Looking for Partners for Solutions for Jewish Leadership

By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and Matan Koch

Earlier a vital report was released by Leading Edge. Its executive summary stated that “the vast majority of Jewish nonprofits – 75% to 90% by some estimates – must find new executive leadership in the next 5-7 years. Finding the right leaders to move immediately into these openings is already proving difficult.”

Today, with retirements or other transitions of major Jewish leaders, we see changes happening around us. In some situations, Jewish institutions are already suffering from leadership vacuums. In others the changes have enabled our community to bring in fresh ideas and energy. But the talent issues extend far beyond CEO positions.

On any given day, there are more than 600 open positions on jewishjobs.com, ranging from top-level executive education roles to the lower level roles that keep our organizations moving. Even as successful initiatives like Leading Edge focus on developing junior talent into senior talent, and improving retention, the fact remains that the need for capable Jewish professionals, both leaders and those who will become leaders, is huge and growing. This need is only increased by the growing proliferation of our Jewish organizations, as people connect to Judaism differently. Moreover, all kinds of organizations are more innovative, robust and successful when they draw from the ideas and energy of the diverse populations that they are intended to serve.

Yet, with all this concern, and the vast expenditure of resources that some of the leaders of Jewish philanthropy are directing at this problem, everyone seems to have overlooked an opportunity to grow our talent pool by nearly a quarter.

According to the CDC, fully 1-in-4 adults have a disability. Yet in a recent study of thousands of Jews, we learned that less than 15% of American Jews can even name a Jewish leader with a disability. Let us reiterate: less than 2 in every 10 Jews surveyed can even name a single Jewish leader with a disability. Given that pioneers, especially those that look, communicate or present different than our picture of the norm, tend to stand out, it is likely that many of these 15% of Jews are talking about the same few leaders.

25% of Jewish adults but a negligible percentage of leadership obviously means that people with disabilities are massively underrepresented in our Jewish leadership. Clearly, this is not because people with disabilities do not make good leaders or workers. From Moses until today, there are Jewish leaders with disabilities who bring top skills, passion and commitment to our community. Currently there are at least 2 deaf rabbis ably serving congregations, a number of very capable blind rabbis, a gifted autistic rabbi, and a smattering of very capable Jewish professionals with disabilities at a few Foundations and organizations.

Additionally, we, the authors of this article, are both people with disabilities with a collective 50+ years of Jewish leadership between us, much of it at a high level. Moreover, statistically we know that people with disabilities can make excellent professionals because they tend to have more problem-solving experience, as well as loyalty to their employers.

Corporate America has learned this lesson. We see that companies including Microsoft, Google, Ernst & Young, J.P. Morgan Chase and others are going to great lengths competing for talent with disabilities. A study of 140 U.S. companies by Accenture give us the case in numbers. Companies that have aggressively recruited and supported employees with disabilities have twice the net income of those that did not, with a 30% greater profit margin. Translation: these employees made them better.

So, we in the Jewish community have a crisis of leadership and a crisis of talent. We have a potential talent pool equal to around a quarter of the existing talent pool, which is not being tapped by our community, and that talent pool can make us better than we ever were. It seems that what we really need is to crack the code of bringing that talent into our organizations.

There are many organizations doing admirable work to implement a long-term fix. The recently announced collaboration between the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Foundation for Jewish Camp is working to make sure that our camps, arguably one of the best talent feeders in the Jewish world, are increasingly open to campers and staff with disabilities. Hillel International has partnered with the Ruderman Family Foundation to create Inclusion Ambassadors on campuses throughout the country, and is taking other steps to make sure the Jews with disabilities join our collegiate leadership. On the synagogue front, multiple Ruderman funded initiatives, including CJP in Boston, the URJ, the USCJ and Chabad are working to make our congregations more inclusive, which will over time draw more Jews with disabilities into Jewish leadership.

But the need for leadership in the Jewish world is urgent and immediate. We need leaders now, not only five or 10 years from now as they graduate from camps and colleges. We need the first set, who, among other things, will open doors to all the rest.

The leadership crisis is big, and no one measure or facet will solve it. By the same token, however, we simply cannot afford to ignore 25% of our adult population can be, and wants to be, a major part of the solution for all types of Jewish organizations and experiences.

We feel that our organization, RespectAbility, which was founded by Jewish philanthropic leaders, and is a leading expert in disability leadership, has an important role to play in helping to locate this solution. We had a first convening of interested leaders on March 19. Dozens of Jewish leaders and activists came together via phone and the web. It was a start. These conversations need to intensify and continue. We encourage anyone who wants to be a part of the solution to this problem to reach out to us. We are happy to continue our role as conveners, and as a potential platform for solutions, but we need your active input. Only together can we solve the problem.

Together we can build a stronger community that will take advantage of the ABILITIES of Jews with disabilities, just like anyone else.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is Founder/President of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She is dyslexic and has ADHD. Three times The Forward has listed her as one of the 50 most influential Jews in North America. She can be reached at JenniferM@RespectAbility.org.

Matan Koch is a Senior Advisor to RespectAbility. A lifelong Jewish leader who has used a wheelchair since birth, he attended Yale College and the Harvard Law School, and after a successful career in corporate law and a stint of senior government service, has become a leading consultant on Jewish Inclusion, with clients as diverse as the Union for Reform Judaism and Hillel International. He can be reached at MatanK@RespectAbility.org.