Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Leadership’


A Moment in Time: Sunday Night at the GA

November 15, 2009

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

Anyone who has been to a GA knows that there are two schedules – the one that is published in the program book and the one you make for yourself.  Between the plenaries and the salons, there are meetings squeezed into bar booths and between sofas, old stories being recalled and new opportunities being explored.  Whenever so many people from so many places come together, there is often too much to discuss in too little time; the GA is a microcosm of the Jewish world – passionate, exhilarating and exhausting. Yet somewhere among the hectic schedules there are moments both superb and sublime that comprise the GA, moments that sometimes reflect upon the past and other that portend the future.

One such moment was Sunday night at the GA.

Convened by the grassroots efforts of Nina Bruder of Bikkurim, Keith Greenwald, a Vice-Char of the National Leadership Cabinet of Jewish Federations of North America, Shawn Landres of Jumpstart, Toby Rubin of UpStart Bay Area, Felicia Herman of Natan, Matt Abrams Gerber and Miryam Rosenzweig of Jewish Federations of North America, along with the support of myself, Steve Rakitt, the President/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and several others, over 120 Jewish leaders and professionals crammed into a  room in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for almost two hours in the late evening hours of the first day of the GA. The room was a cross-section of the modern Jewish communal landscape, with representatives from National Young Leadership Cabinet, members of the Jewish social entrepreneur community, professionals involved in building and sustaining community capacity, as well as over twenty executives of Federations from across the country. Intermingled among the tables in the room were artists and journalists, fundraisers and philanthropists, passionate supporters of overseas needs and activists for the most local of causes.

The purpose of the gathering was to have a conversation among a group of engaged volunteers and professionals about how to strengthen and expand local Jewish communities by encouraging new ideas, new leaders and new approaches to Jewish community life.  An important and interesting topic for sure, but what made the room so compelling, however, is that for many participants in the room, this was the first time they had the opportunity to truly sit around the table taking to community members from communities other than their own – not just geographic communities, but communities of interest as well.  The sheer density of the room broke down silos, if for no other reason than there was no room for the silos to remain standing. Moreover, while many of the participants had shared their aspirations and frustrations of their respective communities with members of their respective communities, this was an opportunity for the various groups to fund common ground if not always common cause.

As pointed out by many attendees, the night wasn’t flawless, and in several respects it could have been improved. Although the hope was that there would be a healthy dialogue, naturally there was the occasional monologue. And without true facilitation, many of the table discussions left participants frustrated with the pace and progress of the conversations. Some suggested that guiding questions might have been a bit vague and next steps might have been unclear.  Lastly, just as much as one could marvel who was in the room, one also had to stop and wonder who wasn’t in the room and what it would take to get them there.  Nevertheless, the volume of the voices in the room made it clear that of those in the room nobody was keeping quiet and no opinion was left unexpressed.  In a GA filled with moments, Sunday night was a noisy, messy, and exhilarating one.

So what to make of this moment?  Sometimes a moment is just a snapshot in time, nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes it is the drop of a pebble that makes a ripple, which turns into a wave that transforms a landscape. It is hard to guess exactly what kind of moment that Sunday night at the GA was – a moment that captured the desire for people to more closely connect with one another in transforming their communities, or a moment where silos fell momentarily only to eventually be reinforced again over time.  Perhaps it was a moment in the present that was a reflection of moments that could have been, or much preferably, perhaps it was a moment that foreshadows the promise of what can be.   To realize that promise, there is no question that there is much work to be done in the moments and months ahead, especially if the participants hope to continue the conversations around those tables and tables in their local communities. Yes, perhaps Sunday night at the GA was a moment in time –

but in time, anything is possible.


I Hear a Symphony: The Sound of Jewish Social Entrepreneurship

September 7, 2009

As I continue to have discussions with members of my local and national Jewish community, I am constantly amazed at the diversity of ideas, opinions and attitudes related to Jewish social entrepreneurship. From the entrepreneurs that are ahead of the curve to the funders who are trying to financially support the curve (and in between,  the organizations who are wondering how to make sure the curve doesn’t curve right around them), there is a lot of conversation, a great deal of action and even a bit of confusion. The discussion is a beautiful musical arrangement performed by an orchestra of engaged Jews that perform their own parts with instruments and within music halls of their choosing. Yes, when I listen carefully to the community of Jewish social entrepreneurs and their supporters, I hear a symphony.

