Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jewish community’s future depends on engaging a new generation of leaders


“It takes Moses a long time to die,” I commented to a friend in synagogue during the Torah service a few Shabbats ago. My commentary was by no means a reflection of my desire to see Moses take leave of the Israelites. What I noticed were the careful messages and specific instructions Moses imparts to the Israelites over several Torah portions.

Clearly, the final words of Moses and the Torah’s devotion to his words over the course of these many Shabbats are of critical importance to us, the Jewish people. Moses is doing two very important things — engaging in succession planning, with Joshua as the new, younger leader of the Israelites, and relaying a vision for the Jewish people.

I mention my observation of the recent Torah portions because their message came to mind in reading Barry Rosenberg’s article Toward Thriving. The two points I found most striking in Rosenberg’s article on the creation of a thriving Jewish community were those of human resources and the importance of a long-term vision. In fact, I strongly believe that without serious investment in our human resources we will not be able to achieve a long-term vision.

There is nothing more vital to our community vibrancy than the professional and volunteer resources of our community. At the same time, there has not exactly been a groundswell of young people aspiring to work professionally in the Jewish community. And the reasons are numerous: lack of adequate salary and benefits, diminishing opportunities for advancement and professional development, lack of appropriate mentorship and deficient recognition. The reasons for lay involvement of young adults also stems from similar reasons such as lack of guidance and leadership training and unfortunately, an inability to see the relevance of community life to their own lives.

This is incredibly depressing; yet, there are steps to be taken to alleviate the lack of inspiration to community involvement (both professional and lay) and to create atmospheres of inspiration and aspiration to such leadership positions. Our Jewish agencies cannot simply expect young adults to want to work at their agencies. Our agencies and organizations have to create meaningful opportunities that foster and mentor young Jewish leaders by way of paid internships and fellowships and on-going institutes that teach leadership skills such as communication and community landscape. I also believe that our funders and contributors need to move away from funding programs and begin funding people and leaders.

Rosenberg ends his piece by emphasizing the importance of a long-term vision. The question I ask is, “Who will be in the positions to make our community’s critical decisions and craft our vision?” The answer is our future leaders. We need to take serious steps to guide our community priorities to focus on building the leaders who will BE the future of our community.

While Moses’ final days were devoted to reminding the Israelites of their responsibilities, Moses devoted just as much time to the human resource of Joshua, the individual who would lead the Israelites when Moses was no longer there. This is a lesson we as a community need to embrace.

Ronit Sherwin is executive director of Nishmah: The St. Louis Jewish Women’s Project, an organization she co-founded in 2005 with immediate past president Karen Sher.

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