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The New Jewish Leaders

In The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape, Jack Wertheimer and his highly accomplished colleagues undertake an impressive study of the changing nature of American Jewry.  In seven substantive articles, this volume profiles a subsection of contemporary American Jews, young people aged 22-40, who are engaged in “some form of Jewish group activity.”  Members of this “new generation of Jews who are choosing to invest of themselves” differ in several significant ways from their counterparts in the “baby boomer” and “greatest” generations. 

The young Jews described in this work demonstrate a marked distaste for many of the main components of post-World War II American Jewish life.  Among other things, the essays document weakened institutional ties, lack of interest in organizational memberships and joining, a diminished role for Israel in the individual and collective consciousness, and disaffection with the survivalist agendas of American Jewry’s once vaunted defense organizations.  The new generation demonstrates a decided preference for personal meaning over peoplehood, coupled with an embrace of universalist precepts, a renunciation of what many of its members consider to be an obsession with anti-Semitism and the Shoah, and a disdain for the tribalism often associated with twentieth-century Jewish groups. 

At the same time, the findings point to a renaissance of Jewish creativity in the spiritual realm.  With the explosion of everything from outreach activities to independent minyanim and enhanced social justice work, young Jews are staking out their own claims to the Jewish experience.  New ventures in the arts and cultural arena—music, theatre, film and literature—also demonstrate that many in this generation have not walked away from Jewish engagement; they are simply redefining the terms. 

While a number of essays focus on the sharp distinctions between establishment and non-establishment groups, several others make the point that hybridity, too, is a feature of contemporary Jewish life.  Thus, for example, Sarah Bunin Benor’s study of young Jews in Los Angeles notes that while there is certainly evidence of a “discourse of contrast”  in which an “us versus them” attitude separates conventional organizations from newer forces, there are also strong indications of “overlap between the two spheres,” as evinced by co-sponsored events, shared leadership, and joint participation. 

The New Jewish Leaders is not an easy read by any measure.  It is exhaustively researched and thoroughly documented; the writing is often academic and occasionally abstruse.  Though this is hardly surprising, given the scholarly firepower of the book’s contributors, it is unfortunate nonetheless that the book’s ivory tower tone militates against it reaching a broader audience.  Unfair as it is to critique an academic work for being too academic, the very practitioners, philanthropists, and policy makers of North American Jewry who would benefit from this volume’s insights spend most of their energies outside the halls of academe and are unlikely to find the book accessible. 

Of greater concern, however, is that this book devoted to the subject of leaders has little to say about leadership.  Neither the editor nor the contributors offer a clear definition of what is meant by “leaders.”  In fact, the issue is deliberately obfuscated.  According to Wertheimer, “. . . the term ‘Jewish leader’ encompasses figures with a range of activities and roles: some are leaders because they have spearheaded new initiatives, while others direct the activities of existing groups; some are professionals, and others are volunteers; some are culture shapers . . . others make things happen through their contacts, communications skills, and energy . . . .  We deliberately cast our net widely to include all kinds of individuals. . . .”  This ambiguity is further embraced by Sylvia Barack Fishman and colleagues, who seem to consider “young leaders and cultural figures” tantamount to the same thing, as if artistic accomplishment and effective leadership were synonymous. 

Similarly, the first of Steven M. Cohen’s two essays willingly conflates leadership with authority, as he makes clear when he notes, “We classified a respondent as a ‘leader’ if in at least one such instance he or she claimed to serve as the organization’s principal professional leader (e.g., chief executive officer), principal lay leader (e.g., chair), or lay leader (e.g., officer or board member).”  Choosing to call everyone with a titled position a leader, without regard to skill sets, abilities, vision, or behavior, is hardly the basis for a serious analysis of leadership. 

Though the authors persist in employing the term “leader” throughout the book, in many instances the word is used simply to describe all young Jews who are engaged in Jewish life.  More often than not it is impossible to distinguish findings about this age cohort in general from those pertaining specifically to the so-called “New Jewish Leaders.”  While general attitudinal analyses of Generation X and Y Jews are of great interest, they should not be confused with serious studies of leaders.  In Benor’s article about young Jews in Los Angeles, for example, the claim that “leaders of the different types of groups tend to differ in several ways” is followed almost immediately by findings that having nothing to do with leaders but focus only on the attitudes of the rank-and-file of different organizations under review. 

In his article subtitled “Looking for Jewish Leadership Online,” Ari Kelman has to acknowledge, “We know almost nothing about how the Internet is . . . informing conceptions of Jewish collectivity, education, and leadership.”  And Shaul Kelner, notwithstanding the fact that he spends nearly 60 pages describing programs purporting to train and develop leaders, says almost nothing about the actual content of those programs.  As he is forced to admit, “On whether the programs have succeeded in creating effective leaders who later made an impact, I will have little to say.” 