But of course, like any attentive listener, I strive to make sense of the sound – to understand what I am hearing and how to best embrace the grandness and complexity of the experience. I am not alone – there are community leaders, professionals and funders that also hear this new music and are endeavoring to better understand what to listen for.

There is no lack of resources to help guide the individuals in making sense of this brave new world of thoroughly modern social entrepreneurship. Whether it is resources provided by funding organizations that support the fellowship of entrepreneurs or thought leadership by online news aggregators and blogs like, one can generally find some assistance in determining how best to encourage, engage and evaluate Jewish social entrepreneurs. But even with all of these contemporary resources to aid me in my listening, I go back to a resource about as far from modern as you can get, Aaron Copland’s book “What to Listen For in Music” –  first published by the composer in 1939.

Now its interesting to note that back in 1939 the composer who eventually became one of America’s finest composers and recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal was already struggling with how to best describe contemporary music. In his book he wrote:

Over and over again the question arises as to why it is that so many music lovers feel disoriented when they listen to contemporary music.  They seem to accept with equanimity the notion that the work of the present day composer is not for them. Why?  ‘Because they just don’t understand it.’”

This quote, like so much of Copland’s book resonates with me as I listen carefully to the symphony of modern day Jewish social entrepreneurship. While so many of us are happy to get our groove on in the fluid and changing world of Jewish innovation, it is true that even some of the greatest lovers of the Jewish people have a sense of disorientation of where we are and were we may be going as a people. We need some guidance as to how to listen to the contemporary music of Jewish engagement being performed by the combination of ancient and modern instruments and orchestrations.

We should not only acknowledge the importance of listening actively and carefully to these diverse voices, I also believe we must challenge these innovators to help us understand their music.  The conventional wisdom has been that the entrepreneurs innovate and everyone else figures out (1) what elements of the composition are that which are essential to hear (so as to identify/satisfy the appropriate funding criteria) and  (2) how  to categorize the  communal and social impact of the  innovation on the broader Jewish community.  I believe that conventional wisdom is wrong.  I believe that it is these composers themselves that must help us understand their compositions, to help us make sense of how we should listen to their works and how we can best express the reaction they are hoping to generate.

These composers, our Jewish social entrepreneurs, must take a page from Aaron Copland, they too must help us understand how to listen to their music.

In his book, Copland even suggests as much. He wrote:

“To a composer, listening to music is a perfectly natural and simple process. That’s what is should be for others. If there is any explaining to be done, the composer naturally thinks that, since he knows what goes into a musical composition, none has a better right to say what the listener aught to get from it.

Perhaps the composer is wrong about that, perhaps the artist cannot be so objective in his approach to music as the detached music educator. But is seems to me the risk is worth taking. Fro the composer has something vital at stake. In helping the others listen to the music more intelligently, he is working toward the spread of a musical culture, which in the end will affect the understanding of his own creation.”

Following that line of thinking, Copland’s book is an attempt to do just that – to explain the importance of careful listening, as well as suggesting exactly that to which one should listen upon hearing a musical composition. He wrote not only the sheets of music, but the sheets of interpretation of that music.

That too is what I believe we should and must ask of our social entrepreneurs, as we write the next book of Jewish experience. We must, without hesitation or limitation, encourage these men and women to follow their passions in helping innovate new ways to strengthen the Jewish community and to demonstrate the impact of Jewish values.  But we should also not be shy in asking them to be engaged in helping the rest of us figure out how to best listen to their innovative approaches and respond with support. In other words, we must not only respond to requests to help guide the creators, but also request that the creators take responsibility for guiding us.

