Monday, March 22, 2010


There are "rumors" afloat that JFNA's leaders see in JDub (you all know what that is, of course) and PresenTense and Jumpstart (likewise) and similar startups, the magic key to attracting hordes of the young and unaffiliated to federation life. I am reminded of the story told of Alice B. Toklas at Gertrude Stein's death bed asking "Gertrude, what's the answer?" over and over again. After the tenth repetition, Gertrude rose from her pillow: "What's the damn question?" What's the question, indeed.

A decade ago, Jeffrey Solomon, the President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, co-authored an article on leadership development -- Setting Standards for Volunteer Leadership and the Profession: A Dialogue. I am very proud of the article, published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service and recipient of the Bernard Reisman Article of the Year Award. There I argued that the criteria for Jewish leadership had to include service and education and that today's young generation wants "a seat at the table" without regard for having earned it -- that the need for immediate gratification trumped our organizations' need for commitment in the many manifestations of commitment. Now, it is as if one of JFNA's focuses is the creation of fairy dust -- spread it to the winds and hope to land thousands of young men and women at the federations' governance tables.

My experience has been that seating a leader, young or old it matters not, at the "governance table," with no depth of experience, no comprehension of the almost incomprehensible alphabet of Jewish organizational acronyms (and no work within the organizations described by those acronyms) and no understanding of the complicated issues of Jewish organizational life, among other things assures an unsatisfactory experience for the leadership aspirant in question and the organization that he or she wants to lead. Our organizations do need to find meaningful roles for all those who aspire to leadership but just as in a law firm one starts as an associate and rises to partner after demonstrating their skills and learning their craft, so it must be in Jewish organizational life. Where anyone, no matter their skills, judgment or wealth is merely parachuted into a "leadership role," they and the organization that wants them so badly suffer the consequences of disillusionment and worse. (I am reminded of a Large City which, lacking any depth in its lay leadership, parachuted into first the Campaign Chairmanship and then as its Board Chair, a well-intentioned donor with no experience at either. Board meetings were frequently canceled at the last minute because this Chair "was busy" and I remember a call I received at my office one morning. It was this leader: "Richard, it's ___ _______, and I am here in Israel with a Mission. We can't get a meeting with the Prime Minister. If you don't get us a meeting, our federation will never make another allocation 'to Israel.'" We got them a meeting and, upon that leader's return, I had a nice discussion with him where we exchanged views.)

We do a splendid job in my community; the same is true in many others. We have built a community instrument in which men and women of every relevant generation are in leadership positions and, in the main, have understood the communal culture that has enabled us to build on the past into the present for the future as we must.

I fear that there are those in leadership looking for the silver bullet -- the one or two new "models" that will save us from ourselves. Friends, the only "silver bullets" are the Lone Ranger's. But you knew that.



Ariel Beery said...

Hi Richard. Two things. First, it's PresenTense. One T. Like our website, - have you had a chance to check it out?

Second, PresenTense is honored to work with visionary Federations, and are excited to see the progress in our pilot work with the CJP. Dozens of new faces and networks are now connecting to the Federation in a way they couldn't have without our program. We hope it will pay off for the community by opening the eyes of locals to the important role the Federation plays in the community's life.

Since we're a service provider in our role (not grants; we serve and they pay), as long as they see value we'll happily help the Federations unleash the potential of their community members 22-40.

Maybe you'd like to hear more about our work, and see it in action, before calling it pixie dust?

Anonymous said...

I think some, even most communities (but maybe not Boston) are smart enough to adopt smart multi-generational strategies that don't sacrifice the present for the future. But for those not so wisely inclined, take your pick of the following two famous quotes:

"follow the money" (Deep Throat)


"Because that's where the money is" (bank robber Willie Sutton)

Jon said...

Richard, I'd urge you to spend a bit more time with the people from JDub, PresenTense, Jewish Jumpstart, Upstart Bay Area, Bikkurim, Hazon, Mechon Hadar, ROI, Slingshot, and dozens of other entrepreneurial groups, initiatives, incubators, and support frameworks before you offer judgments about what kind of "seasoning" they may need before they can take a place at the federation leadership table. Fortunately, Jewish Federations of NA and a number of local federations (not just Boston, but New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, Cleveland and others I'm probably not aware of) have spent the time to get to know them and have come to appreciate the energy, creativity, organizational ability, and Jewish passion they represent. These folks are already leaders, and we should be thrilled that they want to partner with a system that has much to learn from, as well as some to teach, them.