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Fellow Travelers | Shabbat Shalom 20 Tevet 5783 שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם

By Doron Krakow

Fellow Travelers

What is it about those group experiences? How is it that so many of the people most important in our lives are the same ones with whom we briefly shared something special that became something lasting, something transformative?

For many of us, it’s the people with whom we went to camp, those who were with us in our youth movement; brothers or sisters from Greek life on campus; the ones with whom we served in the military or with whom we pursued a cause or greater purpose. It was the thing that drew us in, but the people—similarly attracted—who enriched our encounter with it. Those shared experiences anchor enduring relationships—binding us together for a lifetime.

Shared experiences were front and center for me this week.

Last Friday evening, I was part of a small delegation of JCC Movement leaders that visited the United States Military Academy at West Point, where Jews have a long, proud history and have been present in nearly every graduating class since the first one in 1802. In that historic year, fully half the graduates were Jewish—the high-water mark in terms of the percentage—an achievement tempered by the fact that the class comprised only two cadets. Two-hundred-and-twenty years later, more than 100 Jewish cadets attend West Point, including 30 in the class of 2026, the largest number in any class in the academy’s history.

It’s not only that they are there in significant numbers, but that theirs is an active Jewish community. West Point today boasts more than 140 Jews—cadets, officers, and faculty—with 125 participating in Jewish life on campus. Last week’s Shabbat service and dinner were attended by more than 80 of them, including nearly all the 46 cadets who took part in the recent West Point Birthright trip. As with so many exceptional groups, the members of this one point to their leader, Major David Frommer, the first cantor | chazan | חַזָּן to serve as a commissioned U.S. military chaplain. David is also a proud member of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®.

Earlier this week, another remarkable community gathered—the board of JCC Association of North America, which met in New York City. More than 70 in number, members are drawn from JCC communities across the continent. Many are former chairs of a local JCC board; a dozen are JCC executives; and others hail from the wider Jewish community and the philanthropic world. I am fortunate to have worked with local, national, and continental boards throughout my career, and this one stands out. Members revel in their time together and turn out at higher rates than any other board with which I’ve worked. There is an esprit de corps among them, inspired by a shared commitment to something better for the North American Jewish community.

Jewish Army cadets and JCC Movement leaders welcomed Shabbat at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on Friday, January 6, 2023. 

On Wednesday, I participated in the closing seminar of the third cohort of the Mandel Executive Leadership Program. This remarkable initiative, whose first cohort was launched in 2017, draws participants from the ranks of rising leaders in the Jewish communal world, empowering them to sharpen their vision and expand their leadership and management skills. Capstone presentations, which tapped into fellows’ core values, ideals, and ambitions, addressed an array of topics, including evolving methodologies to strengthen university students’ engagement with Israel; ensuring affordability and access for those seeking to participate in Jewish life; and reflections on “Jewish-sparks moments” that alter and inform our choices and help set the course for our lives and careers. Other presentations focused on the contrasts between subject matter expertise and leadership abilities and why we so often overlook Orthodox community members when we endeavor to be more inclusive.

Every presentation was thought provoking, insightful, and seemed to issue from the very soul of the presenter, but the most compelling aspect of the experience was the reactions the Capstones elicited from the other soon-to-be program graduates—at once powerful reflections on the content and a heartfelt embrace of fellow travelers on the road to Jewish leadership. Hailing from JCCs, Jewish Federations, Hillels, AJC, and the Conference of Presidents, each with remarkably varied backgrounds and careers, these individuals, over the course of this journey, became a community.

Such experiences are intense and significant, but what makes them lasting is the common and shared frame of reference. Down the road, as they confront new challenges and opportunities, members of these unique communities will look to and for one another—for wisdom and support, counsel, camaraderie, and collaboration. They’ll hearken back to the feelings they had when they coalesced as a crew, to the power of their shared endeavor and the enormous satisfaction they gained from tackling problems and issues as a team. From time to time, the outreach will be by design; at other times the result of a chance meeting that opens the door. Army officers throughout deployments and changes in orders. Board members in wider Jewish communal settings. Senior executives with dreams of greater Jewish community and potential alignment with trusted allies—and steadfast friends.

Though wide ranging, these examples of community are emblematic of what is possible when we engage together in something meaningful, something durable, and something far richer for having been shared. Moments can be powerful. Opportunities to listen and learn, in person or remotely, can leave a lasting impression. Encounters can mark the beginning of something more. But the things that stay with us, the ones that alter the trajectory of our lives, those are the ones we shared together, face-to-face—intensely, repeatedly, immersively. These are the ones we remember. And, across every outlet for Jewish life and Jewish community, such experiences energize our capacity to make a difference, leave our mark, and find our place, all in the company of fellow travelers.

Shabbat shalom.


Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

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