How can we do this? First and foremost we need to understand that not all social entrepreneurs are the same, and while we may categorize the movement broadly, we should understand that each innovator is unique and that our approach to engagement must be similarly diversified and customized. In our effort to build individually customized relationships, we not only can advise them, but they can help advise us. Whether it is customized peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-predecessor relationships or peer-to-prospect relationships, these conversations should be bidirectional and mutually beneficial. But one-on-one relationships will not be enough to harness intelligence of our social entrepreneur community. We must also restructure some of our “organized” Jewish community institutions to be more receptive and welcoming to these entrepreneurs, but this restructuring should not be done “for” them, it must be done “with” them.  Certainly this will require a bit of sacrifice from the social entrepreneurs, just as the community is required to sacrifice some of its conventional attitudes and approaches.  But it is this type of mutual sacrifice that has defined the Jewish community since the Exodus, and it is the benefit of this mutual sacrifice that has sustained us as a Jewish people as each generation has joined with the generation before it and after it to encounter our collective challenges and transmit our shared values.

Yes, when I listen to the conversations of our local and national social entrepreneurship community I hear a symphony.  But for it to be more than a tender melody, we need everyone – the composers and listeners, to take ownership in both what we hear and how we hear it. If that is the case, a powerful, enchanting and sustaining symphony it certainly will be.


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.


Response to Dr. Sarna: We have a mission; communal life must be about meaning

August 9, 2009

As a Jewish community volunteer and part-time critic, I often vacillate between hopefulness and concern. From the volunteer perspective, I experience moments of enrichment that sustain my belief that Jewish differences can be made and the promise of the Jewish people can be kept. As a critic, I find myself compelled to question not the merit of our Jewish communal efforts, but the quality of our Jewish communal experiences?

But while I may question many things, never have I questioned the mission of the Jewish people. Perhaps because it is too complex a question, and I am too simple to even ponder the answer? Perhaps because the mission is so inherent in what we learn from our faith and understand from our history that our mission as a people cannot be defined, it must be experienced?

It is that question, however, that Dr. Jonathan Sarna asked in his recent essay “Communal Life After the Recession” in London’s The Jewish Chronicle.  In his thoughtful essay, Sarna examines the state of the Jewish Diaspora in these challenging times and ask key questions about what the future looks like. In an era where the Diaspora is now concentrated, and where the protection and rescue of persecuted Jews is no longer an urgent focus of the Jewish people, Sarna asks “[w]ill the Jewish community be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about?” In response, he closes his essay asserting “the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community need to be high on our collective agenda.”

To his merit, Dr. Sarna presents both an interesting question and thought-provoking response. However, I believe both mischaracterize the nature of the challenge facing the Jewish people at this time in our history.  Quite simply, I do not believe it is about mission – it is about meaning.

In reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I am reminded of another great Jewish thinker, one of an earlier generation – Leo Baeck. In his seminal book (and testament to late German Jewish philosophy), This People Israel, Baeck wrote that “[o]nly as a people of meaning could, and can this people Israel be.” He further wrote “[t]his people’s constitution is founded in God’s commandment; it is a people to that is disposed to God, on that in all its development, its wandering, in all of the ebb and flow of history, must remain within  relationship toward the One-Who-Is.”

To Baeck’s point, we already have a timeless mission – to be a people of meaning.  It is a mission framed by and within the context of our relationship with God and is reinforced by the Jewish embodiment and experience of humanity.  The unfolding experiences that reflect our mission may change, and even the tactics and strategies that we as a people may choose to express that it may change, but the mission itself does not change.

So rather than question what our mission as a people should be, we need to question how we make that mission more meaningful and more relevant to generations of Jews to come.  Perhaps a cause can help us derive meaning, and perhaps an entrepreneurial approach can help shape relevance, but we should not mistake either for a reconfigured mission of the Jewish people; they are each tactics to bridge a timeless covenant with a timely need.  Rather, our immutable mission dictates that our priority, regardless of the era and economic environment, must be to explore and encourage new experiences that provide meaning to the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.  Our mission, which we have already chosen to accept, is to fulfill our destiny of meaning through individual experiences of meaning.  That is our priority, that must be our goal.

When reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I was reminded of one other phrase used by Howell Baum in his book The Organization of Hope.  In describing two communities in Baltimore (one of which was Jewish), Baum writes that “[c]reating a community of hope depends on building a bridge of transcendence from a community of memory.”  Those powerful words are a gentle reminder that it is not just mission and meaning that are important, but memory matters also.

