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Everyday We Write the Book: Writing Our Personal Chapters of Jewish Leadership

August 17, 2009

“The writer is always the last one to arrive at the party, the last to have any fun with the act of writing…  I want to read my own production and astonish myself, to be able to read myself as if I too were a reader coming to my own text for the first time.” –  Mario Bellatin, Author

When I recently read this quote by Mario Bellatin in the New York Times I was captivated by his choice of words and the aspirations of self-discovery they expressed. It made me wonder how many of us actively seek to revisit the contours of our character in the context of our own unfolding storyline?  How many of us take time to read ourselves in a way that we find that what we have done or what we have become astonishes us?

In other words, if we were to look back at our individual experiences, would revisiting them truly astonishes us in terms of the meaning imparted by those experiences? Would we, as Heschel might ask, experience radical amazement?

While this question is not limited to the world of Jewish communal experiences, I have found it to be a particularly interesting question in the context of engaging Jewish communal leadership. As a whole, we certainly do not lack any attention to the cultivation of Jewish leaders –  perhaps no other ethnic, cultural or religious community is more attuned to this effort than the Jewish community. Nonetheless, we often miss opportunities to engage and astonish individuals with the meaningful opportunities to serve in leadership roles, and even when those opportunities exist, individuals often miss the opportunity to astonish themselves.

Take for example a recent email I received from a friend in a relatively small Jewish community. This individual has invested talent, passion and resources in several aspects of Jewish life on a local and national level. He is still part of what I refer to as emerging leadership (under 40), but no less capable of taking a significant role within his community’s organized (read as “Federation”) leadership.  Like many individuals similarly situated across the country, he was recently asked to provide leadership in his community’s Federation campaign by assuming the relatively conventional (but not unimportant) role of serving as a “card captain” for a designated giving level.

His email to me articulated what he perceived as his three choices regarding his leadership opportunity – option #1,  accept the assignment out of a sense of obligation even though it did not inspire his leadership energies; option #2 , accept the assignment but  transform it into an opportunity to be creative and innovative; or option #3, decline the invitation altogether.  Certainly his analysis of his options were no different than the options many of us face on a regular basis when we evaluate opportunities to be engaged in our community, and he was looking for some peer to peer suggestions.  After discussion, he chose option #2.

But notwithstanding my friend’s resolution of his own question, his conundrum raised a different question in my mind: how many of us choose option #1 rather than option #2? Moreover, how many people do we know that choose option #3?  Our choices tell us a lot about ourselves, but also tell us a great deal about the organizations that are creating those choices for us. However, it is too easy to blame our choices on the organizations alone when we too have a role in how we evaluation and assess our options. How many times to we not consider option #2 at all, and instead view our choices of leadership in a binary format “their way or no way?” How often do we accept an uninspiring leadership opportunity and perform it by rote without ever reimagining its opportunities?

Back to the quote by Bellatin, how many of us, when we look back at the short stories or long novels of our Jewish community leadership experiences, would want to go back and read those stories? Would we be astonished by what we read? Would these stories be comedies or tragedies, epic poems or powerfully short haikus?  If we were readers of our own experiences, would we enjoy what we read and would we recommend those texts to others? The answers to these questions tell us just as much about the stories we need to write as much as the stories we have read.

What Bellatin reminds us, and what we need to remind ourselves regularly, is that all leaders are authors in their choose-our own adventure stories. How leaders (and the organizations they lead) write those stories foretell how interested and astonished they may be when they revisit and reread them.  Choices, in life and in leadership, are plotlines that need to continue to captivate the writer and the reader, especially when they are one and the same.

So with that, let us all make smart choices about the leadership experiences we undertake, even if we need to be leaders in creating those choices. And in the coming year, in addition to being inscribed in the Book of Life, let all of us be good authors of the books of leadership we will write, individually and together.

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2 comments

  1. Two points.

    There’s no such thing as an uninspiring leadership opportunity, just uninspired leaders.

    Conversely, not every responsibility is a leadership opportunity. Sometimes you do better just calling a spade a spade, not least when the job to be done is digging.


  2. Memory – the single most important word for creating a future for the Jewish people – or any people. Providing a leadership that creates memories instead of simply doing the job of the present is what every community requires. In today’s America there is a lack of interest in and desire for the creation of memories. This is especially true of many within the Jewish community. But, this is for a future discussion rather than for a short response.



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