We’re Not Lost

by Misha Galperin

Yehuda Kurtzer’s important and provocative essay, “Leadership and Change in the Land of the Lost” demands a conversation. It is the conversation of the hour, and, as he notes, many have already begun this important talk. As the CEOs of many large and well-established Jewish nonprofits near retirement, the question of who will succeed them is fraught with tension. We are not our grandparents or our parents. Our organizations must evolve and maintain relevance. The leaders of these organizations must do the same. Who will lead us next?

I am probably one of the leaders Yehuda points to – if not to directly, then indirectly. I have been in the professional driver’s seat of a number of well-established Jewish organizations for the past several decades. It is work that I love, and I see many of the changes Yehuda observes firsthand. We all have.

Without being defensive, I feel a need to speak up for my generation of leadership and those a bit older than myself. We have perhaps not done a good enough job of articulating what we believe in. We are not merely holding on to our jobs for dear life or looking for miniature replacements of ourselves to succeed us. We do this work with passion and dedication because we have a philosophy of Jewish communal service that has been incrementally deteriorating, and it needs reinforcement, not because of a job but because it reflects our deepest values.

True to a special and holy Jewish number, I will make my case in seven points:

  1. Choosing the right people comes first: You cannot build an organization on strategies alone. You need to identify people who not only want to lead but have the requisite skills. No one is going to become a Jim Collins’ level-five leader because of an impressive resume alone. Long-term job experience helps leaders know their communities, their mission and themselves better so they can lead from a point of influence. I am increasingly wary of young people who move from job to job and do not mature into position. We have.
  2. It’s NOT about the organizations, their size or their structure: Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that if a Jewish organization is big, it must not be working. Apple – as of this writing – has 598,500 employees in the U.S., and no one thinks that they are too big or cumbersome. It’s not about the size. It’s about the mission.
  3. It IS about people, vision, values and the future: What consistently matters is whether the vision is still relevant and if people buy into the vision and want to persuade others to come along. Do people feel authentically engaged in this work and do they believe that their work will better and strengthen our people? If they don’t, then they are not the right kind of people, no matter the job, no matter the skill-set, no matter the salary.
  4. Enduring values last: Values that we hold dear today – community, tzedaka, servant leadership, peoplehood – were important thousands of years ago as well. These foundational aspects of our heritage should not, nay, must not be changed in the face of changing culture and circumstances. Jews have always been counter-cultural and resilient precisely because we stuck to a set of consistent, rock-solid values, incorporating the best of the new from the outside and inside.
  5. Resist Market Trends: You don’t want to always be behind the times, but you also don’t want to grab onto every trend. I believe we are not attracting enough of the right new leadership because we got too trendy, too market-driven, too compliant with the “WIFM” paradigm. We allowed the profession of nonprofit management and Jewish communal service to be undervalued and under-respected (see Dan Pelotta’s TED talk). Moving with the trends sometimes helps us, and sometimes hurt us. We’ve been around long enough to have our own brand.
  6. Let History Talk: Taken to an extreme, the theory of “let’s destroy the old world to build the new one” (a direct quote from the communist hymn “Internationale”) has gotten us the Soviet Union and North Korea. I am not suggesting we are moving in that direction. I ran away from that. But I am suggesting that we be very cautious and suspect of those who try too quickly to discard their inheritance for what looks like a brave new world that soon becomes a world no one wants.
  7. There is Room for the Old and New: What I have always loved about Judaism is its blend of old and new. Layers of history create a platform for innovation and questioning. But we never forget what innovation stands on: the foundation of what came before it.

We need both leaders AND followers. We need both young AND old. We need innovation AND tradition. We need the Yehuda Kurtzers of the world to sit down and engage people like those he references in his article together in conversation. We need to build a new/old world of Jewish life together. We always have. And if we are true to ourselves and our values, we will again.

Misha Galperin is President and CEO of International Development for The Jewish Agency for Israel.