So with appreciation to Dr. Sarna for raising the question of “where do we go from here,” I respond differently.  Let us not question what our mission is; let us celebrate it by encouraging ways to find meaning within it.  And moreover, let us use those experiences of meaning to build bridges of memory, communities of hopefulness and a people of Israel that can, as Baeck wrote… be.


Memo to the (Federation) File: The New CEO’s Reading List

July 15, 2009

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” – E.P. Whipple

Notwithstanding their often harsh and withering expression of opinion, critics are often the most adoring supporters of substance, especially the written word.  E.P. Whipple, one of the 19th century’s finest literary critics knew this well;  even though he was well acquainted with numerous literary personalities, it was the books he held most dear.

I was recently reminded of Whipple and his famous quotation about books as lighthouses when a friend asked me my opinion of the news of the new CEO at UJC/Federations of North America.  I don’t know the new CEO, nor am I qualified to pass any opinion on the matter.  But I do know that the challenges he faces are great and the opportunities are even greater. And I know that he steps into his role in a time when there are many clouds and the waters are quite choppy.

In other words, no matter his skills as a captain, he could use a few good lighthouses to help guide his way.

So that got me thinking – rather than respond to my friends query with uninformed advice that would  be ephemeral and illuminate very little, I thought I might suggest a few books that could serve as lighthouses to the new CEO.  My list is as follows:

1.   Book of Joshua (Sefer Y’hoshua).  My friend Rabbi Joshua Heller recommended to me that I go back to Joshua (the book, not him) when I was experiencing my own leadership transition, and it was very sage advice. Wandering in the desert is one thing, crossing into the land is another. We are at an important moment of time in Jewish history where we are facing many of the parallels to the Book of Joshua;. a good reading of the book (and commentary) reveals those parallels and much more.

2.   The Roots of the Future by Rabbi Herbert Friedman. Everything old is new again, and this book makes the case that there is a compelling approach to our future that can be borne out of our past.  This book not only covers Herb’s amazing life, but speaks to the importance of the Federation movement and the power embodied in its ideals. Essential reading from an essential life.

3.   Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I am fond of saying that I am a big fan of H&H, but not the bagels – Herb and Heschel. This book is a perfect compliment to Herb Friedman’s book, if Herb’s is about experience and action, these essay by Heschel are about vision and audacity. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the current state of the Federation movement is we have lost some of the audacity and amazement that were hallmarks of its earlier days. Reading a bit of Heschel can make you believe in the need to bring it back; and we need to believe before we can begin anew.

4.   Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal.  We use language about reimagning organizations, but often what we really need is to reorganize our imaginations. Bolman and Deal provide an important source of knowledge on how we can enhance our organizations and ourselves. Any good leader understands that success is based on choices, and choices that are not only his/her own. The leader of a national Jewish movement needs not only that understanding, but a guide to converting that understanding into action. This book helps.

5.   Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution by Geoffrey Moore. He helped us cross the chasm, and survive inside the tornado, but Moore’s best book is the one where he helps us understand the power of engaging innovation as part of an organizational culture. This book is not the only book the new CEO should read on innovation, but it is a good start (especially Chapter 7 on renewal innovation).

6.   Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Bedside reading for negotiators, this could be one of the handiest books on the list for the new CEO. There will be negotiations aplenty, with donors, local Federations, partners, and governance, and the answer always need to get to “yes.” Negotiations can be adversarial, but if properly constructed they can be incredibly empowering and enriching for both parties –  and we need more enrichment in our local and national discussions. Special attention should be paid to Chapter 4 “Invent Options for Mutual Gain.”

7.    Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson.  Contemporary Jewish America is complex – rooted in Jewish heritage but colored by streaks of frustrating ambivalence. We paint pictures on tapestries of our own design, often using our own colors in painting images found elsewhere in society. In many ways we are like we are a community of talented and challenging artists. So in order to get a better sense of our collective inner Jewish artistry, I suggest reading about Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists in history. He is an artist that embodies our times, and Wilson’s book is a wonderful place to start.

