LEADERS OF THE TRIBE Series
By Rachel Pomerance
Part 1: What makes a leader?
Part 2: Wanted: A Jewish leadership pool
Part 3: Lay-professional relationship is key
Part 4: Portraits of leadership http://www.jta.org/page_view_story.asp?strwebhead=What+makes+a+leader%3F&intcategoryid=4&SearchOptimize=Jewish+News
LEADERS OF THE TRIBE
As Jewish community changes, so does model of good leadership
NEW YORK, Sept. 15 (JTA) — Ask American Jews to name an American Jewish hero and they might say Steven Spielberg or Sandy Koufax.
Perhaps you’d get Sarah Jessica Parker — her mother’s Jewish — or even Madonna, the Catholic superstar who has helped to make Kabbalah mainstream.
But ask an American Jew to name a Jewish communal leader, and you may well get a vacuous expression.
American Jews are towering figures that enliven secular fields from science to entertainment, but leadership in American Jewish communal life has become lackluster, some say.
Others argue that today’s communal leadership is quite effective — just less prominent and more facilitative, in keeping with the times.
For one, the American Jewish community has grown increasingly decentralized, with more groups and foundations taking on special causes.
“I would not say that we have a leadership crisis, we have a diffusion of leadership,” says Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, where she is responsible for lay leadership development.
“The outcome is that it is hard to identify leaders of the community as a whole. Each leader functions in their own milieu,” she says.
However, the decentralized leadership model fits the American Jewish community’s size and multiplicity of organizations, she says.
Furthermore, “The autocratic leader is not a desirable model today,” she says. “Successful leaders use persuasion rather than edicts to inspire people to follow.”
Bahat says American Jewish communal life has shifted toward inclusiveness and team leadership. For example, the AJCommittee has instituted myriad committees to allow members to “own a certain niche in the organization.”
In a culture where American Jews are thoroughly assimilated, persuasive leadership is necessary to compel them to donate to Jewish causes over non-Jewish ones, practice Judaism or marry Jewish. At stake, observers say, is the future of a thriving American Jewish community.
But in trying to rally a community of independent-minded Jews with multiple and even conflicting identities, today’s American Jewish leaders face a daunting task.
In an era of individual empowerment, are American Jewish leaders adapting to the community with the right leadership model? The answer varies from organization to organization.
In general, “leadership has to be fueled by a purpose” beyond mere organizational survival, says Richard Joel, the longtime, charismatic president of Hillel who last year became president of Yeshiva University.
“Do we as a people have a driving dream that fuels us? I worry that that’s in short supply,” he says. Ignorance about “who we are and what we are about is a major informing factor in this.”
“Leadership,” says Joel — often cited in the community as the model of a dynamic leader — “is vision plus an implementation strategy.”
By that standard, just being head of a Jewish group does not necessarily make someone a leader. In fact, many leaders are emerging outside the mainstream organizations.
Some say Jewish institutions themselves handicap their leaders: Many Jewish groups are highly bureaucratic organizations that hamper leaders’ impulses to innovate or be entrepreneurial.
And some institutions cling to outdated mandates, says Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, a premiere training program for Jewish leadership.
“Because the pace of change is so rapid and relentless, Jewish organizations need to thoughtfully assess and reassess their relevance to the challenges and opportunities of the times,” Moses says.
Shifting Jewish demographics — from intermarriage and single-parenting to the emergence of gays and lesbians, dual-career families and increased mobility — have created new challenges for synagogues, he says.
Federations must shift from an “Israel-centric and ‘rescue and relief’ mission to a broader concern with American Jewish education, identity and affiliation,” he says.
Increasing competition among Jewish groups calls for strategic change in function and vision, Moses says.
Due to poor compensation in entry- and mid-level jobs, and lack of professional development, Jewish groups also wrestle with professional recruitment and retention — which, in turn, dampens the potential to attract top lay leaders.
In addition, it’s a tough time to lead in this country.
Like their fellow Americans, Jews have become focused more on individual than communal needs.
Jewish professionals and activists say Americans still live in the era of “Bowling Alone” — a reference to Robert Putnam’s 2000 book that documents the loss of community in America and the lower membership in civic and community organizations.
In addition, the rise of the baby-boomer generation has bred a certain suspicion of authority and institutions, says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: the national Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Trends such as customizing one’s Passover Haggadah or putting charitable dollars towards one’s own pet project, rather than a communal funding pool, attest to the changed psychology, Kula says.
