Transferring Leadership: a Multigenerational Enterprise

Parent and child reading a book from PJ Library; courtesy.

by Rachel Ain

I was 10 years old when my parents took me to the National Mall in Washington, DC, to march for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. I remember feeling connected to the Jewish people as a whole. Walking with my parents, I felt their passion, and it placed in me a personal commitment to “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” (“All of Israel is responsible for one another.”) Participating and leading in the Jewish community was something I learned from my parents at a young age.

As the Jewish community develops new leaders, funders, professionals, and volunteers, we must examine different ways to transfer knowledge and leadership. The knowledge goes beyond book knowledge. It includes the skills, stories, traditions, and values that come with being Jewish. The following approaches all use a multigenerational strategy to produce strong leaders.

From Parent to Child

Susie Stern, the campaign chairwoman for Jewish Federations of North America, and her husband, Jeff, also went to the march for Soviet Jewry in 1987, sharing their experience with their sons and taking the time to explain why they were going to the march. Today they continue to act as role models for their adult children by serving as lay leaders on a local and national level in the Jewish community. “We made sure that our children were included in and understood our communal work,” Jeff Stern says. “We gave them the tools and have watched in awe as they have found their own way to take their place in the community.”

Their son Michael is a member of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. “Growing up in a home where I watched my parents so involved in UJA-Federation taught me the importance of community-based giving from an early age,” Michael Stern says. Michael’s wife, Janna Fishman Stern, is also a cabinet member. “The Jewish notion of tikkun olam, performing good deeds to repair the world’s ills, was instilled in me from a very early age,” she says. “My parents sent me to Jewish day school to ensure that I would have a deep understanding of our tradition.”

Susie Stern says the message was clear to her children: “As parents, our hope for our children was that they be good people, be happy, and be fulfilled in their lives. Part of that formula is giving back.”

From Child to Parent

But what happens when the parents don’t have the same experience or confidence to share knowledge about the Jewish community? How can the community help? It can help by focusing on the children to connect with the parents. There is an attempt today to use the youngest generation as a catalyst to inspire an older generation, giving them motivation to engage more deeply with Judaism and Jewish life – not to mention creating new leaders among parents.

The PJ Library is an outreach program that started in Massachusetts with the generosity of Harold Grinspoon, and has blossomed into an international enterprise. It sends Jewish children, ages six months to eight years, a Jewish-themed book or compact disc each month. This model is different from the Stern family’s in that it enables parents (no matter what their Jewish experiences were) to take part in raising Jewishly literate and engaged children. But it wouldn’t happen without the excitement of their children. Some 70,000 families in more than 135 communities in the United States and Canada participate in the program.

The PJ Library program showcases how Jewish leadership skills can transfer up to the parents. “My children’s excitement when they receive their books in the mail is positively contagious, and we love that this is a Jewish learning tool we can share with our young children,” JaneBlumenthal Martin, a parent in Overland Park, Kansas, says.

A Communal Approach

The first two models rely on familial bonds. This third model of multigenerational learning focuses on programming geared toward different generations.

Congregation Beth Sholom – Chevra Shas in Syracuse, New York, began by having empty-nesters spend time with young families and middle-school students spend time with retirees. Then programs were implemented to bring people together. These programs enabled the cross-pollination of knowledge in an atmosphere where congregants were excited to share their information. The result: Congregants became leaders. They were inspired by the words and the deeds of the people with whom they were forming relationships.

Ronny Goeler, the synagogue’s president, used to sit in the back row on the High Holidays. “Intergenerational programming has given me the opportunity to share stories about growing up Jewishly with people I typically would not have mixed with,” Goeler says. “It has allowed me the opportunity to get a broad feel for the congregation and provided me invaluable perspective. Since getting involved in the congregation as a regular, I started attending classes, becoming an adult bar mitzvah, and now I am the president.”

Deb Sikora, 40, whose two children attend the local day school, became a leader after learning from an older couple who were among the founding members of the synagogue. “The stories they told of their involvement ‘back in the day’ were truly inspirational,” Sikora says. “Their passion for, and pride in, building the foundation of the thriving community that exists today were contagious. They inspired me to take a leadership role within that community so that I could continue the work they had begun so many years earlier.”

Each generation on its own will certainly have its own personality, way of advocating, and issues with which it is concerned. But to best bring about change, transfer knowledge, raise funds, and inspire leadership, the Jewish community needs to bring the generations together to address the needs of the day. As the Jewish community continues to strive for strong leaders, these three models can be used to help fuel the passionate flames of all Jews: young and old, learners and seekers, people on a path to make the world better than it already is.

Rabbi Rachel Ain is the Senior Director for Leadership Development at the Jewish Federations of North America, where she oversees the national young leadership cabinet experience and works with local communities on engaging and developing the next generation of leaders for the North American Jewish community.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.