8.   Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life by Shifra Broznick.  I previously wrote that the next CEO of UJC/Federations of North America should be an outsider and should be a woman. So, although one out of two isn’t bad, we should make no mistake – we still need more women leadership in the senior professional ranks of our movement, and this should be a priority of the new CEO. This book is an important resource, but not nearly as important as the resource we would all have if we had more women CEOs in Jewish communal life.

9.   Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.  The new CEO doesn’t need to Tweet or blog, but he needs to understand those that do. It is a different world than it was a few years ago, and it is constantly changing – our movement’s leadership needs to not only adapt to that change, but to anticipate it as well. Part Two of this book is essential reading for anyone facing and embracing the groundswell.

10.   Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End by Dr. Daniel Gordis. In North America we hold a deep passion for Israel but often struggle to find the right voice to express that passion. Fortunately we have Danny Gordis to help us, and he shares that voice in a serious book for serious times. Our Federation movement needs to continue to reinvorgate American passion for supporting Israel, and its leadership needs to be a bold voice in this effort. On page 216 of the book, Danny writes “the purpose of Israel is to transform the Jews.” I suggest that a primary purpose of the Federation movement is to help in that transformation, and this book is an important resource to aid in that effort.

11.    And one bedtime story…  The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band by Betty Stuchner (a PJ Library Selection for 5 year olds). Between reading books for my own pleasure, I read books we get from PJ Library to my children. This is one of my (and my daughter’s) favorites. Not only does it teach history, but it teaches the power of music and the poetry that is created when many instruments join together in harmony. After reading the stack of books suggested above, a short nighttime story for the CEO would be in order, and this is a perfect choice. Joy, music, song… they are not just the stuff of children’s books, or at least they shouldn’t be. This book is a simple reminder of the music we can all make together in our families and in our communities when we play, and work, together.

So that’s it – ten books and one bedtime story that I have on my (initial) suggested reading list for the new CEO.  I welcome others to join in  (in the comments) with their suggestions – not only for the CEO’s reading list, but our collective education as well.

Few things are more ambitious (or exhausting) than a good, long reading list; and while I hope the CEO spends more time listening and leading, there is no substitute for some good reading.  But lighthouses can only help so much, especially in rocky and choppy waters – so safe reading one and all.


Jewish Leadership at the Water’s Edge: A Call for Action

February 23, 2009

With all of the change swirling around us, it has been challenging to organize, synthesize and verbalize my thoughts on the state of the Jewish community in 2009. The organizations in which I am involved, like all of the organizations in which we are all involved, are struggling to reconcile the challenges with the needs and the resources with the requirements.  And while normally I am one to encourage systematic and methodical planning, now I feel like we must boldly  lead by action.  And in order to encourage  action by others, we must do more than just evaluate and understand the nature of our adversity; we must fearlessly lead our communities through our challenges to reach the other side of greatness.  Until now, I have not been able to articulate this strong desire to see my fellow community members, volunteers, and professionals, rise up and lead.  I have listened to planners and prognosticators, seers and scholars, each one of them expressing their voices… their view of what we need to do.  But now I have finally found my voice that I have been searching for and below is my encouragement, my cajoling – my plea – that we not let this moment pass without a great uprising of Jewish leadership… strong and visionary leadership that will lead us through these stormy waters.  This is not a plan… it is a call to action for Jewish leaders at the water’s edge.

From time to time in the history of the Jewish people, moments arise that challenge us to reinforce our Jewish faith and reassert our Jewish purpose. There are, at these moments, great leaders that help us understand and define the decisions we must make and the paths we are offered to follow.  In some cases they are leaders that are shaped by the moments, and in other case they are moments shaped by the leaders. In each case, they help achieve clarity of vision in foggy milieus of difficulty. They are leaders that take bold steps while providing gentle reassurance. They are leaders that do not just stand with us at the water’s edge, but who lead us into the sea and across the river.  Such leaders are called forward in each generation of adversity and drink from the well of Jewish strength that runs deep through our generations and refreshes each succeeding generation of leaders that come to drink from it. These leaders appear in the chronicles of Jewish history at the moments of their calling and leave legacies of faith and fearlessness, courage and community.

My friends, this is our moment, and we must be those Jewish leaders for our time.