Still, some say there’s not a crisis of leadership — just a shift in leadership style to empower a group’s membership, again in keeping with the times.
“A change in the style of dominant leadership is being understood as a crisis of leadership,” says John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.
“People look for strong leaders who have clear answers, and yet so much of contemporary life leads to nuance and ambiguity,” he says.
“We’re in a much more participatory, consensual process in which people seek to be heard,” he says. “That does not lend itself to strong rabbis from the pulpit giving 40 minute sermons every Saturday.”
In fact, Ruskay says, there currently may be more “excellent, first-rate facilitative leadership in the Jewish community than we ever had.”
Rabbi Richard Block exemplified the shifting leadership style when he took over the pulpit three years ago at The Temple — Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, where the Zionist giant Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver held court for 46 years.
When he first took over, Block says, he joked with the Reform congregation that “this time around, God sent you a rabbi that wouldn’t readily be confused” with God.
The way Block sees it, “leadership has to be experienced through the strength and the voice of every participating individual.”
Kehilat Hadar, an egalitarian minyan popular with young adults on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, follows a similar ethos: Organizers intentionally lead from behind.
“There’s no one figure who’s always conducting things in a public way. That empowers people to lend their own voice to prayer — and that’s my goal,” says Elie Kaunfer, one of Hadar’s co-founders. “This generation likes the empowering model.”
Joel, of Yeshiva University, sent that message in his inaugural speech at the school last year. Known for redefining paradigms with the turn of a phrase, Joel said his purpose at the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy was “to ennoble and enable” students.
Many cite the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as an organizational leadership model: It gives volunteers a clear course of action and empowerment — not just through donating money, but through basic grass-roots activism in lobbying legislators.
AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, says the group has had a “tremendous amount of success” drawing and sustaining various levels of activists.
“It’s a cause they care deeply about, but it’s also demonstrably shown that their actions can make a big difference,” Kohr says.
But the leadership and success of many organizations is hindered by their consensus-driven processes, observers say.
Constantly shuttling between lay leaders and professionals to arrive at consensus takes away from time and energy that could go toward innovation, says Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, a nonprofit that aims to build Jewish identity as a major provider of online Jewish content.
“Innovation is linked to risk-taking, with the understanding that there are going to be some failures, but most Jewish communal organizations are not allowed to fail because of the fear that it will affect fund raising,” he says.
Abramowitz says his group uses a “venture philanthropy” model that has “fewer people involved, but they roll up their sleeves and are much deeper into governance as full partners with the professionals, rather than just consulting or rubber-stamping.”
Success will come for the community as a whole when the consensus builders partner with the innovators, he says.
That was the case with birthright israel, a landmark program that provides free Israel trips for 18- to 26-year-olds who have never been to the Jewish state on a peer tour.
The idea emerged from the New York-based philanthropic foundations of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, and eventually found a partnership with the Israeli government and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system.
The case underscores a trend in which many Jews are taking leadership paths outside the organizational ranks.
The philanthropic world is witness to a growing number of personal foundations, and sweeping communal change increasingly has come from their doors.
“Foundations can do things some of the establishment don’t dare do” because of the public scrutiny of a broad donor base, Bronfman says.
According to Shifra Bronznick, a New York-based consultant to Jewish groups, “Organizations have to find a way to elicit leadership from people at every rank. Our institutions still tend to be hierarchical, bureaucratic, risk-averse and fearful of healthy conflict.”
Stephen Hoffman, who has just stepped down as CEO of the UJC, says, “The challenge is to marry that ideal with the reality of operating within large bureaucracies that seek to deal with competing visions by volunteers in a voluntary system.”
He also defends the consensus-driven nature of Jewish organizations.
Criticism of the decision-making process is “a lament of the people who think they have a lock on wisdom,” Hoffman says.
“Consensus-driven processes don’t always yield the most creative way to attack an issue,” he says, but “that means the leaders have to articulate vision and build support and take the time to do so.”
The AJCommittee’s Bahat says a collaborative process between professionals and lay leaders is enriching — and produces better results.
Lay leaders “often have a better sense as to where the community is, the broader Jewish community and the general community, than the professionals” steeped in the Jewish world, she says. They “enable us to put our ear to the ground.”
In the meantime, there seems to be an untapped well of interest in Jewish life in the community. The trick in attracting activists comes back to the theme of empowerment.
