Reflections from the first cohort of the Adaptive Leadership Lab: An encounter with local and global Jewish Challenges

By David Davidi-Brown and Nina Peretz

How might we build active, inclusive and responsible Jewish communities for the future?

How might we involve more people to take action and shape the communities they wish to belong to?

How can we push ourselves and others beyond the limits of our comfort zones?

As Jewish community leaders, these questions inspire us in our work. We joined the pilot cohort of Adaptive Leadership Lab* (a.l.l), a program the Jewish Agency’s Global Leadership Institute, to explore these and many more questions. a.l.l brings together a diverse group of Jewish professionals and lay leaders from North America, Europe and Israel for intensive Adaptive Leadership** training, while simultaneously examining systemic challenges we experience in our local communities and broadly as a global Jewish people.

Our cohort is made up of 19 participants from 8 different countries. Each participant in a.l.l represents a piece of the diversity of the global Jewish world and are individuals inspired to be instrumental change makers supporting the growth of our communities. One of us, David, from London, is the CEO of the Union for Jewish Students (UJS) which represents over 8,500 Jewish students in the UK and Ireland. The other, Nina, from Berlin, after converting to Judaism, is now the first chairwomen of Fraenkelufer Synagogue, where she is supporting a revival of its conservative community.

The a.l.l program has created a mini-laboratory of the Jewish world, recognizing that while managing diversity is complex and challenging, it simultaneously can be productive in facing and addressing local and larger challenges collectively because one person or perspective can illuminate new understandings.

As part of a.l.l, our cohort recently re-convened in Budapest for the second of three seminars. Our reflections here seek to highlight how, while in Budapest, our diverse group encountered small versions of larger challenges facing our global Jewish people

Through our encounters with the Budapest Jewish community, we observed a conflicting value around choice and obligation in Jewish practice. We visited one of the last shtiblach in the city and the only one that continued during the Shoah. Today, the shtiblach follows orthodox practices. We met a young, dedicated synagogue member who explained that whilst he doesn’t adhere to orthodox practice in his personal life, he respects those rules when in the shtiblach as a way to preserve the shtiblach and its traditions. Our host affectionately shared that for years an elder holocaust survivor “nudnik” (nuisance) would call people on Tuesdays to make sure they would join Shabbat Morning minyan. He hinted at the loyalty he felt towards this nudnik, which may well be holding him to the orthodox traditions of previous generations despite personal choices around his Jewish observance today.

This tension is transferable to other communities. Nina is the chairwomen at Fraenkelufer Synagogue, a growing community in Berlin’s hip Kreuzberg neighbourhood. While the new congregants are young, international and open-minded, the synagogue has always been conservative and the rituals even orthodox. It is the tension between obligation and freedom of choice, between conservative and innovative, between tradition and a grassroots movement that today creates the particular “ruach” of Fraenkelufer Synagogue. Creating a community of belonging that holds members with conflicting worldviews is a challenge that Fraenkelufer synagogue similarly is grappling with.

In our own program cohort, we were challenged with how to create a community of belonging with members who come from different and sometimes competing Jewish worldviews.

During Shabbat in Budapest, our group was tasked with creating a meaningful Shabbat morning session that honored the Shabbat desires and needs of individuals in the group- a common challenge in pluralistic Jewish communal settings. Our group includes those who are shomer Shabbat according to halacha, seekers of compelling and creative spirituality, passionate progressives, and those who recognize Shabbat to be synonymous with “weekend.”

It was difficult to come to a consensus around how to create a Shabbat session. We, as a group of communal leaders, were stuck. We realized this was an example of an adaptive challenge that we faced as a group and is broadly representative of a challenge of the global Jewish community to come together. There were no easy solutions and we each had a different interest invested in hosting a Shabbat program. How could we, together, make progress in a place that we were collectively stuck?

What helped us make progress on designing a communal Shabbat experience was looking closer at the individuals present in our group and mapping the stakeholders who were involved. What are the different subdivisions? What are their wishes and needs? And even more important, what are their fears and potential losses?

Next, we brought representatives of the different faction groups together and agreed that some personal loss of individual customs might be incurred in order to celebrate Shabbat together.

The various needs and preferences of the factions spoke out. A more traditionally observant representative wanted to include Jewish learning and discussion in our Shabbat morning. An Israeli, who doesn’t consider himself religious, wanted to include an activity exploring group relationships. A North American and European were interested in a musical meditation session.

On Shabbat morning the whole group came together for this curated mix of mindful and musical reflection (an alternative barachu), short Torah study stimulated by Orthodox, Conservative and Cultural perspectives, and a Hebrew inspired exercise in gratitude. The service was enjoyable, engaging, and yet still encroached on various expressions of identity in our group.

Together, we came to resolve the adaptive challenge in our group through shared decision making, instead of separation; conversations instead of walls, and creating a sense of shared responsibility instead of abdicating responsibility. By identifying and navigating the various stakeholders, we were able to hold the inevitable losses of each group.

Continuing as a covenantal community could be a perennial adaptive challenge facing the Jewish people. Each community similarly faces the challenge of how to meet various if not conflicting needs of diverse members. Like Ahad Ha’am said, “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Our group’s experience shows how the varying expressions of Judaism may indeed be able to keep the Jewish people thriving in new and relevant ways. To do so, our communities must better involve the range of people and passions they contain in shaping meaningful Jewish life. We may all need to let go of certain loyalties and absolutes in order to mobilise around changes; it could result in lose-lose, yet a winning future for our people.

* a.l.l is made possible by the generosity of The Shawna Goodman & Todd Sone Family Foundation and the Jewish Agency for Israel. a.l.l is a program of the Global Leadership Institute at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

**Adaptive Leadership, developed at Harvard Kennedy School, offers tools, tactics and behaviors to mobilize organizations and communities to tackle tough challenges and thrive in a changing world.

a.l.l is opening applications for cohort 2 in November 2017.