We cannot underestimate the challenges we are facing nor the opportunities available for us to embrace. We live in a time where the establishment of the State of Israel still stirs our hearts, but the existential challenges it faces still turns our stomachs and in a time where seemingly limitless financial prosperity has suddenly turned into seemingly limitless financial distress. We live in an era where the quality of Jewish education gives us great encouragement, but the magnitude of Jewish assimilation gives us even greater pause for concern.  We face an increasing amount of anti-Semitism, yet some of the greatest damage to our Jewish infrastructure is the result of thievery of one of our own.  Even in the face of the hate of strangers, we still struggle to build bonds of brotherhood and understanding with one another.

Our challenges are great and they are many.

Yes, these are challenging moments – the moments that call out for great Jewish leaders. For leaders with vision and boldness, with an understanding of the bastions of our heritage and the towers of our future.  Leaders who know that the brightness of the Jewish experience, the collective Jewish journey on which we are all traveling, cannot dim and cannot end. It is an experience bound by a covenant that we must uphold and cannot revoke. In these times, the call for these leaders is strong, it is overwhelming, and it is deafening.

We must answer that call. We must be those leaders.

But being those leaders will mean more than just answering a call – it means more than just showing up. That is not leadership – that is attendance. We must search not only our hearts, but also our history. We must not bemoan the tests that face us, but we must engage the texts that teach us. We cannot muddle or meet our way through our challenges; we must face them squarely and respond to them strongly. We cannot simple respond hineini – we must do more than that.  We must not just say we are here; we must show how we will go from here to there.

But how can we do this? Our institutions are shaken and our strategy is unclear. We cannot plan on relying on only that which we know, but also that which we must create. We must reimagine not only our institutions, but also the way we, as individuals, encounter those institutions.  We must face our challenges, not turn away from them in the hope they will be delayed or distracted. We cannot believe that help is on the way and that time will bring reinforcements – we must be that help and we must signal that time.  Indeed, our strength lies not in safety by avoidance, but by the certitude of Jewish survival.

This is our time, we cannot hide and we cannot falter.

The Jewish leaders before us have faced slavemasters and emperors. They have faced those from outside who would harm us and those from within who have betrayed us.  Those leaders have faced the type of evil and uncertainty that suffocates the sprit and weakens the knees.  But in each generation those leaders have embraced the breath of survival and stiffened their backs in the face of earth-shattering blows. They have fought our enemies from the caves of the deserts and through the walls of ghettos. They sacrificed themselves in their unwavering faith in their God and their people and left legacies of pride and resoluteness.  They did not falter, and nor can we. We must respond to this moment, we must breathe deep breathes of courage and together firmly face our challenges.

We must not just stand at the water’s edge, we must cross.

Like Moses and like Joshua, we cannot simply stand on this side of the water.  We must have faith that in crossing among the high waves we will be fulfilling the next phase of our own journey forward.  We cannot turn back and we cannot hesitate. What stands on the opposite side is not death and despair, but beauty and redemption – nothing less then the next holy steps of a holy people.  We cannot refrain from taking those steps; we must take them with fervor and firmness. As leaders, we must cross that which threatens to engulf us, but cannot extinguish us. We must go to the water’s edge, and we must be the leaders that those waters demand of us.

This is our moment. We must be the leaders standing at the water’s edge.

And for the sake of our and future Jewish generations –

We must cross together.


Memo to the Federation File: The New (Human) Capital Campaign

November 9, 2008

During the past few months, one can rarely avoid a discussion of the impact of the ongoing economic challenges facing many Americans.  Avoiding such conversations is even more rare in the hallways of nonprofit organizations that depend on the generosity of their donors to provide critical financial resources to address a variety of compelling needs.  These organizations that often struggle for funds even when times are good now find themselves in a time of dramatically increased need even while many of their supporters are more hesitant about their individual ability to give generously. Notwithstanding data that indicates that generosity does not diminish (and often increases) in times of great need, it is nevertheless clear that in these belt-tightening days that many people, when reconciling the numbers of diminishing 401(k) returns and increasing 501(c)(3) appeals, just can’t make the math work.