“I find that there are really wonderful people, young and old, who are really desirous today of getting involved. The question is finding the vehicles for that,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“They don’t want to just be seen in terms of what they can give,” he says, but care more about the “substance of the involvement.”
(END OF PART ONE)
In Jewish life, lack of candidates to take on crucial leadership roles
NEW YORK, Sept. 15 (JTA) — Two high-profile executive searches in the Jewish community this spring illuminated one dark fact: the shallow pool of candidates for top jobs in Jewish organizations.
The six-month search to find a new CEO for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the federation system, centered on a handful of male directors of large federations. It was the same group visited for the job many times before.
And when Hillel sought a replacement for Richard Joel, its longtime CEO who took over the helm of Yeshiva University — whose own presidency search took nearly three years — the group ultimately decided to hire an interim director while it kept looking.
Both searches spoke volumes about the state of recruitment and retention in Jewish communal life, observers say.
If prestigious, well-paying jobs at the helm of Jewish organizations struggle to attract personnel, what does that say about the prospects for drawing talent to middle management and entry-level positions?
Recent studies and interviews with JTA suggest that not enough is being done to draw young Jews to careers in Jewish organizations, nor is there adequate training, mentorship or compensation to keep them on a Jewish professional job track, which itself is not clearly delineated.
At stake is the current American Jewish organizational infrastructure, which depends on a fresh supply of volunteer and professional leadership as well as the potential for promising careers in Jewish communal service.
“If leadership development is a continuum of moving people through different stages,” from the initial recruitment to motivating people to reach new levels of leadership, then “the whole system is a bit broken,” says Laurie Blitzer, 40, a Jewish activist in New York, where she is a partner at the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
The issue applies to lay leaders too, she argues.
There is “a lot of lip service about making room for young Jewish leaders, much more than it’s actually happening,” says Blitzer, founder of Kol Dor, Hebrew for Voice of a Generation, a new international network to connect and empower young Jewish leaders.
Several respected leadership programs do exist, including those run by the Wexner Foundation for North American Jewish professionals and volunteers, as well as Israeli officials.
The Mandel Foundation sponsors programs to train Israeli civil servants and Jewish educators throughout the Diaspora. This year, it partnered with the UJC to create The Mandel Center for Leadership, which will recruit and train professional and volunteer leaders for North American Jewish federations.
There also is the Dorot Fellowship, which seeks to promote American Jewish lay leaders by sponsoring young American Jews for a year of Jewish study and community service in Israel.
There is a lot of talk these days about Jewish leadership, and the beginnings of serious action — particularly in the realm of boosting the reservoir of and rewards for Jewish professionals.
Among the new initiatives is the Professional Leaders Project, launched with $1 million apiece from Jewish philanthropists Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Bill Davidson.
The project — consisting of two surveys on Jewish professional leadership and two workshops to draw young Jews into Jewish jobs — found in its first survey a “persistent undersupply of well-trained and experienced Jewish educators and communal professionals.” Reasons cited include low pay and status, tension between professionals and lay leaders and a lack of professional development.
Jewish communal leadership also is afflicted by a lack of professional standards and accountability, which would promote high performance and allow for smooth transitions, the survey found.
Those same reasons are believed to contribute to the steep attrition rate at Jewish organizations: Up to half of Jewish professionals at some organizations leave their jobs within five years, says the report, authored by sociologist Gary Tobin.
Another effort at redress comes from the UJC, which acknowledged a serious gender gap in its leadership ranks: Federations largely are staffed by women, but few — including none of the 20 largest federations — are led by them.
The UJC and a group called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community commissioned a research and action plan earlier this year to crack the glass ceiling.
For Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the only female head of a major Jewish organization that isn’t specifically oriented toward women — the issue has personal relevance.
“I have two daughters, and whether I would encourage them to go into Jewish communal life is still an unanswered question,” she says. “I want them to know financial independence. I want them to figure out a successful and efficient way to make the world better.”
“They have me as a role model,” she continued, but as far as leadership, “they don’t see a lot of women when they look around the organized Jewish world.”
According to Rabbi David Silber, dean of New York’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, the Jewish community is “paying the price of telling our kids, one way or the other, we want them to be doctors and lawyers.”
But there are other factors.
“Leaders burn out,” says Art Paikowsky, a consultant for nonprofits who headed the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix for more than five years and worked for federations in Washington and Philadelphia.
