Leadership in Action: Responding to Seth Cohen

By Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer

In response to the Poway shooting, our colleague and friend Seth Cohen asks the question, “Where are our leaders?” Seth laments, in these complex times, an absence of Jewish leadership. He is unable to identify leaders capable or willing to respond to this crisis and willing to move our community forward.

We see them everywhere and we disagree, both in how Seth implicitly defines the leadership that he accordingly does not see, as well as about the ways that courageous and competent Jewish leaders are operating all over the Jewish community. We believe that lamenting an absence of leadership can be self-fulfilling, and it may be satisfying as an unfalsifiable position; but that the more important work is to notice and amplify the unheralded leadership that we see everywhere, and to create conditions for it to continue to thrive.

At both the Wexner Foundation and the Shalom Hartman Institute, we teach that leadership is an activity – something that you do, not something that you are simply by virtue of position or title. We also teach about courageous leadership, the conviction to stay in the work with full knowledge of the risks and with insufficient promise of reward. In both of our organizations, we believe that individuals who exercise leadership have been vital instruments of the past thriving of the Jewish people and are critical for the challenges we face ahead. Our work is premised entirely in investing in leaders: providing them with the tools, skills, content, competence, and confidence to inspire our communities and to navigate us through tumultuous times. Moments like this invite us to ask not “where are the leaders,” but rather: “what can we do to support them?”

Jewish leadership is not a purely political activity, despite the disproportionate amount of attention, energy, and material resources that we as a Jewish community spend invested in political action. There is a lot of preening and posturing in contemporary Jewish communal life. On every issue of political import, whether in America or Israel, part of the culture of institutional Judaism is to issue statements of praise or condemnation. Though such statements often can provide comfort to the base, and can serve as important values-clarification exercises, they are not the totality of leadership, as political performance is not the totality of Jewishness. Jewish leadership is spiritual, material, theological, political, organizational, relational and pastoral; it manifests in public and private, in public displays of heroism and private moments of kindness. And it comes to light when we shine light on it; not when we indict what we do not see when we do not go looking for it.

Accordingly, we see our colleagues – those invested with formal authority and those who are in positions of influence – exercising leadership at a furious and at times exhausting pace in response to the rise of white nationalism and most certainly in response to the horrific tragedies first at Tree of Life and now, 6 months later, at the Chabad of Poway. They are emerging as unlikely prophets and spokespersons for our community. They are comforting the mourners, tending to the wounded, and counseling the traumatized. They are writing the Pittsburgh and Poway victims into the Yizkor liturgy. They are cooperating with investigations and responding to calls and inquiries with ongoing patience and passion. Jewish leaders, both professional and volunteer, have exercised leadership with a strength, focus and intensity for which they could not possibly have prepared, despite their years of training and their extensive expertise. Those charged with leading the San Diego Jewish community are now doing the same; and yes, they are learning from their colleagues in Squirrel Hill. Rabbis and community leaders are forging community borne of grief and the ugly experience of anti-Semitic terror.

Our leaders are in deep conversation with their communities and with one another. They are working on the knotty question of balancing the need for better security for our institutions with the ethics of openness and against the experiences that people of color have had with law enforcement. They are forming coalitions of political protest. They are collaborating on sharing information, and raising and distributing funds. They are managing fears, holding the anxiety of others, while also encouraging a Judaism that is holy, uplifting and joyful even in the face of – and as a reaction to – the very forces of white supremacists designed to silence us. They are sitting at roundtables, working together with politicians, worshipping and strategizing with clergy of other faiths, and creating even unlikely intra-communal Jewish partnerships to imagine and actualize initiatives and to engage experts who can teach us about a path to follow if we are to stem the tide of hatred, racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia and of course, antisemitism. Our leaders, in this inexhaustive list and well beyond, are not sitting on or wringing their hands. They are learning from our sacred sources and our history, and they are doing the work. Those exercising Jewish leadership in these dark days will return our community, our country and our world back toward light.

We invite you Seth, as we do others, to identify those exercising leadership in the Jewish community rather than asking where they are. Yes, we need more leaders, but our leaders need more from us; and we should be engaged in supporting them and amplifying their voices. There will be more difficult times ahead, and the tone we set today – preparedness with precedent, and not panic – will be critical for the work that needs to be done, and for the people who we know will step forward to do it.

Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is the President of The Wexner Foundation.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.