Let’s not Demean Today’s Great Generation of Jewish Leaders

JUF logoBy Steven B. Nasatir, Ph.D.

George Caplan and Steve Windmueller’s Aug. 25 piece on Jewish federations and their legacy tradition hit the mark by praising the “Greatest Generation” of Jewish leaders, but it failed to do justice to the new generation of leaders making their mark in many communities.

As one who became a Jewish communal professional in 1971, and who continues to serve as President of a large federation, I witnessed the selfless and inspirational leadership of that Greatest Generation. Today, I’m witness to a new generation of great volunteer leaders who understand the responsibility that has been handed down to them and who have the knowledge, experience, capacity and commitment to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Empirically, I’m not aware of any study that suggests that today’s communal leaders reflect a value system where “money trumps experience, ego offsets vision, and expediency replaces commitment,” as Caplan and Windmueller assert. Of course that may be the situation in some communities, just as it has been in past eras. But it’s unfair and I believe inaccurate to tar an entire generation of leaders with that brush.

Are today’s leaders different from the Greatest Generation? Of course! The times are different, the challenges are different, and so are their life experiences.

In some respects, today’s Jewish women and men age 45-65 are far better prepared to lead than were their forebears. Almost all are university graduates and hold advanced degrees. Their Jewish literacy is considerably higher than their parents’ (some are day school graduates). Many participate in local and national Jewish leadership programs. They grew up during a time of Jewish sovereignty and have visited Israel often, with some studying or working there. Almost all grew up understanding collective responsibility, many having watched their parents follow in the footsteps of grandparents to assume communal leadership.

Still others of today’s leaders are the first in their families to join synagogues, take their children to annual walks for Israel and attend federation events.

Above all, in my experience today’s emerging leaders feel privileged to be asked to lead and consider it an honor to serve. In Chicago and elsewhere, many highly qualified people are eager to serve as chairman of the board, chairman of the campaign, and in other positions. For every available board position, our nominating committee must decide among some 10 people who desire and are qualified to serve.

Throughout the millennia, Jewish leaders have worried about the next generation. Worrying is appropriate, as the stakes are high. That’s why wise federations and communities invest in engaging and developing young people starting in their teens, if not sooner.

Let’s not underestimate or demean the present and emerging generations of Jewish leaders, who are inspiring, smart, successful and Jewishly committed. True, there will never be another Greatest Generation. But there will be – in fact, there already is – a Great Generation of Jewish leadership now hitting its stride.

Steven B. Nasatir is President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.