So these are long days and nights for fundraising campaigns – calls to donors are as much about friend-raising as they are fundraising, for just as there are many individuals who may offer a bit more financial help, there are those who reveal that they are in a bit more financial need.  And along with the greater demands to find financial resources to help those in that seek it, there will soon be challenges to be faced in ways that we haven faced domestically in perhaps generations. How our communities meet those challenges, and how we allocate the resources necessary to help overcome them will be defining questions for community leaders in the months and perhaps years ahead.

So it might seem odd that I would suggest that at this time of immense challenge that we focus on an immense opportunity to commence a new type of national Jewish communal campaign – a capital campaign of sorts, a human capital campaign.

Yes, we must continue and expand important financial appeals in our Jewish communities to serve local, national and overseas needs (we should not forget that the crippling effects of the global slowdown that impacts us at home has tremendous impact on the needs of vulnerable and at-need Jews in places like the former Soviet Union).  But we need to expect that for many individuals who are struggling to cope with their own personal financial challenges, engaging in acts of Jewish philanthropy may be an option that, for the time-being, must be left untaken.  Whether helping shore up their parents’ financial needs, struggling with their own limited ability to maintain synagogue memberships, day school fees or JCC dues, many Jews who would nonetheless like to remain engaged in the community may feel financially shut out.  In the face of these economic limitations, they may feel like what they have to offer the community is diminished, and therefore their engagement in the community should diminish as well.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the leaders of the organized Jewish community need to make sure that not only does the false perception of these individuals manifest themselves in our communities, but that we proactively take measures to seize the opportunity offered by those who want to find alternative ways to give back to their community.

Now is the time for us to engage in discussions with those who want to give time rather than money and capture their energies in ways that help us collectively face the challenges that confront us. Sure, many of our most vaunted professional leaders and long-time volunteers may be able to put the current challenges into perspective, but the emerging viewpoints and ideas of new volunteers and leadership will help us define pathways to future achievement.  Individuals who long invested in the community by writing checks may now find that being engaged in a volunteer leadership role is equally fulfilling. And then as economic times improve and they can more generously give once again, our communities will benefit from both time and money.

Therefore, I think right now is the time, an important time, to engage in a discussion of how we embark on the great Jewish human capital campaign.  A campaign with realizable goals locally and nationally for engaging new volunteers, and new volunteer leadership.  A campaign that does not diminish the value of giving financially to philanthropic endeavors, but one that reinforces the value of investing personal time in the organizations that pursue those endeavors.

Now this campaign would not be without its challenges.  Like any great effort that brings in new individuals to organizations and movements there are always questions of ability to integrate the new volunteers leaders into existing roles, to create new roles and opportunities for personal investment and to provide volunteers/leaders high quality experiences that reinforce their desire to give their time to the community.  These volunteers and leaders must be powerfully engaged, educated and empowered to effect change in our communities and help create new avenues of Jewish experience.  And they should have some fun.

Equal to the systemic challenges with respect to the new volunteers/leaders we need to anticipate challenges for our professionals. Many of our senior professional leadership have grown up in systems (most notably the federation system) that have not achieved much-needed and dramatic reengineering of core strategies related to volunteer engagement. Figuring out new ways to engage leaders and new ways to synthesize their strengths into existing organizations is no small task. And as many have realized, Jewish communal organizations are not necessarily bastions of adaptability – recruiting substantial numbers of new volunteers/leaders will require many organizations (and their professionals) to be responsive to the new ideas, approaches, and technologies – each which may be at odds with decades of organizational experience/tradition.

This human capital campaign needs to start at the bottom and at the top. We need new faces at our most basic committee levels in our local communities, and as I have suggested previously, we need new ideas at the top of our local and national organizations.  The human capital campaign is not narrowly focused or easily satisfied.  It requires fundamental changes in the way we recruit engaged Jews and the way we govern organizations that are led by them. We need to challenge old assumptions and embrace new visions. Even those visions that require resources we might not be able to collect in the coming days, months and perhaps even years. Because by encouraging and allowing those visions to take root, we will be harnessing the passions of visionaries who create them.  And when the financial resources are there to transform those visions into realities, the human capital campaign will infuse new life into these financial campaigns as well.