Fund raising amid a growing number of competing charities — including campaigns run by the federation’s own agencies — can be a pressured and thankless job, he says.
Others bemoan the task of rallying a group of fiercely independent-minded constituents.
“Being an exec in the federation system is a job that requires skills that are common among cat herders,” joked Jon Friedenberg, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose in California.
Leading a federation is “not perhaps as simple and straightforward as other kinds of positions that are equivalent in terms of salary and stature,” he says, and advancement often requires federation hopping, which means uprooting family.
Some who leave “can excel in other environments that are perhaps simultaneously less demanding on family and emotional energy, and yet more rewarding — or at least as rewarding — from a career standpoint,” says Friedenberg, who now is president of the El Camino Hospital Foundation.
According to Tobin’s report, “‘burnout’ is understandably epidemic when there is no system in place to address the problems which arise from working in complex and demanding community settings.”
One key to retaining professionals is providing mentorship and a career path that gives them skills to take on top jobs, observers say.
For Matt Grossman, 33, the new executive director of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, that’s what has kept him on his career path.
“I’ve had the good fortune of having unbelievable mentors throughout my entire career in the Jewish community, and I don’t know if I would be here without those mentors,” says Grossman, who worked nine years for Hillel.
Referring to his contemporaries, he says, “we need the time for people to help us map out our careers, to give us additional training, to challenge us intellectually and to put us at those tables of decision making.”
Zev Hymovitz, a longtime Jewish professional and co-author with Tobin of the professional development survey, says some Jewish groups invest in professional development, while others do not.
“I think it’s going to take time before they really make it into a priority issue,” he says. “Many of them are involved in trying to keep their organizations afloat.”
But Hymovitz is optimistic.
“It’s the national organizations that need to take the leadership in this and to try to do it nationwide,” he says, “and I think they are.”
Others are more skeptical.
“Even though there is a lot of recent hope by virtue of new interest in leadership, I still think the Jewish community is not thinking deeply enough and investing strongly enough in developing leaders,” says Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, a premiere training program for Jewish leadership.
“Strong, effective leaders will make all things possible, and I think that communities that lack strong, effective leaders will achieve very little of lasting impact.”
Lay-professional tensions heighten the leadership challenge for groups
Jews fighting is hardly news — after all, the joke about two Jews and three synagogues is familiar to Jewish communities around the world.
But when the quarreling Jews also work together, it makes their jobs difficult.
That’s often the case with the lay-professional relationships at the top echelons of American Jewish organizations.
“Given the fact that this relationship is so central to our operating system, it’s extraordinary that we do so little to prepare volunteers and professionals to work together effectively and to address some of the challenges, inequities and tensions that are inherent in this relationship,” says Shifra Bronznick, a New York-based consultant for many Jewish groups.
Volunteers and professionals often misunderstand their roles, resulting in simmering tension or outright feuds.
Both parties have been known to complain of a lack of respect for their time and expertise, compromising their potential to work effectively.
An uneasy relationship in lay-professional leadership can destabilize the groups that set the course for the American Jewish community, many involved in these organizations say.
Often it’s a key reason for professional turnover in Jewish communal life.
The lay-professional relationship long has been a struggle, but several factors have exacerbated the problems in recent years.
As organizations have become increasingly complex and driven by professionals, many lay leaders have told JTA they feel sidelined from decision making and kept out of the loop.
Both parties can become mired in a bureaucratic process that leaves professionals feeling undermined and lay leaders spent.
The relationship is complicated by the fact that a lay leader’s influence often is a product of his or her wealth, prompting professionals to mince words to avoid losing donations or even their jobs, observers say.
Choosing leaders on the basis of money not only excludes less wealthy candidates, but also may result in the choice of a lay leader who is otherwise ill-suited to the task or who feels that his wallet should allow him to dictate the group’s course, community activists say.
In trying to strike the right balance, communication and mutual respect are key, according to a recent survey on Jewish communal professional leadership authored by sociologist Gary Tobin.
But the “power differential” can get in the way, he says.
Lay-professional relations are the “real elephant that’s in the living room,” says Jonathan Schick, a Dallas-based leadership consultant who works primarily with private schools.
“When boards don’t understand their roles as trustees of the organization,” they “have a tendency to get more involved in the day-to-day, the here-and-now, and they don’t have the long vision,” Schick says.
The issue is universal in the nonprofit world, he says, but stakes are raised in faith-based institutions where passions run high.
