness, courage and community.

My friends, this is our moment, and we must be those Jewish leaders for our time.

We cannot underestimate the challenges we are facing nor the opportunities available for us to embrace. We live in a time where the establishment of the State of Israel still stirs our hearts, but the existential challenges it faces still turns our stomachs and in a time where seemingly limitless financial prosperity has suddenly turned into seemingly limitless financial distress. We live in an era time where the quality of Jewish education gives us great encouragement, but the magnitude of Jewish assimilation gives us even greater pause for concern. We face an increasing amount of anti-Semitism, yet some of the greatest damage to our Jewish infrastructure is the result of thievery of one of our own. Even in the face of the hate of strangers, we still struggle to build bonds of brotherhood and understanding with one another.

Our challenges are great and they are many.

Yes, these are challenging moments – the moments that call out for great Jewish leaders. For leaders with vision and boldness, with an understanding of the bastions of our heritage and the towers of our future. Leaders who know that the brightness of the Jewish experience, the collective Jewish journey on which we are all traveling, cannot dim and cannot end. It is an experience bound by a covenant that we must uphold and cannot revoke. In these times, the call for these leaders is strong, it is overwhelming, and it is deafening.

We must answer that call. We must be those leaders.

But being those leaders will mean more than just answering a call – it means more than just showing up. That is not leadership – that is attendance. We must search not only our hearts, but also our history. We must not bemoan the tests that face us, but we must engage the texts that teach us. We cannot muddle or meet our way through our challenges; we must face them squarely and respond to them strongly. We cannot simple respond hineini – we must do more than that. We must not just say we are here; we must show how we will go from here to there.

But how can we do this? Our institutions are shaken and our strategy is unclear. We cannot plan on relying on only that which we know, but also that which we must create. We must reimagine not only our institutions, but also the way we, as individuals, encounter those institutions. We must face our challenges, not turn away from them in the hope they will be delayed or distracted. We cannot believe that help is on the way and that time will bring reinforcements – we must be that help and we must signal that time. Indeed, our strength lies not in safety by avoidance, but by the certitude of Jewish survival.

This is our time, we cannot hide and we cannot falter.

The Jewish leaders before us have faced slavemasters and emperors. They have faced those from outside who would harm us and those from within who have betrayed us. Those leaders have faced the type of evil and uncertainty that suffocates the sprit and weakens the knees. But in each generation those leaders have embraced the breath of survival and stiffened their backs in the face of earth-shattering blows. They have fought our enemies from the caves of the deserts and through the walls of ghettos. They sacrificed themselves in their unwavering faith in their God and their people and left legacies of pride and resoluteness. They did not falter, and nor can we. We must respond to this moment, we must breathe deep breathes of courage and together firmly face our challenges.

We must not just stand at the water’s edge, we must cross.

Like Moses and like Joshua, we cannot simply stand on this side of the water. We must have faith that in crossing among the high waves we will be fulfilling the next phase of our own journey forward. We cannot turn back and we cannot hesitate. What stands on the opposite side is not death and despair, but beauty and redemption – nothing less then the next holy steps of a holy people. We cannot refrain from taking those steps; we must take them with fervor and firmness. As leaders, we must cross that which threatens to engulf us, but cannot extinguish us. We must go to the water’s edge, and we must be the leaders that those waters demand of us.

This is our moment. We must be the leaders standing at the water’s edge.
And for the sake of our and future Jewish generations –
We must cross together

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, a member of the Board of Directors of Joshua Venture (relaunching in Spring, 2009), a Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation and is an occassional contibutor to eJewish Philanthropy.