Our Future Leaders

By Gary Samowitz

23rd August 2012, published in the Australian Jewish News.

“The diaspora is undergoing a Jewish leadership crisis” declared Isi Liebler this week. He gave examples of several major US organisations whose leaders are close to retirement and there are no successors in sight. Membership, along with donations, is steadily declining and Mr Leibler fears that these legacy organisations could potentially collapse without some serious intervention.

Instead of a leadership crisis, this is an organisational crisis and I believe that in Australia we face similar challenges. Jewish young adults are not rushing to become members of our major Jewish organisations, nor are they eagerly vying for board positions. Every report on the habits of Gen Y clearly states that this is a group that shuns loyalty to traditional institutions and membership is seen as anachronistic. Will we face a crisis if our young adults don’t embrace our major organisations, or will we invent new and innovative ways to thrive as a community?

If organisations want to remain relevant and attractive they need to reassert their core mandate or to reinvent their purpose in order to flourish and grow. The landscape of Australian Jewish life is shifting. Whereas identity was once based on descent, today it is primarily based on choice. In today’s marketplace there are multiple options with regard to affiliation and participation.

Affiliation is a choice. Civic engagement is a choice. Being Jewish is a choice.  Our challenge is to ensure that out of the plethora of choices available today, we create programs and content that make being Jewish a meaningful, personal and inspiring activity. Young adults are relying less and less on the major organisations to provide that connection. Who will lead the organisations in 30 years time (if they still exist)? Are we doing enough to develop and nurture the next generation of leaders in this fast changing environment?

In NSW, the Jewish Communal Appeal has devoted considerable resources towards young adult engagement. There are currently 8 people employed at the Shalom Institute all devoted to creating programs that connect, activate and educate Jewish young adults. How many people are employed in Victoria to do similar work? Zero. The JCA identified the need through its strategic planning arm and then was able to allocate resources towards that need. (If anyone was looking for a good reason to set up a JCA in Melbourne, there’s one.)

The Gen08 report made several recommendations regarding young adults:

  1. “Create a central forum for young activists, with a modest level of funding sufficient for the development and implementation of initiatives devised by these activists.
  2. Build specific programs to augment the identification and nurturing of potential communal leaders.”

These recommendations have triggered The Australian Jewish Funders to step in and try to fill the vacuum in Melbourne by setting up a Moishe House, and hosting the first ever ROI conference this weekend. The ROI community, founded by Lynn Schusterman, is a global network of over 800 Jewish innovators which connects dynamic and creative Jews, giving them the tools, support and space to turn their ideas into innovative work that will impact Jewish life. David Werdiger of the AJF explained that “ROI is investing in young adults to develop them as leaders and empower them to impact their Jewish communities and the world at large.”

Hopefully the fifty participants will generate ideas and create initiatives that challenge the status quo and inject a vibrancy, creativity and dynamism into our community. Visionary funders will be needed to back the best ideas, even though it’s highly unlikely these ideas will be connected to the large legacy organisations.

We need to think outside the box because the same parties at the same venues with the same two free drinks is not inspiring the next generation of Jews to deeply engage with their Jewish identities. Engagement without fundamental purpose, vision, and daring will only hold fast for a short time. Aharon Horowitz, founder of a social entrepreneur hub called Presentense, recently wrote that “engagement for engagement’s sake is the most highly un-Jewish use of our resources that one could imagine. Engagement around explicit meaning and purpose—with good times thrown in to get people in the door—is what builds a leadership of the Jewish future.”

I strongly believe that Jewish young adults today are not commitment-averse.  They just need a compelling reason to commit. Guilt is not a good enough reason. Judaism based on guilt is not sustainable. What is sustainable are initiatives that let young adults locate the kind of meaning that leads to authentic, committed and longterm engagement. The more entry points (ie: niche programs) the more opportunities to connect.

I do not share Isi Leibler’s grave concern for the future of the Jewish community’s organisational leadership. Organisations don’t exist for the sake of existing. If they are experiencing a sharp decline in membership and funding we should re-assess the continued relevance of their aims and, if they are found lacking, gently let them fold. We will reinvent, adapt and create something new as we have done over and over again during the 3000 years of recorded Jewish history.

Concerns over high rates of intermarriage and the decline of our major institutions are real and legitimate. Let’s counter these challenges by focusing on producing Jewish leaders who have a deep understanding of their Jewish heritage and a strong sense of commitment and passion for the Jewish people and the world we live in.