Indeed, ethnic ties can allow a sense of family ties, and their consequent sensitivity and volatility, to override professionalism, observers say.
But without professional standards, a board member can fire a professional on little more than a whim.
One Jewish professional who recently became the executive of a Jewish organization said he was told to work out a contract with his senior lay leader.
When he suggested that lay-professional trust made such a document unnecessary, the lay leader responded: “You trust me, and I trust you — but the next person who sits here might be an S.O.B., and you may need to be protected.”
That indicated “a major problem with lay leaders’ views of professionals,” he says.
On the other hand, the professional says, he once was told by a senior executive at another Jewish group to do something against the wishes of his own board.
“That person’s response was, ‘The hell with what the board wants. This is what we need to get done.’ ”
According to Daniel Allen, executive vice president of American Red Magen David in Israel and president of the Association of Jewish Communal Organizational Professionals, “I think there is a mutually visceral distrust, which unfortunately is all too often real, in terms of how people treat each other.”
Close observers say volunteers and professionals can harness their governing power and avoid professional clashes by clearly defining their roles. It’s up to the professional to define those roles at the outset, says Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who is responsible for the group’s lay leadership structure.
“When it’s not done, things are tested through crisis and there’s no model to follow,” she says.
At the same time, professionals must give lay leaders room to lead — and not waste their time.
The professional must “involve the lay leader in a constructive way,” Bahat says.
Howard Rieger, the new president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American Jewish federation system, said in a recent interview that “there’s too much of a sense of trying to fit every volunteer into some kind of cookie-cutter mold,” like “putting every word in their mouth so they can deliver the message.”
Making lay leaders into “window dressing” — without the power to make real decisions — only infuriates them, says Rieger, who served for years as president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh
Professionals also must empower themselves, he says.
“You can’t survive in this kind of arena if you truly are not in a position to say everything you want to say. You should say it with civility, you should say it and treat people with dignity, but you need to say what you need to say,” he says. “I find that the only way to do that in this business is to empower yourself.”
Meanwhile, preparation for both professional and lay leadership roles is sorely lacking.
Lay leaders often accept positions without fully understanding their demands, and then burn out or become bewildered.
“One of the hardest jobs in Jewish leadership is synagogue presidencies,” says Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University. “There’s precious little done to prepare people for that job, and it’s a microcosm of the entire lay structure.”
Richard Wexler, the UJC’s vice chairman, says lay leaders don’t mentor as much as they used to.
“We used to grow up learning as part of our mother’s milk of federation life, and today, often lay leaders are just thrown into their positions without that training,” he says.
But some still manage to strive for excellence in their relationship. Take Gary Weinstein and his lay leadership, for example.
After dozens of years in the federation system, the last several as executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, Weinstein got a job coach.
He and his lay leaders decided a temporary coach would help ensure his and the federation’s continued success, he tells JTA.
Most federation professionals hail from backgrounds in social work and need business training to adapt to new demands of running nonprofits, he says. Through his coaching, Weinstein has made drastic changes like delegating major responsibilities to free himself up for fund raising and policy work.
The example highlights the complex pressures on a Jewish organizational director and the critical need to work with lay leadership to address them.
Alternatively, Wexler recalls an exchange he had many years ago with a headhunter seeking a federation executive.
The headhunter was flabbergasted when Wexler described his close friendship with Steven Nasatir, the longtime CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
The community for whom the headhunter worked saw the professional “more or less just as a paid servant, and the lay leaders would no more socialize with that person than show him any respect,” Wexler says.
“I think that is the attitude in far too many communities,” he says. “They don’t understand that the professional represents the continuity of any organization.”
Indeed, observers say one of the best safeguards of the lay-professional relationship, and of an organization’s success, is the longevity of the professional and the extent to which he or she is anchored in the community.
However, “we’ve created this system where the only way to move up” is through promotion at another organization, Allen says.
That not only disrupts professionals and their families, but it’s “debilitating to the lay people and it’s debilitating to a positive relationship” between lay and professional leaders.
Alternatively, many say longevity in a position gives the professional the stature and depth for a role that grounds the organization with a sense of continuity.
From up-and-comers to insiders, portraits of American Jewish leaders
The American Jewish community boasts a variety of leaders. JTA has selected a sample to show some current models in championing the causes of Jewish life.
