Left Behind: Why We Need Truly Global Jewish Leaders

JDC volunteer doing non-sectarian work at Ethiopian rural school; courtesy JDC.

by Naomi Sage

Picture this. Almaty, Kazakhstan, 200 miles from China’s border. A majority Muslim country, Kazakhstan is home to a Jewish community of 50,000. The country’s Jews, along with their Muslim neighbors, suffered religious oppression for decades under Soviet rule. Today, Kazakhstan’s proud Jewish community is working to rebuild Jewish life.

For most, the Jewish community of Kazakhstan is off the map. And yet, it was a visit to Almaty that inspired Ethan Prosnit, a 20-something from Connecticut, to seek a career in the rabbinate. He reflects, “We don’t cherish being Jewish in America. We rarely have to ask – why is it important to live a Jewish life? But when you go to these communities where being Jewish is a deliberate choice, it forces us to ask those questions.” Kazakhstan not only “made me see how lucky I am, but also what I can do to strengthen Jewish life – how I can enrich an overseas community with my perspective and vice versa, how I can enliven Jewish life through connection to the greater Jewish people.”

Prosnit’s story hints at the power inherent in the words: “There is a single Jewish world: intertwined, interconnected,” spoken by a true Jewish hero, Ralph I. Goldman. Goldman stood at David Ben Gurion’s side during Israel’s War of Independence and, in the 1980s, ensured that Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain were not forgotten. He understood that the Jewish people are – and always have been – a global people, and that this demands great responsibility of our leaders.

Today, more than ever, we have an opportunity to realize this vision. But to do so will require a dramatic change in the way we educate and train our leaders.

The world is flatter, faster, and more integrated than ever before. “Today, to be local is to be global,” explains Professor Colette Mazzucelli of New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “Through technology, through migration – we are interconnected.” Individuals are constantly on the move, defying borders, and making homes in multiple locations. Young Jews are no different. We are eager to engage with the world, and are doing so through international service, study abroad, and careers with global corporations.

Leadership in this dynamic, ever-changing context requires a new type of education. Trends within the secular arena demonstrate that individuals and institutions are adapting modes of thinking and training to enable a generation to be better equipped to respond to the world. For example, leading academic institutions are creating global leadership programs. “We seek to educate global citizens,” Tufts President Emeritus Dr. Lawrence Bacow explains, “because, today, anyone who wants to play a leadership role in virtually any field must comprehend the cultural, religious, and geopolitical forces that define how nations and societies interact.” Clearly, the secular world is keen to prepare its leaders for a changing world.

But is the Jewish community keeping pace? North American Jewry has invested a great deal in developing the ‘next generation’ of Jewish leadership, fostering both academic programs aimed at training Jewish professional leadership as well as tailored fellowship opportunities for lay leaders. Yet, while many emphasize the importance of Israel – students of Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program participate in a required seminar in Israel; rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College (HUC) spend their first year of studies on the school’s Jerusalem campus – little weight is placed on the approximately 20% of global Jewry outside of North America or Israel.

We are a community that makes up 0.2 percent of the world population, whose members reside in over 90 countries, with new communities popping up in Asia and other parts of the world every year. The global education that our leaders can – and do – get in the secular arena is not enough. Twenty-first century Jewish leadership requires a global outlook through a uniquely Jewish lens.

The initiatives we support have not adjusted to generational shifts in global perspectives or to the dynamic changes in the world. Yoni Gordis, of the Center for Leadership Initiatives, says, “The globalized world in which we now live requires a new set of skills and attitudes about the nature of community and its boundaries. The tools with which we equip our leaders need to be radically looked at and radically changed.” Gordis worries that “if we fail to ‘catch up’ with the pace at which the world is changing, our leaders won’t be prepared to address the challenges of the future.”

The Jewish world needs a comprehensive platform that educates and trains young people to lead in a globalized world – and a globalized Jewish world. While new efforts must be pioneered, there are also simple steps we can take as a community to strengthen existing initiatives.

Every graduate program in Jewish professional leadership should include a mandatory course on global Jewish issues. As a participant in one of these programs, I always felt that my education would have been richer had the curriculum included a global Jewish outlook.

Our leadership initiatives should incorporate a service or study visit to an overseas Jewish community. It was Prosnit’s week-long JDC service experience in Kazakhstan that sparked a career dedicated to Jewish service. His story is one of many. Imagine the potential in expanding such opportunities.

Our service and fellowship programs should integrate a global mix of participants. Gordis has seen the promise of an interconnected Jewish community through his experience developing ROI, an international community of innovators pioneered by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. “By being linked to one another, the group has been able to build upon their common values and strengths, while at the same time respecting the diversity within the Jewish world.”

Moving forward, we need a perspective that takes into account a globalized world and a globalized Jewish people. If we ignore this, we risk missing a tremendous opportunity to strengthen Jewish life around the world.

Naomi Sage is the Senior Program Director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Next Generation and Service Initiative, and is spearheading the launch of a new global leadership institute to train an international group of young leaders with the know-how to lead 21st century global Jewish interventions.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.