Building Jewish leaders — one class at a time

Robert Millstone, Board Chair of Jewish Federation of St. Louis (standing at right), speaks to the Millstone Fellows. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

With the completion of the first Millstone Fellows educational program this month, participants say the initiative’s greatest successes has been linking members of the Jewish community into networks with which they previously had no contact.

“The people in the program were an extremely impressive group and a lot of them I would not have had the opportunity to meet or work with in any other way,” said Phil Frischer, a United Hebrew congregant from Chesterfield. “It really expanded my knowledge of the Jewish community.”

Frischer was one of 23 Millstone Fellows to complete the program, an eight-session effort that began in March, with the aim of building business, educational and organizational skills among those hoping to volunteer or take on professional roles in the community. Lasting three to five hours each, the Lubin-Green Foundation funded get-togethers examined a wide variety of topics from May’s focus on partnerships, mergers and collaborations to June’s exploration of Jewish leadership in the general community to September’s look at Jewish Peoplehood. 

Prominent national speakers like Rabbi Karyn Kedar of Chicago’s Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim and Deborah Grayson Riegel of the website facilitated some of the conversations while others were directed by local figures like Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation and Andrew Rehfeld, CEO and President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Program head Karen Sher said forming alumni networks was a big part of the concept.

“That’s something they will continue to work on beyond the official fellows program,” she said. “It doesn’t end with the fellows. That’s just the beginning of creating these cohorts that will move the community forward.”

Frischer, 44, said the fellows program did a great deal to broaden the horizons of participants. “It really opened my eyes up to there being a lot in the Jewish community I had no idea about and was not aware of,” said the Chesterfield resident who is a former board member with the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

He especially enjoyed a session facilitated by local speaker Ed Reggi, a longtime figure in the St. Louis artistic community.

“Ed did a session on effective communication using some of the things he does with improv theater,” Frischer said. “The concept is that you always say, ‘Yes, and…’ You can’t say ‘no,’ otherwise the scene stops. You have to agree with whatever the person is giving you and add to it.”

Frischer also attended an optional visit to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore, which included speakers such as Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and CNN political analyst David Gergen. Yet it was a talk from an elderly lady whose name Frischer didn’t recall who really stole the show. She’d been to jail twice during the Civil Rights Movement, been part of the Selma march and was on the Washington Mall for Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Dream” speech.

“She had done all these things and you just kind of thought, ‘Wow, here’s this little woman from New Jersey. Look what she’s accomplished. What am I doing?’” he said.

Participant Hilary Cedargreen said it was energizing to engage with so many other active Jews. She also enjoyed the lineup of speakers.

“It’s not just that you come and get lectured to,” she said. “It’s participation and small group work and back and forth conversation. That’s really what I was looking forward to, finding the different options out there and learning more about what I have to offer and honing some leadership skills.”

The 37-year-old Frontenac resident has spent most of the last dozen years raising her children. Now that they’ve gotten older, she’s felt the desire to see where she could become more deeply involved. At the moment, she’s focusing on heading the Student-to-Student program at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“There’s no downside,” the Shaare Emeth congregant said of the fellows initiative. “It’s a great program, like someone inviting me to a speakers’ series for the year and saying, ‘We’re going to bring these people in. Will you come and listen to what they have to say?’”

Matt Neufeld said the program helped him think in new ways in a couple of different areas.

“One was individual leadership development, which added some more tools to my personal toolbox on how to be a more communicative leader, how to listen in new ways,” he said. “It also was about how to let my Judaism enter into that conversation.”

Neufeld, 30, a Central Reform congregant who manages Metro Theater Company, is not that involved in the Jewish community on an organizational level but now sees opportunities to be more engaged both as a Jew and in the general community. It’s all part of a larger desire to improve the area.

“I look at my role professionally as, ‘How can I and my theater company be a part of helping to make a stronger St. Louis inclusive and in partnership with the St. Louis community but also as an individual leader. Where am I on my own path?’” he said.

He thinks he’ll eventually become more involved in Jewish communal life though he can’t say when.

“What I’ve discovered are a lot more avenues into the Jewish community outside of congregation life, which is where I’m active now, and a lot better understanding of the purposes and resources available that we currently have,” he said.

Participants gave the experience high marks. Most felt that it could be improved with more intensive face time among the participants. Cedargreen would have like a retreat to start the experience.

“Even though it is a nine-month program, you meet once a month. While you can really start to bond in three to five hours, then what happens is you don’t see each other for a month and you have to re-meet people every time,” she said.

Neufeld agreed that longer stretches of interaction would be a great idea.

“That’s difficult because all of us were juggling a number of other commitments,” he said. “That made it difficult to carve out more time. But I think a longer investment of time is good so when you really get into a conversation, you don’t find yourself at the end of the session.”

Sher said the next iteration of the program will kick off with a special daylong retreat at Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois. “We’re going to focus a lot more next year on building relationships early on through some teamwork exercises,” she said.

Frischer said that was certainly the key for him.

“The other thing that came out of it was knowing different people doing different things,” he said. “As I continue to do things in the community on a volunteer basis, if there is an issue, a problem, I’ve got a list of people I can now call and say, ‘You might have dealt with this or what do you think about this?’”

The next session begins March 10. Call Karen Sher at 314-442-3824 or email to [email protected] for more information.