Matthew Grossman, executive director, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization
For Matthew Grossman, 33, one of the youngest professionals heading a major American Jewish organization, Jewish life has just come full circle.
The new director of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization lost interest in Judaism after his Bar Mitzvah. In an attempt to reconnect their son, Grossman’s parents sent him to a youth group event at the lone synagogue in his hometown of Chesire, Conn.
The lessons he learned there stuck.
The Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth gave him a home of like-minded friends, unlike his high school where he “could easily get lost in a crowd.”
Grossman went on to assume leadership roles in his chapter, eventually becoming social action vice president of the region.
It was through his youth group that he had “one of my first powerful Jewish experiences,” Grossman tells JTA.
As a high school junior in 1987, he joined the historic march on Washington to free Soviet Jewry.
“I don’t think I had ever in my life been in a room of more than 200 Jews,” he marvels. But on that December day, he was surrounded by more than a quarter of a million “passionate people who were determined to do exactly the same thing I was determined to do.”
It was the first time, he says, that he “felt part of a people” — and one that “wasn’t afraid to flex its muscle, to speak for what they believe in and to do something important,” he says.
“That’s what I want to this day,” he says, to “do something important.”
Over plates of risotto at a colorful Times Square cafe, Grossman tells his stories begrudgingly.
He seems to abhor talking about himself, but radiates warmth when he quizzes others or discusses his work.
Grossman is exceedingly unassuming.
For example, he marveled at the honor of being a pallbearer at the funeral of his beloved mentor Henry Everett, a Jewish philanthropist involved with Hillel, where Grossman worked for nine years.
Everett, notorious for sticking to his principles, even when they were unpopular, taught him integrity, Grossman says.
“If the line is blurry you stay on the side that is clear, and I will always stay on the side that is clear,” he says.
Grossman says he never wanted to be a leader.
“I only had a desire to do good things for the Jewish people,” he says.
BBYO’s reach, which cuts across all religious streams, may give him a chance to do so.
With half of Jewish teens coming from intermarried families and only 20 to 30 percent connected to Jewish life in any meaningful way, Grossman says his mission is simple: “Get more Jewish teens involved in more meaningful Jewish experiences.”
Kinney Zalesne, executive vice president, U.S. division of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life
Kinney Zalesne, 38, may seem an unusual candidate to direct Hillels across the country for the worldwide campus organization. Her career has been steeped in the most prestigious icons of secular America: A law degree from Harvard, a White House fellowship and a clerkship for Janet Reno when she was attorney general.
But Zalesne — a Jewish leader who at one time was wishy-washy about her Judaism — embodies her dream for Hillel.
She plans to cultivate into Jewish leaders noncommittal Jews, who represent the largest segment of Jewish students. As such, they provide Hillel with the reach to spread its message of Jewish engagement.
“The future leaders will come from the margin,” she says, referring to Jews with the ability to tap into and influence both the secular and Jewish worlds.
What Zalesne has in mind is “social entrepreneurship.” It’s a way of shifting the proverbial paradigm in addressing social problems with the aim of broad social change.
College Summit, a nonprofit that promotes college enrollment among low-income students, was “a poster child for this emerging sector,” says Zalesne, who headed the group for nearly four years. To fundamentally change a culture, the group worked to “change the underlying question of ‘Are you going to college?’ to ‘Which college are you going to?’ ” she says.
“At Hillel our challenge is to change the question from ‘Is Judaism worth living?’ to ‘How do you live your Judaism?’ ” she says.
In part, her move to a career in the Jewish community has to do with her desire to apply the theory of social entrepreneurship among her own people.
In the wake of Sept. 11 and Israel’s war on terror, she also felt a growing concern about “how Jews would fit into the new world picture.” And she worried Israel was no longer a source of pride but rather of “disconnectedness” for young American Jews.
Hillel initially brought on Zalesne as a consultant in the spring of 2004 to advise the organization’s interim incoming president, Avraham Infeld, about Hillel’s structure and mission. (Infeld was asked and agreed this year to become Hillel’s president for at least two years.)
The stint also provided a window for Zalesne and Hillel to see if they fit well together.
Zalesne was hired in June as executive vice president for Hillel’s U.S. division, making her the No. 2 at the organization.
She has made some changes since taking the job, such as providing every director in the field with a liaison in the Washington office. That tightens the team to provide better services and spot trends more quickly, she says.
With piercing blue eyes and a thin frame, Zalesne exudes drive and intensity. But she is soft spoken, choosing each word slowly and deliberately.
