Putting Jewish Leadership in (new) Perspective

Putting Jewish Leadership in (new) Perspective:
Is the race for relevancy in crisis? Or at a welcome crossroads?

by Yohanna Arbib-Perugia

No matter which, the race is on and thank G-d there is no finishing line in sight! That is because the track has become as vast as its runners are diverse and while everyone is facing the starting line, they often face very different directions and targets, not to mention modes of operation. Jewish leadership, like Jewish affiliation, is taking on many different forms – and recognizing new leadership and affiliation patterns has become a challenge we can no longer afford to ignore.

For years now, we have been making a national pastime out of bemoaning ‘growing indifference’ and ‘alienation’ of young Jews to Israel and Jewish life (as reflected in the drastic drop in affiliations to Jewish communities and Jewish/Israel-related organizations). But what we must begin to realize, is that such affiliations are no longer necessarily an accurate measure of Jewish/Israel identity. So what is? And how do we tap in to it? How do we lead in such an undefined milieu?

When I look at the younger generation of Jewish adults, I feel at home – I am one of them and connect with their life-goals, multi-faceted world-views, and fluid sense of identity – not to mention hectic lifestyles! Yes – we are different from our parents’ generation, we think and feel and touch the world on multiple levels – that doesn’t mean we are more or less identified, more or less committed, it means that our identities are more integrated, more inclusive.

Child experts today, tell us that a parent’s main task is not be an instructor, but to be a ‘lighthouse’, i.e., a point of reference, a light by which the next generation can comprehend their environment and steer a sure course. Well, our own Jewish sources having been telling us that for thousands of years! According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people’s task in this world is to be “Or le’goyim” “a light to the nations” – What could be more fitting? But to be a light to the nations, we must first be a light to ourselves.

My personal ‘lighthouse’ and point of reference was and remains Keren Hayesod – UIA, a fixture that stands so bright among the Jewish people that its light shines in every corner, bringing perspective and value to everything it touches. I chose to take up a leadership role in KH-UIA because of my deep and certain understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people. For me, that centrality translates into ‘collective effort’ because only through acting collectively can we make the kind of impact that will advance Israel and the Jewish people. It was through the power of collective giving that KH-UIA donors assisted 3 million Jews to come to Israel. And it is through such collective efforts today, that Israel’s border towns, weaker communities and youth-at-risk have the chance to bridge socio-economic gaps and advance themselves, Israeli society and by association, the entire Jewish people.

For me, it is important to be part of an organization that plays a leading role in attracting and engaging young Jews from all over the globe. I recently returned from the first KH-UIA organized FORUM, which brought together highly successful young Jews from all over the world for an outstandingly successful three-day conference in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The young professional participants brought with them everything they are, their careers, interests, outlooks and personalities. Their level of energy and motivation was an inspiration.

Dr. Daniel Gordis, a leading Jewish thinker who was the FORUM scholar in residence, put it best when he rationalized that the reason the Jewish people thrive today from a position of power and confidence is because of the existence of the State of Israel. I could not agree more emphatically, the State of Israel constitutes the centrifugal force of the Jewish people. Even those who disagree and live their lives without giving a second thought to the Jewish State are benefiting from Israel – in terms of 64 years of Jewish cultural renaissance, a secure home address, Jewish and Israel education, and a Jewish future.

But how can I, as a leader, ensure the continued dissemination of this message? In the corporate world, we are judged not only on our personal performance, but on our ability to groom a skilled ‘heir’ capable of continuing our work. I believe this is a critical and integral part of the Jewish leadership role – I also believe that in today’s world everyone is able, in some capacity, to be a leader. In our parents generation there were those who ‘did’ and those who ‘didn’t’. Such categorizations have thankfully lost meaning today. If a young Jewish entrepreneur today, decides that among his/her many other interests and pursuits, he or she has a passing interest in a particular facet of Israel and is willing to invest in that, even in a small way, either in terms of time or money – that is Jewish identity, that is commitment. If that person then tweets how this made him feel to a following of 2,000 or perhaps even 9,000, that makes him or her a leader and that is what we need to recognize. We need to capitalize on every type of leadership – we need to meet the younger generation on their turf.

A tweet, a ‘like’, a recommendation through social media are powerful tools. According to many experts they are even more effective than conventional marketing channels – because they constitute ‘personal connection’ and trust. We know they lead to action. And one thing we know about action is: it works! Keren Hayesod in partnership with the Jewish Agency, and the Government of Israel is also nurturing new Jewish leaders through support of Taglit and MASA. And believe me, there is not a facebook wall in the world that can compete with a trip to Israel surrounded by other young people. Over the next decade, Taglit is expected to enable 50% of young Jewish adults to visit Israel. That will be incredible.

Every generation is fired by a central worldview – a certain vision of the world which characterizes the way they live and act. For our grandparents, it was nationalism; for our parents, it was internationalism; for us it is globalization – the concept of an integrated global world. This is the reality of the modern world – the keyword of our generation. But in fact, it has always been the Jewish reality.

The Jewish world has always relied on geographic mobility and fluidity. It is a way of life that nurtures flexible ideas and thinking – something that is second nature to us. As I travel all over the KH-UIA world, I realize the extent to which the Jewish people are a global family.

I see my leadership role as a natural expression of such globalization – an essential Jewish value which started when Abraham, our forefather, was commanded by the Almighty:

leh leha’ – “Go forth” from your land and the land of your birth, the land of your father, to the land which I will show you”

It was a courageous undertaking, it took great fortitude and, faith. But above all, it was an act of confidence. With the help of the Creator’s ‘light’, Abraham was able to lead the world in a new direction. I ask all of us to stand up as Jewish leaders and to “act according this precept, “lech lecha” – “Go forth.

Yohanna Arbib-Perugia is Chairperson of Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal’s World Board of Trustees. Ms. Arbib Perugia will be one of the panelists at the panel “Will the Next Jewish Leader Please Stand Up?” taking place at the Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow 2012 next week.