Where Are Our Leaders?

Photo by Mikhanbd – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62994731

By Seth Cohen

On Sunday morning, I awoke (once again) to streaming texts from friends and acquaintances who are heartbroken and worried about another murderous rampage against a Jewish house of worship. During the day I (once again) had conversations with friends and colleagues acknowledging the very real and worrisome rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and around the world. And by evening I (once again) looked for solace and reassurance from someone – anyone – who could speak to this moment with moral clarity, determination, and leadership.

And by the time I went to bed, I was still looking for that leadership. It had yet to appear.

Where is it? Who will help lead us in these moments of challenge and transformation? Because regardless of how we all might be living in the ‘age of individualism’ and the ‘sovereign self,’ a tribe still needs its leaders. It needs its shepherds. It still needs its beacons of possibility that can speak for and to its generations – to counsel them and cajole them, to help them see the moment for what it is – and for what it isn’t.

I have long believed the essence of contemporary Jewish community is not one of centralized control, but of inspired inclusiveness. That we need systems of learning and leading that allow many voices to rise up and create and contribute. That we need to empower professionals and volunteers alike to have agency in the development of the community they want to create. It is even more important that we create those systems because the “institutions” of Jewish life, particularly the large ‘legacy’ organizations that played those roles in the last century, are failing to do it in this one.

And yet…

We also need leaders who can rise above their silos, their stations, and the diverse communal landscape to speak to a broader national Jewish community where the safe haven of America is increasingly beginning to feel much less safe (and that for some the homeland of Israel feels much less like home). We need leaders who can span the boundaries both inside and outside our community, and who can engage multiple generations in common cause. Who can set aside ego and can focus on endeavor, and who can give voice to the thoughts many of us are thinking but too few of us are saying.

But where are these leaders? Where do we expect to find them? Are they in our national communal organizations that have historically helped harness philanthropic funds and social capital in times of crises? Perhaps they have, for too long, fought the tired debates over ‘allocations’ and ‘assimilation’ and left those organizations bereft of the kind of leaders who can rise to this moment. Perhaps we have worried ourselves, for too long, about investing in Jewish identity that is stylish and sexy – that keeps up with the trends of ‘cool’ – without investing enough in the capacity to respond to other worrisome trends of hate. Perhaps we have focused on how our organizations build endowment funds without endowing the same organizations with the kind of human resources that foster decisive leadership in distressing times. And Rabbinic voices of leadership? Where are those who can truly speak across denominations? Are there any anymore?

Yes, there is a timeliness to the current needs of leadership. But true leadership is also grounded in the timeless wisdom of the Jewish people. And one has to ask themselves in this moment, in this generation, do we have that leadership that is rooted in our past, but proactive about our future? Where do we find them? Who are they?

Because as optimistic as I am that this moment of challenge will pass and make us even stronger as a community, my optimism depends on the belief that in every generation there is a leadership that rises from within to speak to those generations – leaders who respond to crises with vision and direction, not positioning and fundraising.

So if you are one of those leaders, please rise. If you are in organizations that are searching for those leaders, search harder and choose wiser. Because another day soon (and it will inevitably be soon), some of us will wake up (once again) with streaming messages asking (once again):

Where are our leaders?

Seth Cohen is the founder of Applied Optimism, a consulting and experience design lab that helps organizations and communities design optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. Seth can be reached at seth@appliedoptimism.com and at www.appliedoptimism.com