WiseGen and the Great Transition

“He whose wisdom exceeds his works, to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are many, but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and plucks it up and overturns it upon its face. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarish (Perkei Avot )

“Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hang around a board meeting of any Jewish organization long enough and one can’t help but think there is only one generation of Jews worthy of engagement, cultivation and leadership development: the proverbial “next generation.” Referred to as NexGen, NowGen, young leadership and so on, they are constantly the focus of an immense amount of community angst, optimism and energy. Our Jewish organizations ceaselessly engineer new ways to engage these future generations in the world and work of the Jewish people, and in turn, look to the beneficiaries of this attention to help energize and renew the institutions most successful in attracting them. Yes, the future is here – and they seem quite demanding of our attention and resources.

But here’s an idea – let’s invest in WiseGen too.

Who are the WiseGen? Well, quite simply they are every generation of wisdom that has been engaged, shared experiences and helped build our Jewish community and its institutions for the last several decades. Certainly that includes the “Greatest Generation” – those who came of age in the decades that produced both our greatest Jewish tragedy (the Holocaust) and one of the greatest miracles (the birth of the modern State of Israel). But it also includes the Baby Boomer generation as well – those individuals who have guided our community through the transforming landscape of modern global Jewry and Jewish identity. These generations, having lived and learned during the most excruciating and exhilarating era of Jewish history have a wealth of wisdom to share with our community and our emerging leaders. They are not next, but nor are they past. They are now, and they are wise.

However, our Jewish organizations are often so busy focusing on how to engage NextGen that they tend to overlook the fact that WiseGen still have much to offer – and to learn. While they often populate our boards and serve in leadership roles throughout our community, these individuals have more to offer than just being placeholders until the next generation comes along to take their seats. These women and men have ideas and perspectives that also need to be nurtured and engaged; needing the opportunity to express their social entrepreneurship just as much as any fresh-faced college graduate. WiseGen may have opinions to share, but just like emerging leaders, they also have questions to ask. As a community we need to invest in their personal development just as much as we need to invest in the development of future personnel; because while they may be wise from experience, they too are often not prepared for the leadership challenges they will face.

Not prepared for what, you ask? It is what I refer to as the Great Transition.

Every leader, in whatever role they take, must come to the “Moses” moment – the moment where they realize they can only go so far until there must be a transition to the next leader. It is a challenging moment for many, but it is also a rewarding one – a moment that links the old and young, the experienced and the naive. This moment – the Great Transition, is not really just a moment – it really the work WiseGen has yet to do, when one generation yields to the next and when that succeeding generation learns to embrace the wisdom of its predecessor. It is this moment of the Great Transition where our WiseGen needs its greatest support – because for many of the members of that generation, it is a fearful moment, a moment for which they are ill prepared and reluctant to encounter (however inevitable that encounter may be).

So as we look ahead to a coming decade where there will be more and more moments of Great Transition, we need to be sure that we invest our community resources wisely in developing our wisest members to their greatest potential, even as we prepare for the transition of leadership from them to successor generations. Yes, we need to show respect for their experience, but we also must be sensitive to their inexperience with respect to challenges they have yet to face. What they have to offer our Jewish community is immense, but perhaps the best way to express our immense thanks and appreciation is not just to take from them, but to give back to them as well.

And that gift is something from which all of us in the Jewish community will benefit – wisely.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Be sure to check out yesterday’s idea from Jewcy, “It’s time for a systems upgrade,” and tomorrow’s on The Sisterhood Blog @ The Forward. You can also visit 28days28ideas.com for the full list of ideas as they progress.