To Develop Young Leaders, Start By Giving Them Opportunities

By Leah Schwartz and Lia BenYishay

Parashat Yitro contains some of the Torah’s most useful wisdom about cultivating leadership. Moses’ father-in-law Yitro – notably a convert to Judaism – tells Moses that leadership not shared with others is no leadership at all. He instructs Moses: “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, you as well as this people that is with you; for this thing is too heavy for you – you are not able to perform it yourself alone.” So Yitro encourages Moses to delegate some of his responsibilities to a network of judges, responsible for B’nai Yisrael in groups ranging from a thousand people to only ten people. Moses is still responsible for the overall vision – he “shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do” – but the judges will assist him in carrying out this project.

It’s easy for many of us working in Jewish organizations to sign off on Yitro’s wisdom. Yes, delegation can be complicated in practice, but it’s certainly better than trying to do something alone. As Yitro says, that is a recipe for “wear[ing] away, you as well as this people.” What’s notable, then, about this story is not its support for delegation and spreading out leadership – it’s the story’s implicit recognition that no one is ever really prepared for the leadership we ask them to take on. Yitro encourages Moses to find judges who are “valiant, fearers of G-d, people of truth, haters of unjust gain.” Yet the judges Moses eventually appoints are described as having only one of those four qualities (valor.) What are we to make of Moses ignoring three of the four characteristics encouraged by Yitro in the new leaders he is appointing? Based on our work in Habonim Dror’s Bonimot Tzedek leadership development program, the answer is clear: no one is ever really prepared for leadership before taking it on. Leadership development is about giving people more responsibility than they are currently able to handle, while also providing them with the support and guidance to take that on.

Bonimot Tzedek is a program intended to create leaders within Habonim Dror and the larger Jewish community, which we achieve not by identifying young people who already have all of the characteristics we expect in a leader, but by giving all sorts of young people opportunities to take on responsibility, in a way that both meets and challenges their current abilities. We do this through a unique scaffolded model of leadership development. Looked at from the outside, Bonimot Tzedek is a high school leadership and activism training program, where local groups of high schoolers meet biweekly to gain advocacy skills and make their voices heard about the issues they care about. But when we were developing this program, we saw the high schoolers as only one piece of a larger, holistic ecosystem of leadership development. We are equally invested in the development of the local college students who recruit and run trainings for the high school students and the young post-college professionals who coordinate partnerships with local Jewish organizations.

Each of these age-based cohorts – high school-aged participants, college-aged counselors, and post-college regional coordinators – is sometimes asked to take on extreme responsibilities. For a ninth grader, this might look like being asked to speak to your state’s lieutenant governor about gun reform, or being asked to run an event for elementary schoolers at a local synagogue. For a college-aged counselor, being asked to recruit high schoolers to a leadership development program – competing with school, sports, internships, and Instagram – can feel impossible. When one of us, Lia, coordinated the Philadelphia Bonimot Tzedek program the year graduating from college, the task of building genuine partnerships with local nonprofit organizations felt at times to be more than I could bear.

How can we justify giving young people these kinds of responsibilities? It’s simple – we make these vast responsibilities learning experiences rather than experiences of frustration by ensuring that none of the developing leaders are doing it alone. At every stage, participants in Bonimot Tzedek have both a cohort of peers as well as a near-peer mentor. This dynamic is obvious for the high school participants, who attend all trainings and advocacy events with a group of peers and a college-aged counselor. This context of peers and mentor support is what allowed one ninth-grade Bonimot Tzedek participant to feel comfortable advocating for immigrants’ rights at a state delegation public hearing with an audience of more than one hundred people, mostly adults. Reflecting later on her experiences, she said, “I felt very empowered because I was given the opportunity to speak for others who are not necessarily able to do so for themselves.” Speaking truth to power about the rights of immigrants felt like an empowering opportunity rather than an unreasonable burden because of the community this participant was surrounded by – both her peers and her counselors.

It may be less obvious than it is with the high schoolers, but this dynamic of community support is just as important in the work of the college-aged counselors and post-college regional coordinators. Each local cohort of college-aged counselors meets several times a month, both to plan activities for the high schoolers and to support each other through past challenges as well as to go through their own educational process led by the post-college coordinator. None of the responsibilities of an individual college-aged counselor is theirs to bear alone. Even the four regional post-college coordinators, while geographically separate from one another, have their own intentional process. They meet as a cohort online twice a month and in person at a seminar three times annually, as coordinated by the national Bonimot Tzedek coordinator.

Our experiences taking on leadership in Habonim Dror, throughout high school, college, and now in our early professional lives, has confirmed Yitro’s wisdom. From very young ages, we were entrusted with great responsibilities, and we now find ourselves in major leadership positions in Habonim Dror’s central office. In these positions, we have taken on responsibilities that we were not always certain we would be able to achieve. Yet the support of our community and our mentors has made those responsibilities bearable. It’s for that reason that we’re not afraid to ask young people to do more than they think they can currently take on; to the contrary, we believe that’s the only way to build a movement of leaders.

Leah Schwartz is Mazkira Klalit (Director) of Habonim Dror North America. Lia BenYishay is Rakazet Bonimot Tzedek (National Tzedek & Teen Coordinator) of Habonim Dror North America.