Leadership & Change in the Land of The Lost

The agenda for leadership transition in the Jewish community simply cannot be created and dictated entirely by the existing and departing leadership.

by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer

Readers of eJewish Philanthropy will readily recognize the phrase “leadership crisis” as a recurrent feature of conversation – or perhaps we should say, panic – in Jewish organizational life. The impending, and in some cases already occurring, demise of the stranglehold on executive leadership by the existing pool of longstanding executives in major (or “mainstream”) Jewish organizations is cause for great consternation and concern and has resulted in a steady stream of editorials, op-eds, and now most recently, a comprehensive analysis of the problem written by Barry Rosenberg and commissioned by JPPI.

Sadly, but consistent with the tenor of this conversation as it has been conducted in public thus far, this new report names but does little to address the core issues at play when it comes to leadership succession; and more perversely, the report actually embodies the deeply troubling attitudes that are responsible for this problem. The study assumes the continued centrality of the same organizations struggling to create leadership succession; proposes to increase efforts to centralize the processes of leadership cultivation and development in the face of growing decentralization; and ultimately seeks to reiterate and replicate the same modes of leadership that have led Jewish organizational life to this crossroads.

Here is what we know: “Mainstream” Jewish organizations are suffering from a much larger problem than leadership succession. Having nobly served the Jewish people throughout the 20th century, they are being squeezed by a general skepticism from the Jewish general public about their continued relevance, especially in the face of a thriving innovation sector that is creative and nimble, and more importantly in light of the changing trends of Jewish affiliation that are relocating Jewish identity outside of these normative frameworks. As successful as these organizations have been for the last half-century at organizing and convening Jewish life – and I say this as a Federation donor and a believer in the value of centralized community – the trends in Jewish life and affiliation are not on the side of the infrastructure-heavy Jewish institutions.

Moreover, these institutions have often been led by CEOs for 20 or even 30 years, CEOs whose values were developed by and for a different generation of Jewish history. They now leave the stage of leadership with our gratitude, and hopefully with the recognition of the meaningful legacy they may claim as their own. But while they deserve credit and our thanks for keeping their organizations going in the face of these major existential changes in the Jewish community, we must also acknowledge that those same long years spent in saving, preserving and salvaging their institutions have also been directly responsible for the prevailing panic about leadership succession that now defines this conversation. Put differently, who is to blame for a bad pipeline: those not entering it, or those who were responsible for building and maintaining it?

For major institutions to continue serving the Jewish people, carrying on their essential functions such as preserving the safety net against poverty, supporting Jewish education, and helping to constitute community against the trends towards fragmentation, they need help: they need creativity, new voices, serious investment in leadership education that goes beyond ad hoc solutions, and radically new frameworks with which to think about their own identities and those of the populations they serve. And to do this work, the agenda for leadership transition in the Jewish community simply cannot be created and dictated entirely by the existing and departing leadership. This plainly obvious fact has blinded many Jewish organizations for way too long. A vision for organizational sustainability and continued relevance cannot be defined by the premise of self-replacement or worse, self-replication. The most damning recommendation in the report is the first proposed short-term solution, which is to “delay” the leadership succession problem by continuing to retain the current crop of aging CEOs, a devastatingly self-interested solution that is only limited, in the view of the report, by the significant costs this will necessarily incur to keep these people in their jobs.

Something has to change in this conversation, and I want to propose that it is not going to happen through non-scientific studies, nor through attempts in writing or in elite gatherings of the soon-to-be-retiring executive leaders trying to find younger versions of themselves. The Jewish community is not going to be “saved” – nor its fading institutions salvaged – through quick-fix Israel trips for leaders (what Rosenberg calls “booster shots”) or even through elaborately conceived leadership development centers. Jewish life, in and out of our organizations, needs to driven by vision and values, by making our institutions the kind of inspiring places where visionaries want to work, and by making space for them to become places very different than they currently are.

This must include allowing organizations that have outlived their necessity to fail, well before budget crises make this inevitable. This vision must include relocating the center of gravity in Jewish life from the big institutions – where they hold sway by reason of history, not necessarily merit – to sites of true creativity, energy and vibrant leadership. It should include the awareness that many great (not “future”) young Jewish leaders already exist is in the system but are reluctant to enter into a system that repels meaningful change. It will require taking risks on new voices, leadership styles, and the kinds of people who have been stuck for too long with only the option of the infantilized “young leadership” track instead of opportunities for real influence. And it means radically diversifying the picture of what leadership actually looks like, and cultivating a vision of talent that focuses on inspirational capability rather than adherence to an antiquated style and skill-set.

The conversation on the future of institutional Jewish life has already started. Thank goodness! Change has been the only constant in Jewish history, and it is only the hubris of recent Jewish leadership that has insisted that “continuity” – the anxiety that those who follow you replicate your choices – that has resisted, rather than trying to adapt to, the rolling tide of change. Several major legacy organizations are already in the midst of searches for their next leadership, and the propagation of pieces like JPPI’s will only serve to magnify this process and make it even more public. This is a significant pragmatic and ethical opportunity. Let’s hope this sunlight brings meaningful light and change into the institutional Jewish community – both for its own survival, and more importantly for the broader Jewish people who it purports to represent.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.