Yes, we face challenging times. And yes, in these challenging times we tend to monitor our campaigns closely – aspiring, stretching and achieving those goals we must achieve to address the needs we face. But lets not be too cautious lest we lose this opportunity to engage in a great new capital campaign  – a human capital campaign that seeks to benefit from the greatest resource of all – the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.


Heal the Bay, Heal the World: In Memory of Dorothy Green

October 24, 2008

This essay is the first in an occasional series that will address Jewish life, the natural world, and those individuals and organizations that care about both. Special appreciation to my friend Carolyn Oppenheimer who was the first to remind me that we should not just about care about sustaining the Jewish people, but we should also give equal care to sustaining the world in which we all live.

While many of us are activists for various Jewish and non-Jewish causes, unless you live in Southern California or are familiar with the environmental efforts related to water quality issues, you might not know about the recent death of the Dorothy Green (1929-2008), a legendary environmental activist in the Los Angeles area.  Regardless of your personal passions and interests, however, a remembrance of Ms. Green’s life should give us all a reason to pause and reflect about the nature of Jewish leadership.

For those who are not familiar with Dorothy Green, no short summary can do her justice.  But nevertheless, her life can be partially described as follows:  by caring enough to help heal the Santa Monica Bay in southern California, she helped redefine an entire state’s approach to water policy and sustaining clean coastal waters. Prompted by her brother’s experience with sewage-polluted water in Marina del Rey, Green convened a group of like minded activists to create Heal the Bay, a tremendously impactful water quality initiative that is widely credited for redefining local and state policy related to the clean-up and preservation of the Santa Monica Bay.  In addition to Heal the Bay, Green started or assisted with the development of various other organizations related to water polices, as well as supported numerous other cause that were meaningful to her and her family. Even as she faced physical illness, she persevered, and in turn in, her longevity and devotion to her community and her causes have garnered her the reverence of multiple generations of local and national activists and policymakers.

Dorothy Green was Jewish, a daughter of Polish immigrants and a mother of Jewish children, and she credited the Jewish tradition in shaping her active community involvement. But in an era where we often try to categorize Jewish experiences in terms of involvement in Jewish organizations and contributions to Jewish charities, it is easy to lose sight that perhaps the most core Jewish value is the recognition of the power of partnerships to change the world. Whether it is a spiritual partnership, a social partnership or a partnership spawned out of the mutual desire to manifest acts of loving kindness, the recognition of the need for such partnerships and the drive to create them is fundamentally Jewish in nature.

First with her efforts related to Heal the Bay, and then in her other endeavors, Dorothy Green did exactly that – she created powerful partnerships that helped heal part of the world that mattered most to her.  By doing so she actualized a partnership that exists on a more profound level – mankind’s role in a partnership with respect to the sustenance and preservation of  all that is natural in creation. And even though Heal the Bay doesn’t have the word “Jewish” in it doesn’t in any way diminish the Jewishness of her efforts or the mission of the organization she created.  Jewish leadership manifests itself in many ways outside the crisp categories that oftentimes seem to define our conventional understanding of Jewish leaders.  And Dorothy Green is an example of that kind of uncategorizable leadership, raised in the Jewish tradition, and manifesting those lessons to make a Jewish impact.

So, as with every death, we should stop and take pause to reflect on the lessons of the life that has been lived, Jewishly or otherwise. And in those lessons we might find inspiration for us to pursue those causes that we recognize as just, regardless of whether the fit neatly into categories of existing Jewish opportunity. There are numerous organizations that are inherently and explicitly Jewish, and many times we can influence those organizations to meet the challenges we identify individually or collectively. But other times we need to start from scratch – creating new partnerships to achieve common goals. And helping bind those partnerships together may be the common Jewish values we share and the universal values all of mankind should share. The kind of values Dorothy Green demonstrated in her lifetime.

With apologies to the television show “Heroes,” the life of Dorothy Green reminds us that rather than a mission to “save the cheerleader, save the world,” a more fitting mantra for aspiring heroes might be “Heal the Bay, heal the world.”   That is what Dorothy Green did – and fittingly she should be remembered as a true Jewish hero.