The Questions Jewish Leaders Ask

Jewish leaders ask similar questions, are concerned about many of the same issues, and confront many of the same challenges around the world. I had the unique opportunity to participate in the twenty-third Nachum Goldman Fellowship (NGF) this week in Israel sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. According to the website:

The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture was founded in 1965 by Nahum Goldmann with reparation funds from the government of what was then West Germany. The mandate of the Foundation at its inception was the reconstruction of Jewish cultural life around the world after the Shoah. The manner in which that mandate has been most effectively fulfilled by the Foundation is through the identification and support of a new generation of scholars, intellectuals, academic, writers, artists, rabbis, educators and other Jewish communal professionals to replace their earlier counterparts in Europe who were decimated by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

The Nachmun Goldman Fellowship is:

… a special institute aimed at nurturing a new generation of Jewish communal leadership across the world. The program provides an intensive experience of Jewish learning, living and leadership for young men and women from around the world between the ages of 25-40 who show serious interest in Jewish culture and demonstrate a potential for individual growth and communal leaders.

It was a very special privilege to have been amongst these 47 young leaders from 17 different communities. Listening to them speak you would think you are sitting with people who come from the same community. Although they are separated by thousands of miles and have cultures that are different in many ways, their commitment and involvement in their Jewish communities creates a common bond. The language they speak and the words they use enable them to connect with each other because the rules of “Jewish communal grammar” are based on their own sense of Jewish identity and their investment in strengthening Jewish continuity.

I was asked to facilitate a workshop on Community Development and Change that was focused on the participants developing skills so they are able to be effective communal leaders. The Israel Seminar Program also encompasses sessions dealing with multiple subjects including text based Jewish learning to become knowledgeable as well as effective Jewish communal leaders. One of the special aspects of the program is the participation of both Jewish communal professionals as well as volunteer leaders.

There are few settings in Jewish life where the sponsoring organization does not have an agenda related to a specific cause, theme, political or religious affiliation, among other reasons for offering to host people for 10 days. The MFJC does not have a perspective on the issues and promotes open dialogue and discussion. The sole reason for bringing young leaders together is to enable them to better understand their communities’ needs and to enable them to have an impact on the future of Jewish life. The discussions and deliberations reflect the broadest possible spectrum of interests and involvements in Jewish communal life. However, the uniqueness is in the common agenda among all of the participants.

Although they come from communities including Australia, South Africa, Israel, South America, Europe and North America, among others, their concerns are so similar that it reinforces the concept of Clal Yisrael (All of the People of Israel) in an inspiring way. The atmosphere of openness allows the participants to share the challenges facing their communities and the challenges they face as communal leaders. Everyone accepts the concept of Clal Yisrael, but not everyone has the same definition of community.

The discussion around the meaning of community is different in countries. For example in Germany or Denmark there is a formal status of membership in the community. In much of the Western world we are familiar with the concept of voluntary Jewish community where someone makes a decision as to whether to affiliate or not affiliate with the organization that represents the Jews in the country or acts as an umbrella to provide services. Of course, Israel presents a different model where Jews are citizens in a Jewish country and the whole question of whether there is a “Jewish community” is hotly debated among the Israeli participants.

Once the various concepts of community have been discussed the participants are focused on looking at what is meant by community leaders. Who are these people who both lead and represent the Jewish community? How does one become a community leader and what should community leaders do to fulfill the responsibilities of the positions they hold. The presentations, the models, the problem-solving exercises that are facilitated enable the fellows to share openly and to recognize the commonalities of the issues they face as young leaders.

During the course of the program many of them learn that there are no “right or wrong’ answers and that they have to share their ideas with others and to try to achieve consensus among the members of the communities. When a professional communal worker from the UJA-Federation of New York, with 1.3 million Jews, sits with a volunteer leader from the Prague community, with about 1,500 Jews, you can ask what do they have in common? How can they possibly share in their challenges and deliberate together? How do they attract people 25 – 40 years of age to participate in the community? How do they deal with the financial cost of living a Jewish life?

These questions are not unfamiliar to you. Anyone who is or has been active in their community is aware of the imperative to understand the issues and to try to respond in a meaningful way. The focus is always on improving the lives of the Jews in the community and on strengthening the Jewish community. The NGF provides the opportunity for the coming generations of leaders to understand what confronts our people in the communities around the world and to develop their ability to respond. Ultimately each community makes its own decisions related to creating, strengthening, sustaining and planning for the future of Jewish life.

It has been a rare privilege to be part of the faculty and to simultaneously teach and learn with these wonderful, inspiring and committed young leaders. We should not only welcome them with open arms but also support them in developing themselves and in providing opportunities for them to continue to contribute to Jewish life in the communities around the world. They should continue to go from strength to strength.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.