Asked whether she might succeed Infeld as Hillel president, Zalesne said no commitments were made by either side. But her influence may be felt on campus for some time to come.
Steven Nasatir, president, Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Steven Nasatir, 59, is “inculcated with the neshama,” or Jewish soul, “of our community,” says Richard Wexler, a longtime federation lay leader from Chicago. “He has the ability to articulate that neshama.”
As federations struggle to maintain pre-eminence in their communities, Chicago boasts a die-hard federation town. At a time when donors want to specify which projects they finance, the Chicago federation stresses its commitment to the general funding pool for overseas needs.
Nasatir, who will celebrate his 25th year as federation president this fall, has championed that direction.
The Chicago community’s commitment to collective responsibility — a term to describe fund raising to run the coordinating body for the North American federation system and its overseas agencies — is “a sacred trust,” Nasatir says. “What makes federation special — and the place where people should trust that a significant part of their tzedekah should go — is our connection to the greatest events in Jewish life,” such as airlifting Ethiopian Jews to Israel or rescuing Soviet refuseniks.
“We’re still not large enough in my opinion to really impact those great events in Jewish life as a single community,” he says, but can do so by “banding together with other federations and getting the synergy and the leverage of collective action.”
That belief explains why Nasatir was the brains behind the Israel Emergency Campaign, the federation-wide response to the intifada. Since it was launched in September 2001, the emergency campaign has raised more than $360 million for Israel, above the system’s annual campaign drive.
The intifada revealed how strong the bonds still are between Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel, Nasatir says, adding that, together with America’s own war on terrorism, it showed American Jews that “we’re in this game together.”
Furthermore, focusing on the global agenda helps raise money, he argues.
Those federations that emphasize the global agenda have raised the most funds per capita, said Stephen Hoffman, former CEO of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the federation system.
Curiously, most of them are in the Midwest.
The heartland is “more rooted,” Nasatir says.
In any case, it’s more traditional and less transient: Nasatir is only the fourth director in the Chicago federation’s 104-year history.
For the Chicago-raised Nasatir, the 1967 Six-Day War prompted him to leave a teaching organizational administration at the University of Illinois to enter Jewish communal life.
The “rush of fear and pride were fumes that I think we really inhaled deeply,” he says.
Nearly four decades later, he is still committed to the community.
“I love the Jewish people, all of them, with all of our warts and blemishes and all of our strengths and real qualities,” he says. “That’s what still does it for me.”
Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New York City
It is not uncommon for Jews far from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to
eagerly discuss its burgeoning synagogue they have heard of or visited.
Underscoring the congregation’s warm and unconventional approach to Judaism, both its rabbi — “Roly” — and the synagogue — “B.J.” — go by sobriquets.
The non-traditional style has worked: B’nai Jeshurun’s emphasis on innovation, coupled with inclusiveness and community, has elicited a following and a buzz far beyond the neighborhood. Jews around the country have visited the congregation in hopes of tapping into the phenomenon and borrowing ways to spark spirituality and outreach at home.
But the synagogue is a manifestation of its rabbi, who cannot be copied, says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: the Center for Jewish Leadership and Learning.
Matalon, 48, possesses “spiritual depth, authenticity, integrity, talent gentleness and humility,” Kula says. That contrasts with a “dearth of leadership in America,” in general, where many leaders exude arrogance and what Kula calls a “turf orientation.”
By contrast, Matalon shares the bimah with another rabbi, showing that leadership comes by way of collaboration.
“That is so counter-cultural,” Kula says. “We basically live in a world in which there has to be one CEO,” and Matalon’s model is a refreshing improvement for the congregants, many of whom come from what Kula calls New York’s “competitive, fierce, dog-eat-dog world.”
Those that swear by B’nai Jeshurun cite its inclusive, participatory style. A deeply musical service — ranging from Carlebach tunes to folk music, coupled with a band — rouses participants who say the service feels spiritual, liberating, and simply, fun.
And the synagogue makes a priority of nurturing communal life: Families spill into the aisles to clasp hands and dance to Lecha Dodi as they welcome the Sabbath; hundreds crowd the Friday night singles service and linger afterward on the steps outside; and B’nai Jeshurun offers a range of community-based programs, from team sports to interfaith and civic work to rallies for various progressive causes.
