By Doron Krakow
Early next week, more than 160 senior executives from across the JCC Movement will gather in Atlanta, Ga., for Mifgash: Executive Leadership Forum | מִפְגַּש | “encounter,” an annual conference of the most important and influential JCC leaders from across North America. This year’s gathering will be the largest in our 106-year history, reflecting our collective eagerness to confer, deliberate, and debate about the pressing issues of the day. Perhaps more importantly, the numbers reveal our desire to spend time in the company of treasured colleagues, allies, and peers.
As I prepare to address this extraordinary group of leaders, I find myself reflecting on what it means to lead—to be a Jewish communal leader in complex times. Defining the role seems straightforward enough. There’s a job description. And there’s a team that includes a staff and a board. There’s also a mission statement that provides a center of gravity for the work to be done. So far, so good. But then it gets complicated. There are the expectations that, in a reality of varied constituents and constituencies, tend to vary as well, as do leaders’ ability to rise to them.
Of course, there’s a missing element in the delineation above: The leaders themselves. What brought them to the role? Was it aspiration to a greater responsibility? A reflection of personal ambition? A readiness and willingness to step into a breach to serve the greater good or a higher purpose? To bring vision, wisdom, and capability to bear? To elevate the institution or the community to something beyond its existing state of affairs?
Steve Jobs, in conversation with his biographer, Walter Isaacson, described the difference between old and new technology companies. Old technology companies, he said, are generally led by those who rose through the sales and marketing ranks. They understand implicitly what customers want and what it will take, therefore, to satisfy them, driving sales and shareholder returns. In contrast, new technology companies, such as Apple in Jobs’ day, he told Isaacson, are led by innovators—inventors determined to provide customers with something they never imagined and then can’t live without.
I think often about the challenges leaders in the Jewish community face today. Their work begins with an obligation to the bottom line, running a sustainable business that depends on sources of income and revenue. I think about congregational rabbis, particularly those in the early stages of their careers and the need to satisfy influential members of the congregation. I think about federation leaders obliged to grow annual campaigns and contend with the generally accepted principle that today’s donors want more say in how their contributions are used. I think about community leaders determined to hold on to turf, constituencies, or mandates at a time of declining participation in Jewish life. I think about all of them, and I have to acknowledge that it isn’t easy.
Maybe “Rabbi” Jimmy Dugan, Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own,” said it best: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.” As I recall, he wasn’t talking about the Jewish community, but the sentiment certainly applies.
It’s hard. Expectations vary—and are not infrequently at odds with one another. A leader’s vision may not be immediately embraced by those necessary to its pursuit, and in some cases, it may never be. On Monday evening I’ll look out over a room filled with some of the most important Jewish leaders in North America—dedicated professionals who bear remarkable responsibility for the future of Jewish life in the communities they serve. What can I offer them that will be in service of their leadership?
Far too few North American Jews—only a fraction of our people—participate in Jewish communal life today. Of those who do, their varied interests and connections often result in entities too small to be sustained without ever-greater cost and the attendant rise in stress and strain. The way we’ve led in years gone by, decades in which Jewish organizations, agencies, and institutions proliferated, is no longer adequate to the cause today.
More is required.
JCCs regularly attract more members of the Jewish community than other Jewish institutions or settings, and those they draw represent the full diversity of Jewish life—every age, identity, and background. Therefore, it is incumbent upon JCC leaders to capitalize on their unique access and connections to those around them in pursuit of something better. To reverse the decline. To engage and inspire those who seek them out. To draw to the JCC Movement allies and partners with whom to share their commitment to the one thing that fully belongs to us. That thing isn’t our mandate or our donors. It isn’t our members or our families. The one thing that truly belongs to us—and to which we ourselves belong—is our Jewish community. The measure of our leadership will be how well, ultimately, we served, grew, strengthened, and guided our communities to something better than what was there when we arrived on the scene.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’era, | וָאֵרָא | describes the challenges faced by Moshe Rabbenu, perhaps the greatest of Jewish leaders. Charged with leading our people out of bondage, Moses’ record is littered with failure. The failure—repeatedly—to prevail upon Pharoah to let the people go. The failure to rally the Israelites to the vision God charged him to deliver to them. Repeated failures sapped him of resolve and undermined his sense of confidence and self-worth. We know how the story turns out, but Moses certainly didn’t. Where, I wonder, would we be had Moses been a leader of lesser resolve and determination or had he been more committed to giving his people what they claimed to want and need instead of what he knew they required?
A serious leadership lesson. One worthy of reflection in the company of our community’s leaders today.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America