Results from the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” provide a glimpse of the future of American Jewry, and whereas 42% of Jews associate “having a good sense of humor” with their heritage, 28% feel a connection through “being a part of the Jewish community.”As an aspiring congregational rabbi, these numbers are disheartening, yet they point to a crisis of leadership more than issues within Jewish life. If younger American Jews on the whole view Jewish institutions as unsatisfactory, then established and emerging leaders must rise to the occasion of adapting the Jewish experience. In my time in the rabbinate, I intend to serve my community as a leader through the employment of social constructivism and critical leadership theory, utilizing the Social Change Model of Leadership Development to empower young people. In facilitating a process of values determination while deconstructing limitations of leadership, Jewish leaders can create a more equitable, more accessible, and more captivating synagogue experience.
To start, social constructivism shifts leadership from an individual who dictates a vision for the community to an individual who facilitates the process by which a community faces itself (Heifetz, 1994, p. 22). In this values-driven approach, I must listen to the community that I join, gaining insight into their assets and desires instead of prescribing a solution. Assuming that I do not serve as an institution’s first rabbi, I will need to understand how a congregation tells its story; among the group members, the leader cultivates a shared narrative, articulating meaning of how a group’s values have changed over time. The largest synagogue in Washington, DC, Washington Hebrew Congregation, for instance, first convened in 1852, growing from a group of 21 German-American men to a congregation of over 2,800 in 2017. In that time, the congregation has hosted multiple presidents and distinguished guests, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nowadays, the congregation finds itself at a new crossroads, and if I were a leader at such a historic institution, I would gather members and Jews throughout the District to talk about how Jewish-Washingtonian life evolved in the last 165 years, deriving a renewed vision and value set from these discussions. The rabbis act as facilitators of this change, exercising reflective listening skills to ensure congregants feel heard.
In many ways, the rabbi embodies Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership style, for the rabbi must address the community’s needs while maintaining a flexible disposition when a discrepancy between perceived values and reality arises. Often, a group will not agree on its values. Under this epistemology, the leader allows individuals with competing value systems to confront one another, synthesizing their ideas to reach a strategy that reflects both shared desires and the reality at hand. Heifetz wrote, “ as a guide, one considers not only the values that the goal represents, but also the goal's ability to mobilize people to face, rather than avoid, tough realities and conflicts” (Heifetz, 1994, p. 23). In describing intra-synagogue debates, people recall the epithet, “Two Jews? Three opinions!” A talented, adaptive rabbi will recognize these opinions not as diametric but rather as the intersection of Judaism’s different modalities. As a religion, culture, ethnicity, and nation, Judaism embodies myriad beliefs, customs, and traditions, but these multiple dimensions stem from some sense of cohesive identity. Working productively through arguments about synagogue life, the rabbi broadens the discussion to analyze underlying emotions behind disagreements, allowing for a fruitful conversation about how the community actualizes its Jewish values or requires a shift. According to Heifetz, this process drives the community toward an agreeable strategy, which empowers them to work in productive collaboration with one another.
In redefining a narrative of a synagogue experience, though, a rabbi must also be wary of community members traditionally excluded from a given discussion. Critical leadership theory concedes, “The naturalization of the great leader-follower divide means that nonleaders are marginalized and reduced to followers” (Alvesson & Spicer, 2015, p. 16). More traditional leadership schools of thought focus on inborn traits or learned skills, such as strength, wisdom, or charisma to select who determines a community’s direction. In various streams of contemporary institutional Jewish life, certain identities (i.e. age, gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity etc.) and schools of thought (i.e. critical views of Israel) still serve as basis for denial of a person’s validity as a leader, or identity-based needs are dismissed as less essential than what is most pressing to the congregation as a whole. Perhaps, the 32% of young people born after 1980 who said they were Jews of no religion in the Pew report feel excluded by the authoritative confines of traditional Jewish leadership. If ancient, sometimes misogynist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes elitist minhagim (customs) and halacha (Jewish law) fail to relate to the youngest and other marginalized members of a community, a rabbi should cultivate agency amongst these segments of the population. Working with the Dupont Circle Senior Village this semester, my classmates and I did not demand that the Village adapt their needs to our ideal project; we shifted our vision in accordance to their valid self-assessment. Likewise, in response to the general leader-follower schism, Dr. John Dungan suggests, “explicitly acknowledge authority relationships and include content that reduces the likelihood that paternalistic or authority compliance dynamics emerge that can diminish agency” (Dungan, 2017, p. 48). For the rabbi, this process of deconstructing and reconstructing how the social hierarchy impedes Jewish life functions two-fold; to start, the rabbi must critically examine the norms of leadership within the congregation, and then, observe the way the synagogue exerts power in the larger area.
With young people, accessibility begins at the convergence of the social constructivist and critical epistemologies. Rather than cast so many Jews as lost beyond Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I would work to incorporate them into a dialogue, convening diverse proponents of the ethnicity/nation/culture/religion to discuss Judaism’s vast diversity and arrive at a sense of where mutual understanding for the future exists. The Social Change Model of Leadership Development incorporates processes for reflecting on the self, the group, and the society, and when applied to the synagogue context, it shows potential to enhance the quality of congregational life, particularly for young people. The model calls for consciousness of self, an awareness of one’s aspirations, values, and relationship to society, culture, spirituality, and family. As a leader, I would want to work with young people to arrive at this consciousness through intentional practice. As described in Leadership for a Better World, “Becoming self-aware and mindful requires conscious intentional action...these practices nearly always include 1.) a practice of reflection, 2.) openness to feedback and 3.) learning about the self through assessment” (Komives & Wagner, 2017, pp. 314-315 ). Coupled with fostering a sense of commitment to the group (in this case, the Jewish people), consciousness of self can bring about individual clarity as well as a drive to manifest one’s value with the group and society at-large. Instead of dismissing these insights as radical or naive, I would encourage collaboration between traditional and newly enfranchised members of the Jewish community. According to this model, collaboration is outlined in the following terms: “If certain individuals feel their perspective has been ignored or values slighted, they need to feel they can say so, and that others in the group will truly listen and empathize with their feelings” (Komives & Wagner, 2017, p. 209). Thus, so much of the rabbinate involves enhancing opportunities for diverse segments of the Jewish population. Particularly, when working with young folks, a particularly idealistic demographic, and Jews, a not particularly agreeable demographic, collaboration creates a framework for shared meaning making without the subjugation of traditionally overlooked voices. Shifting authority from the rabbi to younger congregants and maintaining a space where all opinions are at least heard and respected allows the Jewish people to face internal disputes through a shared dedication to the process, leading to long-term results.
Granted, a synagogue functions differently than a for-profit corporation or a goals-driven advocacy firm. Perhaps, these long-term results manifest as Jews of all ages and identities feeling incorporated in established Jewish life, or these discussions lead to new ways of adapting worship and culture. At the helm of this development, the rabbi or any leader brings together people of different identities and values systems, sharing authority to substantiate inclusive, productive dialogue, and if 42 % of Jews associate their identity with comedy, we can tell a joke or two along the way.
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Dungan, J. P. (2017). Leadership Theory: Cultivating Critical Perspectives. San
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Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
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Komives, Susan R., and Wendy Wagner. Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the
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Pew Research Center. (2013, October 1). A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Retrieved May 11,