On many levels, this is a wonderfully informative book.  It offers great insight into shifting patterns and attitudes towards pluralism, denominationalism, and many other topics critical to this generation of young, involved Jews.  Those with the skills and training to plumb the depths of this material will learn a great deal about what the book’s subtitle calls the reshaping of the American Jewish landscape.  And for that, serious readers should be grateful.  Sadly, however, this is not a book about leaders or leadership.  For all that they have given us, the authors do not address any of the principal matters associated with such studies.  They ignore issues of leadership style, decision-making, succession planning, the ethical challenges of leadership, and the supervision of or even the relationships between management and governance.  In a book whose very title points to leaders and leadership, this is unfortunate. 

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is president and chief executive officer of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

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Aryeh Tepper on April 5, 2013 at 11:35 am (Reply)
The author correctly notes that artistic accomplishment and effective leadership cannot be considered synonymous. However, perhaps they can go together in the following fashion: Jewish leaders should think about how the arts can be used, intelligently and sensitively, for public (Jewish) purposes. There is a long tradition in the West, stretching from Plato to Nietzsche, of thinking about how the arts can be used for public purposes, and the question of how the arts can be used for public purposes is also implicitly treated in the Tanach. Considering the degree to which the arts project soft power among young Jews, perhaps this would also be a good place to start thinking about how those who no longer respond to conventional appeals of supporting Israel, fighting anti-semitism, etc., can nevertheless be moved.
Joe Rapaport on April 5, 2013 at 11:49 am (Reply)
It is with chutzpa that I comment on a book I have not read. But invariably, when I read publically disseminated articles or books about Jewish leadership, they typically omit the arguably the most vibrant Jewish group, that is Charedi Judaism. And when I read in the article: “The new generation demonstrates a decided preference for personal meaning over peoplehood, coupled with an embrace of universalist precepts, a renunciation of what many of its members consider to be an obsession with anti-Semitism and the Shoah, and a disdain for the tribalism often associated with twentieth-century.” I am forlornly reading another obituary for 20-21st Century Judaism. Non-Orthodox Communal organizational life has proven to be a colossal failure notwithstanding the numerous lives it has saved and not withstanding its support for so many worthy and noble causes. However, the need for any organism is self-propagation and here we encounter a void. Conservative, Reform and Federation life are giving off their final rays of sunshine as the sun sets on their day – and I, who subscribe to Jewish Peoplehood and particularism, to a strong non-apologetic Israel, am still obsessed with anti-Semitism and the Shoah and still avoid buying German or Austrian products, shed tears over my lost millions of brethren in this great USA.
    TomSolomon on April 8, 2013 at 9:03 am (Reply)
    I similarly read with shivers such statements that describe this new generation as having a preference for personal meaning over peoplehood, and an embrace of universalism over tribalism. This is truly the "me" generation. As a parent of 2 teenage kids, I find this my biggest parenting challenge - to instill a feeling that they are "part of the tribe", and conveying the emptiness of universalism. However, anti-semitism, by itself, is not a reason to be Jewish and sustain a community.
    Also, it is a little premature to proclaim the death of non-Orthodoxy. The liberal movements have acknowledged the demographic trends, and seem to be responding with a sense of emergency. We'll have to see whether or not it pans out.
Dan Robbins on April 7, 2013 at 7:17 am (Reply)
Six years ago, I left organized Judaism and professional Jewish education. I had been involved as a professional Jewish educator for 25 years. And, for 25 years, I fought the provincialism of organized Judaism and the status quo. Six years ago, I walked away from this. The leaders of organized Judaism--its boards of directors, its school committees, its helicopter parents--had become firmly entrenched in the mantras of "The more things change, the more things stay the same," and "We've always done it this way," both hearkening back to the movie Inherit the Wind song "If it was good enough for Moses, it's good enough for me."

Perhaps a reason why 20-40 year olds aren't described in this book as "leaders" is because they don't buy into the status quo Jewish definition of "leader." From what I have observed and experienced in the organized Jewish community, these status quo leaders deliberately try to absorb the smart, young ones and to co-opt their energy and innovation and ideas to make the young ones into yet more "organized Jewish leaders." Status quo Jewish community leaders feel threatened by the outsiders because they sense that more and more Jews are overtly disenfranchised by organized Judaism, its organizations and its organizers, and simply aren't buying into community of "financial donors, big machers, and big mouths" who really don't have anything to offer forward-thinking Jews. The religious services are meaningless, drab and old; the synagogues offer little but education toward Bar and Bat Mitzvah (for many); and organized Judaism seems to ask for money too often. It is no wonder young Jews are turned off.
Younger Jews may be decentralized to the point where there is little to entice them to moving to the organized part of religion. Where they stand, what they are doing is more relevant and more fun. Who can beat that?
chamim dovid rabinovitch on April 7, 2013 at 7:51 pm (Reply)
leadership has to be demonstrated before it's acknowledged

so far, there may be some promise in the named rabbis, but their actual accomplishments are such that it's now all promise

come back when they've delivered

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