Jewish Leadership Training: Insights from a Lay Leader

leadership_trainingI have met so many young professionals, the lifeblood of the Jewish community, who want to be affiliated with Jewish organizations, but the language and concepts of the past do not resonate with them.

By Deanna Drucker

[This article is the ninth in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]

My journey as a volunteer leader began back in the 1970s. I started on my synagogue’s board which led to my appointment decades later as the President of the Women’s Board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. In the early years, training wasn’t even a consideration. As someone who was connected to the business world, I heard the buzz of leadership gurus and eagerly sought out the popular literature. I took seminars and workshops and got a degree in Applied Behavioral Science. All of this was critical in my role as a business owner, but I believed it would also be valuable in my work with various organizations. As I became more involved in the volunteer world, I wanted to bring these skills and lessons to my charitable work.

When I took on the Presidency of the Women’s Board in June 2010, I knew I wanted the board to grow and develop, but also knew I needed to enhance my abilities in order to lead a group of committed individuals toward a common, community-oriented goal. My personal goal was to develop future leaders, a mission I took very seriously. How I was to do this wasn’t entirely clear.

My first inspiration came in a book by Dr. Hal Lewis, President of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where I serve as a Trustee. From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership became my bible. I didn’t just read this book. I studied it, I dissected it, I struggled with it. I took it to heart. I saw myself in a new light, in a role Dr. Lewis describes as a “servant leader.” In sharing new-found kernels of wisdom with my Executive Board, I learned a humbling lesson: some of the people, some of the time might be interested and many will not. All I could do was offer my gleanings and then it was out of my control.

After my first year of a two year term, another inspiration came again when Spertus partnered with Northwestern University to offer a Certificate in Jewish Leadership and I enrolled as a student. At first, the prospect of going back to school seemed daunting. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the rigorous demands of post-graduate education – the long reading lists, the challenging essays, the research. What finally motivated me to enroll, however, was the knowledge that my enduring success as a lay leader would depend on more than just my business acumen. To bolster the techniques, skills, and best practices I acquired from my years of fundraising and administrative work, I needed credibility and certification. In other words, I needed academic validation of what I knew to be intrinsically true. I came into the Spertus program expecting to receive just that. I came away with so much more.

In the Spertus Certificate program, the most important thing I learned was how much I didn’t know. I had always considered myself a capable leader. I had proven myself time and time again as a confident decision-maker, a clear communicator, and a competent, organized manager. The Spertus Certificate program acknowledged these aspects of my managerial style, validating, in essence, what I already knew about the way I lead.

It also taught me an incomparably more valuable lesson: it exposed me to the things I could not do. It shined light on the gaps in my knowledge, gave me a context for my management style, and challenged my perspective on everything from Jewish history to business ethics. By participating in classes taught by men and women who are respected leaders in the world of Jewish leadership, I developed the ability to recognize weaknesses in my leadership style, to accept – even embrace – these weaknesses, and create a plan to deal with them most effectively. I became a better leader; certainly a more humble one.

As a “seasoned veteran” of the nonprofit Jewish world, I became aware of something very important about the younger people seeking meaningful charitable involvement.

I have met so many young professionals, the lifeblood of the Jewish community, who want to be affiliated with Jewish organizations, but the language and concepts of the past do not resonate with them. I was motivated by the concepts of tzedekah as a mitzvah, a commandment. It was incumbent upon me to carry on the traditions; I was part of the legacy of the Jewish people, a link to the past and future. These words do not hold much meaning for younger generations and, in fact, they can even alienate.

Today’s Jews are dedicated to contributing to their Jewish communities in practical, rewarding, and hands-on ways. They strive to change old models – and they expect this new, more personal kind of support to be embraced. They want to call their own shots. They value participation and want, even demand, that their participation makes a difference.

If true leadership is training and developing future leaders, then we face the challenge of doing so within the context of Jewish values and principles and by finding a language that will touch and inspire those we mentor. As I attempt to understand this new emerging leadership, I try not to become defensive or a champion of the “old ways.” I have made a concentrated effort to do more listening and less talking.

As an eternal optimist, I feel that with continued 21st-century training and our support, guidance, and love, today’s nascent Jewish leaders will blossom and thrive. As we encourage people to be authentic, creative, and innovative, they will grow to champion and advance both existing and new Jewish organizations, serving and ensuring the vibrancy of tomorrow’s Jewish community. AMEN.

Deanna Drucker is Past President of the Women’s Board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and a member of the Board of Trustees of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach
Why is this Degree Different? by Aaron B. Cohen
The Important Role of Newcomers to Jewish Communal Service by Brian Zimmerman
Professional Education Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Community by Michael B. Soberman
Prioritizing Learning by Karin Klein
The Aesthetic Lives of Jewish Identity by Judah M. Cohen