Matalon studied in Buenos Aires at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Marshall Meyer, with whom he helped revitalize B’nai Jeshurun. The two shared the bimah for several years until Meyer’s death in 1993.
Shifra Bronznick, founding president, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.
A recent report confirmed what many long have suspected: Women are sorely underrepresented in leadership positions at North American Jewish federations.
The impetus behind the report was Shifra Bronznick.
Her three-year-old organization, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, partnered with the United Jewish Communities to come up with an action plan to address deep-seated bias against women and even sexism in the federation system.
“I continue to believe firmly that the work we do to advance women is parallel and equivalent to the work we need to do to advance new ideas about the ways to make Jewish organizations healthy, vibrant and productive,” says Bronznick, 50.
Bronznick’s career has traversed the for-profit and nonprofit industries and the Jewish and secular worlds. In recent years she has catered her consulting business to the nonprofit sector, with major Jewish organizations comprising half her client base.
For example, she has been working with Hillel to help staff balance their personal and professional lives; helping the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services provide flexible schedules for employees. She also worked with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to help women rabbis compete successfully for rabbinical jobs.
Throughout her career, she says, “I’ve really focused on how to be a catalyst for change and how to empower other people to expand their capacity for creating change.”
Bronznick describes her philosophy as one of humility joined with ambition, or recognizing the fleeting profundity of life.
“You have to give people a chance to think about how the issues you’re raising as an advocate resonate for them,” she says, “and then you really have to create a context in which they can think about ways they can contribute to making change and they can benefit from change happening.”
Bronznick is a firebrand, constantly pushing the Jewish community to better itself and rarely mincing words when it comes to harsh criticism of Jewish organizational life.
“It’s critical to engage publicly in healthy conflict,” says Bronznick, who wishes the community did more of it. She also sees as herself as a “bridge between the innovators and the institution builders,” and wants mainstream Jewish groups to provide meaningful support for innovations in Jewish life taking place beyond their doors.
Shira Dicker, whose public relations firm represents many Jewish clients, calls Bronznick a “ba’alat tzedek,” a righteous person. They both live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Bronznick is “an accessible role model to a whole generation of young women,” including Dicker’s own teenaged daughter, she says.
“I think she’s somebody who’s really making an impact. I think history will remember Shifra Bronznick,” Dicker says.
For Bronznick, “working inside the Jewish community is a commitment that I’ve made because I believe I’m in a too-small minority of people who believe that the organized Jewish community has too many resources and responsibilities to simply be written off as irrelevant. And yet, I’m passionate about the urgency of transforming the way the community does its work.”
Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation
When Michael Steinhardt had the floor at the 2003 General Assembly of the North American Jewish federation system, he pounced on the opportunity.
“You who are gathered here — the cream of the leadership crop — represent committed Jewry. Who speaks for the unaffiliated?” he asked. “The sad truth is that the leadership ranks of the Jewish community have become so accommodated to decline that we haven’t even mentioned the absence of the very group we should be fighting to reach.”
Steinhardt, the philanthropic powerhouse who made his fortune on Wall Street, was notorious for a raging temper — according to a review of his autobiography, he excoriated an employee for mismanaging bonds. And when the employee said he felt like killing himself, Steinhardt, 63, asked if he could watch.
Often wry and more often to the point, Steinhardt took the G.A. stage to push his prized platform: innovative outreach to Jewish youth.
In the 2003 speech, Steinhardt blasted the organizational leadership for failing to galvanize a declining American Jewish community with little to unite it.
He then threw down a gauntlet, proposing a “Fund for Our Jewish Future” to endow “the most important outlets of Jewish identity-formation,” such as preschools, day schools, camps and college programs.
Upon having a child, a Jewish family would get a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a trip with birthright israel, the free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds in the Disapora that Steinhardt co-created.
Steinhardt said he would put $10 million into the fund — on the condition that contributions from others raised the total to at least $100 million.
To date, “there are informal commitments for a substantial fraction of the fund, and significant interest beyond that group,” said Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.
But the speech was classic Steinhardt: He at once chastised the
federation system and challenged it, and electrified the audience.
A speech to save Jewish children might seem ironic coming from a man who says he can’t seem to reconcile the existence of God. But Steinhardt says he does believe in the Jewish people.
He often extends his charitable efforts on a person-to-person basis, incessantly trying to match-make for marriage unwitting Jews.
Steinhardt has the chutzpah to match a businessman’s drive for innovation — and the will to put his money where his mouth is.