The Leadership Difference in Heneni: Answering The Call, Present in The Moment, and Going Above and Beyond
By Rabbi Brad Horwitz
[This is the sixth in a weekly series “When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]
When God calls out to Abraham during the akeidah, Abraham says “Heneni.” When God calls to Moses at the burning bush, Moses says “Heneni.” In fact when God calls out to several of our Jewish ancestors and prophets, the first and immediate response is often “Heneni (Here I am).” These past leaders of the Jewish people did not have technological aids like email, phone, text, and fax to communicate, but, yet, when God called, they responded fully in a timely and instantaneous way, willing to listen and serve.
To me the concept of Heneni is critical to effective leadership. The first step is simply answering the call for assistance. But to me Heneni means much more; it is about being present in the moment, fully dedicating oneself to the person or matter at hand, with singular focus and zero distraction. When we are truly present for other people, they feel valued and strong relationships are formed. We develop partners in our holy work to serve the Jewish community.
One aspect of this Heneni concept that often gets overlooked is the notion of responding to other people in a timely manner. I would like to believe that some of my success as a leader over the past 10 years as the director of Jewish Engagement & Adult Programs at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center is a reflection of timely follow-through with my colleagues, students, participants, and community. As a leader, I try to respond to people’s needs, questions, and thoughts in a way that makes them feel like they are created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), with thoughtful, substantial responses so it’s clear I’m not rushing the encounter with quick answers that may suggest I am not fully engaged.
Yes, this means giving other people undivided attention when in their physical presence during meetings, at programs and events, in the classroom, or sitting in my office. However, no less important is what we do as leaders when people are not physically in our midst. This means returning phone calls and emails within 24 hours (Shabbat and holidays excluded, of course; we are commanded to and need our rest), even if we don’t have the answer yet to someone’s question or a solution to their problem. It means adhering to deadlines in our work and being proactively transparent if we struggle to meet them. Most importantly it means exceeding people’s expectations by delivering on promises and work early, whenever possible.
Timeliness in communication is not something that gets a lot of attention because it may be overstating the obvious. Yet we all know and experience firsthand that many people are not good at follow through and some may take days or weeks to respond to emails or phone messages. When people are slow to respond or forget to respond, it is hard to trust and depend on these folks. As leaders, if we want to develop relationships and rapport with our community so that they rally around our visions and missions, it is critical that we become experts at timely, thoughtful, and substantive communication and follow through. I often reflect on the fact that current technology enhances our ability to communicate with people near and far, but these tools do not guarantee anything. It is our responsibility as Jewish educators and leaders to take advantage of these tools – but at the same time, not be distracted by them, hiding behind our phones, tablets, and laptops. Whether it be God or anyone else, the next time someone calls, texts, or sends an email, let us all say, “Heneni,” and let us respond in a timely way that thoroughly communicates our commitment to the deeper meaning of also being fully present.
Rabbi Brad Horwitz is director of Jewish Engagement and Adult Programs at the St. Louis JCC. He received his rabbinic ordination from The Rabbinical School and MA in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is also an alumnus of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at The Davidson School.