Jewish Communal Leadership Discussion Guide


Dr. Ron Wolfson

Think about various facets of the organization where you work (or if you don’t, think about one you’re familiar with). What kinds of transactional interactions are common, and how could they become more relational?

What’s one thing that could make board meetings and member intake at your institution more “people-focused”?

Every Jewish organization believes it’s “warm and welcoming.” Is it true? How does yours fare? Are there steps that could improve the ambience of welcoming, quality service and servant leadership?

Rabbi Denise Eger

Rabbi Eger says one of the things that puts the “Jewish” into Jewish professional is that we have sacred texts to guide us. Do you agree? Is there a particular text or Biblical leader that helps to guide you?

Rabbi Eger talks about the “imprinting” that can happen when you witness a rabbi or other leader responding to injustice. What leaders have imprinted their moral compass onto you?

Do you think of yourself as a “symbolic exemplar?” 

Zack Bodner

Zack talks about growing up thinking of Judaism as a series of things you weren’t allowed to do, until he eventually realized that there were many things Jews could do. What ideas about Jewish life did you passively learn as a child that you’ve since had to unlearn?

Zack’s theories on leadership have some great acronyms, like “TACHLIS” and “SCAFFOLDING.” But are there any letters missing? What would you add?

Zack is passionate about building a new kind of relationship between the two power centers of the Jewish people – Israel and the Diaspora. What do you think should be done to strengthen that bond?

Dr. Erica Brown

Erica reflects on personal leadership versus institutional leadership. Can you identify your own personal leadership values as distinct from your particular role in the particular institution for which you work?

The class discussed two different types of careers, one where someone stays at the same institution for many years, perhaps several decades, and another where someone bounces from institution to institution every two to four years. What are the pros and cons of each model?

How would you counsel the one student who shared that she was struggling with a loss of passion for her work?

Barry Shrage

While introducing Barry Shrage, Ron Wolfson remarked, “Barry understood that synagogues are the foundational organization of the Jewish people.” This may well have been the case through most of the thirty years that Barry ran the CJP in Boston. Do you think this remains true today? If not, what are the foundational organizations of the Jewish people? What kinds of institutions will be foundational thirty years from now?

Referencing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Barry challenged the basic assumption that synagogues and foundations didn’t work together. The groundbreaking Me’ah adult education program proved the assumption wrong. What assumptions underlie your work? Is there any received wisdom in your community that ought to be challenged?

Barry reflects on a time when he put his foot in his mouth by using the phrase “the curse of intermarriage” in front of some intermarried couples. He acknowledged the mistake and then found a way to engage the folks he’d originally offended. How might you incorporate this valuable leadership lesson into your career? Have you made any mistakes that could have turned out differently by doing something similar to what Barry did?

Barry emphasizes the importance of building relationships in building community. How are you building relationships with your stakeholders? What might you do to carve more time out of your week for that work?

Dr. Bruce Powell 

Bruce Powell tells the class the story he told to prospective parents, year after year, at de Toledo High School in Los Angeles. What’s your go-to story that you use to inspire your community, to convince people to entrust you with their time, their money, or even their children?

Bruce reflects on the ways that language can propel (or hinder) your leadership. In what ways do you see the impacts of language on your own work? Are their subtle linguistic changes you might make that could have a bigger impact?

“Endowments” are Bruce’s answer to the question of affordability. How does your organization build endowments? 

Barry Finestone

Barry Finestone says, “It’s a lot easier to know when to take a job than it is to know when to leave one.” Why do you suppose that is? How will you know that you are ready to take a risk and make a career move?

Barry talks about the “edifice complex” of the North American Jewish community. He says that in a few decades, many of our buildings—synagogues, JCCs, and so on—could be empty. What’s your big idea for how to repurpose those spaces for the benefit of the Jewish community?

Barry argues that leaders must be lifelong learners. Besides reading this book, thank you!, how else do you plan to be a lifelong learner as a leader?

Rabbi Mike Uram

Mike Uram reflects on the idea of “brand segmentation.” A single company, for example, might sell the same potato chips in three or four different kinds of packaging in order to appeal to different customers. Or take Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy, which are all owned by the same company. At Penn Hillel, Mike also created a shadow organization that might be thought of as the “anti-Hillel.” How might you apply the idea of brand segmentation to your own work in the Jewish community?

Mike reflects on a “bait and switch” that is sometimes characteristic of Jewish communal life. “We talk about community and relationships, but what we really try to do is just recruit new members to help sustain an organization and its budget.” How can this bait and switch be avoided while still allowing our institutions to remain financially solvent?

Mike says that the best d’var Torah a Hillel rabbi gives is when the students give it. This could be compared to tzimtzum,or “contraction,” an idea from Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. Are there ways that you can become a better leader by engaging in the act of tzimtzum?

Dan Libenson

According to Dan, what is the main problem afflicting Jewish leaders today? What do you suppose is the solution (or “a” solution) to that problem?

Dan remarked that “sometimes our institutions harm the potential leadership of people.” What are some of the ways this occurs, and how can we instead encourage potential leadership?

Dan wonders whether the move towards offering Jewish professionals “rests” or “Sabbaticals” might not in fact be a move towards better work-life balance but rather a symptom of a larger problem where working as a Jewish professional doesn’t spark joy. Do you agree with his hypothesis? What could make your work more joyful?

In discussing models of leadership from the Jethro story, Dan takes a pretty contrarian perspective of what leadership even means. Does our entire Jewish nonprofit enterprise need to rethink what leadership means, and if so, is the “Jethro model” useful?

Dan offers a dichotomy, where Jewish professionals can choose either to make a comfortable living or to make meaningful change. What do you make of that? Is it possible to be a “disruptive innovator” while also making a decent salary in the Jewish nonprofit space?

As one student pointed out, so many of our Jewish institutions are in the business of creating future Jewish leaders. Yet in our tradition, as Dan points out, so many of our leaders have emerged from outside of the Jewish community – like Moses who grew up in the Egyptian court! Given that, how should we think about what it takes to become a Jewish leader?

Daryl Messinger

Daryl spoke about the various needs for members of a Jewish nonprofit Board of Directors – it’s not all about the size of the annual gift. What key skills or expertise are present among your Board members and what is missing? How might you go about filling those gaps?

“Process is really important in not for profit settings,” Daryl said to the class. But process can sometimes be a death sentence. What do you suspect is the right amount of process for big decisions in your institution? Does that answer change if you’re facing a technical or adaptive problem?

Daryl spoke a bit about boundaries between staff and Boards. What strategies are useful for situations where a Board member attempts to cross a boundary into supervising or evaluating the staff?