Preparing Visionary Leadership for American Jewish Education

by Robert Chazan and Benjamin M. Jacobs

Over the ages, Jews have relied on two kinds of leaders – the managerial and the visionary. The managers consisted of the elite of wealth and material achievement, who could steer Jewish communities through the quotidian difficulties that beset them. They developed their skills in the hurly-burly of daily life, mostly by dint of hard work and business or professional achievement. The visionaries, on the other hand, set the broader course for Jewish communities, orienting them toward objectives compatible with and demanded by core Jewish values. These visionary leaders prepared themselves through extensive study of both Written and Oral Torah and received certification of their expertise in the form of rabbinic ordination. The community depended on both kemach (material sustenance) and torah (spiritual guidance), in proportionate or sometimes disproportionate measure, for its survival. While the managers and visionaries did not always work in concert, they were most certainly co-dependent.

The present-day American Jewish community continues to enjoy this dual leadership, much to its advantage. The lay and professional leaders of American Jewry provide the managerial skills, and the rabbinic and academic leaders provide the sense of the Jewish past that directs aspirations toward the Jewish future. To be sure, some managers are learned and inspired visionaries, and some visionaries are talented and effective managers. For the most part, however, as has generally been true over the course of Jewish history, two types of leaders and two styles of leadership work more or less in tandem, with each contributing in its own special and appropriate way.

Leadership in the field of Jewish education has its own, slightly different history. In pre-modern Jewish communities, Jewish education fell very much under the sway of parents and especially rabbis, who set the objectives of Jewish education and devised most of its techniques as well. As modern life became increasingly complex, however, some of the traditional functions of the Jewish home or synagogue, such as Jewish education, took on new importance and were accorded separate status, institutions, and leadership. Nowhere has the prior control of rabbinic leadership in Jewish education been challenged as stridently as on the American scene, where in most sectors of the Jewish community there has been a call for highly qualified educational leaders who can deal with important managerial issues as well as provide the requisite vision and scholarly direction for the Jewish educational enterprise.

Important positions in American Jewish education that once were filled by rabbis or veteran educators by default are instead increasingly filled by leaders whose expertise is in management. These new leaders have gained their expertise through extensive managerial experience on the job or through study in programs of nonprofit management. Many of these leaders have contributed to the start-up of entrepreneurial Jewish educational ventures or to the operation and organization of longstanding educational programs. At the same time, the age-old perception that Jewish education requires visionary leadership has not waned. In the contemporary milieu, however, the visionary leaders of American Jewish education must have advanced knowledge not only of Jewish history and values, as was always the case, but also of modern pedagogy, educational administration, and program evaluation, among other matters. For the new visionary leaders of American Jewish education, these knowledge and skill sets can best be acquired through the pursuit of the highest academic credential available: the doctorate.

A doctoral degree in Jewish education necessarily includes advanced study in two distinct yet complementary domains – Jewish studies and education. The Jewish education visionary must have demonstrable expertise in Jewish studies. He/she must know the traditional texts that constituted the core of the pre-modern Jewish curriculum and the modern approaches to the Jewish past that have emerged over the past two centuries. As the renowned Visions of Jewish Education (Fox, Scheffler, Marom, 2003) volume amply demonstrates, visionary leadership in the field necessarily begins with a deep appreciation of Jewish civilization. What is more, today’s competent Jewish education visionary must also gain mastery of one or more of the major fields of educational theory and practice, including curriculum, administration, psychology, research, and technology. He/she must be conversant with the latest developments in the ever-evolving field of general education and must be capable of utilizing effectively these new developments for the improvement of American Jewish educational activities. Because both elements of the visionary’s training – education and Jewish studies – are essential, comprehensive universities with faculty- and program-rich Judaic studies departments and schools of education necessarily have become a new locus for the preparation of Jewish education leadership.

In light of these developments, the American Jewish community, which has come to insist on the centrality of Jewish education on the communal agenda, must acknowledge and appreciate the new types of leadership required for Jewish education and must become proactive in supporting the advanced preparation of these new leaders. The successful development of visionary Jewish educational leaders should be a fundamental priority of communal stakeholders who are working to strengthen the leadership pipeline in American Jewish communal life.

Robert Chazan is S.H. and Helen R. Scheuer Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where Benjamin M. Jacobs is Assistant Professor of Social Studies, Education and Jewish Studies.