Seat at the Table

By Richard Wexler

A few weeks ago, the wonderful eJewishPhilanthropy (25 January) published an impassioned plea from two campus advocates – “No Representation Without Conversation.”

The subject matter and the demands were clearly thought through and, inasmuch as I like so many of you have thought a lot about the Next Generation of Jewish leaders, I wanted to reprint the plea and then discuss it:

“To the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations,

In Deuteronomy 31, God instructs Moses to pass on the mantle of leadership. Moses turns to Joshua, puts his hands upon him and, in a moment of Divine Presence, Joshua becomes the leader of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, the Jewish people have passed on Torah and communal leadership, l’dor v’dor, from one generation to the next.

As two people deeply involved in and passionate about Jewish communal life, we fear that the number of modern day Joshuas, who happen to be our peers, is dwindling. This past week, we saw what intergenerational success looks like as an estimated four million people filled streets around the world to demand change, justice, and equality. These marches proved that young people are going into 2017 with passion and conviction, ready to make a difference in the world locally, nationally, and globally. Nonprofits, political parties, NGOs, and even corporations are swinging the door wide open to younger leadership, professional and lay, as a way to reposition and adapt to a quickly changing world. Those organizations that aren’t doing so are actively shortchanging their long term viability and relevance, and simultaneously alienating a significant portion of their support base who want to be meaningfully engaged.

In a TED Talk about the changing nature of democracy, Pia Mancini made clear that generations past decried “no taxation without representation,” whereas this generation operates on “no representation without conversation.” The difference is stark as young leaders everywhere are taking their rightful seat at the table, and actively participating in “the conversation.”

We wonder, are the Jewish organizations, that in many ways define the tapestry of the American Jewish world, opening seats at their decision-making tables to new voices? We don’t think so. And, if we don’t reverse this trend soon, we jeopardize the future of our Jewish organizations, and the Jewish people as a whole. We worry that too many of our Moses’ are without Joshuas in their midst.

Just over 2% of all nonprofit trustees are under the age of 30. More concerning, a majority of these young trustees are the sole member of their board in their age bracket. Young people represent over 20% of the population, and need to likewise represent a meaningful percentage of board members actively engaged in supporting our Jewish organizations. As the only two young people who serve on a very large board, we fear that assumptions are made that we alone can represent an entire generation. We can’t. And we need a more diverse group of peers at the table to represent the rich diversity our organizations aim to engage.

2017 needs to be a year of change. The era of the “token young person” is over.

Young leaders on every level have valuable experience, expertise, and insight to share with organizations and causes for which they care. The window of opportunity is shrinking quickly, as a time will come when those passionate young people will turn elsewhere to lend their time and voices.

We ask the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to make it a priority of top concern to require that by 2020, each constituent organization have a significant number of young adults serving in meaningful leadership roles on their boards.

If these 52 organizations lead by example, we are confident that it will have a ripple effect throughout the Jewish world. The time to be bold is now – we owe it to the Jewish world future generations will inherit.

If not now, when?

Most Sincerely,

Debbie Rabinovich
Andrew Keene”

The suggestion that Jewish organizations “… open seats at their decision-making tables” as articulated by these two thoughtful and demanding young people is one worthy of sincere examination and reflection. Young leaders deserve to be taken seriously; I have a few in my own family. I have some suggestions in response:

  • First, understand the organizations on whose Boards you wish to serve. I’d start with the Conference of Presidents to which the writers’ demands are addressed and which, as you readers know and understand, cannot “require” its members to do anything at all. And doesn’t. The fact that the letter is addressed to the Conference at all indicates that more homework might be, is in fact, needed;
  • Second, and most important to me, is the demand for what I would characterize as “immediate gratification;” “the immediate election of young men and women to seats on the organizational decision-making boards.” Where I come from Board seats are earned not “given” – earned by service on Agency boards, Federation committees, in the campaigns. One grows into Board membership; one is not bestowed with that membership because of age. In fact, in my community as well, I suspect, yours, we do have a number of young leaders on our Agency and Federation Boards who have served on Committees, led Agency and Federation efforts and now serve on the Boards.

Nowhere in the eJP-published letter do I read of these young leaders’ interest in “working their way up” to Board service; to learning the complexity of our organizations before leading them. What I read is the desire/demand to be immediately parachuted into leadership. I have a suggestion for them…

At the end of 1999, my brilliant friend and colleague, the indefatigable Jeffrey Solomon and I published an article in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service – “Setting Standards for Volunteer Leadership and the Profession.” I’m proud of the award the article won in 2000 but more so that it became part of the curriculum in some schools of Jewish communal service. I understand the desire of all those young, old and in between to want to be immediately “in the rooms where it happens.”

I also believe that those who want it the most will “earn it” and earn it quickly if they first learn, and then participate, and, then, determine if they still “want it.”

Richard Wexler is a Past Chair of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal and Co-Chaired the merger that created what is now JFNA. He is the author of the blog, “UJThee and Me.”