The New Jewish Leaders

By Hal M. Lewis
Friday, April 5, 2013

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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