The Search for the Jewish Holy Grail: NextGen Leaders

by Abigail Pickus

Will the next Jewish leader please stand up?”

Such was the title of a panel at the 2012 Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem that delved into the Holy Grail for every Jewish organization: the quest for the NextGen of Jewish leadership.

“Before we stamp ‘failed!’ on their forehead, let’s check to see if we’re giving young Jews ways to connect or see if young Jewish leadership is going on under our noses that we have missed. It isn’t always about being affiliated. The question becomes: How do we lead in such an undefined milieu? By meeting the younger generation on their turf,” said panelist Johanna Arbib Pragia of Italy who serves as Chairperson Keren Hayesod-UIA World Board of Trustees.

Justin Korda, Executive Director of the ROI Community, took this a step further. “I have the privilege of working with different kinds of young Jewish leaders who are leading initiatives aimed at building Jewish life and on national initiatives aimed at bettering the world.

Their pursuits are motivated by Jewish values,” he said. “There are amazing people out there as far as I can see. They are waving their flags. They want to be noticed and they can do amazing things. The question is, what are we as a global Jewish community doing to support these people, deploy them and network them?”

“What I would be to be 25 in the Jewish world today,” said Arna Poupko Fisher, Professor in the Department of Judaic Studies, University of Cincinnati. “This was not the Jewish world in which I grew up. [Young people are] breaking molds and doing the unimaginable.”

What is needed, Fisher continued, is to both challenge young Jewish leaders and to stay interesting and authentic.

Carolyn Bogush, Chair of Limmud UK, offered up Limmud as a living example of successful young leadership at work. The secret, she said, is how Limmud “inspires people to be ambitious about their volunteership, encourages diversity, attracts people of every generation and encourages difference [of opinion].”

“I’m feeling very optimistic,” Bogush said. “They are absolutely right in front of us. The people in our organization are taking on significant leadership roles. On average, our volunteers are under the age of 30 and they are active in making a massive difference in our community.”

Yet, Rabbi Daniel Smokler, Senior Jewish Educator at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life in New York, emerged as the lone voice of uncertainty.

“I’m forced to be honest rather than to cheerlead,” he said. “The best and brightest are in fact not taking up positions of Jewish communal leadership. Why? To have a stake in a community, you first have to have a collective identity – precisely the identity many young Jews in the United States lack today.”

In referencing Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen, Smokler distinguished between the normative and aesthetic approach to Judaism – with the normative approach meaning anything larger than oneself and one’s immediate family while aesthetic refers to the more personal and journey oriented approach.

“We have reached an extreme where the normative approach has become the purview of the Orthodox community,” said Smokler. “Without the normative approach, the very idea of community is strained, [and what we’re left with is] a lifestyle enclave, a group of individuals with similar consumer patterns.”

“We face a challenge that young potential leaders do not have a collective identity – they have an aesthetic identity. We need both,” he continued.

The other challenge is to make Judaism enticing to the next generation.

“If people aren’t interested in Judaism there is no way they are going to take up the helm of an organization. The question is: How to get people interested in Judaism?” said Smokler.

For Bogush of Limmud, there are a few concrete steps the Jewish community can take to encourage more leadership.

“We need to create a space for our young leaders. If we want our people to step up other people have to step aside,” she said. “Most of the leaders in senior positions [in the Jewish world) are generally men, older, and many are wealthy. Limmud bucks that trend.”

Korda of ROI offered his advice based on working with 20-and 30-somethings from across the globe. “Young people today know what they need to become more professional and to be able to better execute their visions. We need to do a better job of listening to them and offering them the tools they say they need versus what we think that they need,” he said.

In an unexpected twist, Korda also suggested the Jewish world pay homage to failure. “We need to be better at risking failure,” he said. “Nobody wants to fail in the Jewish world and we have been very quick to embrace anything that ceases to exist as a failure in many ways. Yet, the social entrepreneurs who take risks and try something out are our front-line activists. Often, unintended consequences come out of these initiatives. The entrepreneur who has a few failures under his belt is actually a good thing because of the lessons learned. They are in a much better situation to execute and be successful than the first time entrepreneur.”

“We need to be a lot more open to extracting the positive outcomes of so-called failures,” Korda continued.