Jewish communities face leadership crisis, visiting scholar says


Jewish communities across the country are facing the difficult challenge of finding qualified people to take on leadership roles as rabbis, school principals and heads of Jewish non-profit organizations, according to national expert on leadership, Dr. Erica Brown.

The Women’s Division of Young Israel of St. Louis hosted Brown as its Scholar-in- Residence over the weekend, and she presented three lectures on Saturday about the challenges communities are facing, and on building Jewish leadership.

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Brown, a graduate of Yeshiva University, the University of London, and Harvard University, is the full-time scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, D.C., and director of its Jewish Leadership Institute.

She has written extensively in journals of education and of Jewish studies, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Sacred Canvas: The Hebrew Bible in the Eyes of the Artist. Brown also writes a weekly commentary on the Torah Portion at the weekly online journal,

During an interview from the residence of Adinah Raskas, co-president of Young Israel’s Women’s Division, Brown told the Jewish Light on Friday afternoon that many Jewish communities are having to take a close look at how they recruit, retain and encourage good leaders.

“Nationally, we get calls all of the time for speakers and for educational materials and sharing our curriculum because Jewish organizations are experiencing crises of leadership,” Brown said. “People are wondering who will be the CEO, the rabbi, the principal?”

For example, Brown pointed to Jewish day schools.

“If I’m not mistaken, last year there were 22 Jewish day schools nationwide looking for leadership, principals or headmasters, and often, from what I understand, the average time in place [for a head of school] is two to four years, which means we’re not attracting the right people, and we’re not keeping them if we get them,” she said.

Part of the problem, Brown said, is what she calls “a culture of criticism.”

“Part of it has to do with the constant media scrutiny of leaders generally that contributes to a blur of private and public leadership lives. I think a lot of people are afraid, frankly, to go into a lot of leadership roles.”

But the media is not the only group culpable, Brown said.

“We as a community have become so critical of our leaders,” she said. “We sit at Shabbat tables and talk about our rabbis or our principals, and people don’t want to be the subject of that kind of conversation. We’re critics more than supporters. And that turns people away.”

“I think every person needs to do a little self-reflection and consider the corrosive impact on both themselves and their families when they’re consistently negative about their leaders and professionals within the Jewish community,” Brown said. “Why would your child want to grow up to become the head of a day school or be the head of synagogue when what they hear at the Shabbat table is criticism of the people currently in place? That’s not going to encourage good people to step up to the plate.”

“Sadly, there is a chicken-and-egg situation where if good people don’t take on roles as leaders, then the peer group of leaders is not a compelling one to be in,” Brown said.

In addition, non-profit Jewish organizations often simply do not pay enough to compete with the for-profit sector.

During her presentations and seminars, Brown said she emphasizes a well-rounded approach, mixing spiritual and practical elements.

“In every one of my classes you’ll find a merging of reflective questions, cutting-edge business literature on leadership, Jewish texts and case studies, by and large,” she said, but noted that there is no easy answer to communities’ crises of leadership.

Rather, she recommends that individuals self-reflect and study about leadership. “I can’t say it’s a science, but leadership certainly is an art and it does take conscious and deliberative thinking,” Brown said.

Communities, on the other hand, can take steps to train and encourage potential leaders

“What I always recommend to communities that don’t have leadership development programs in place is to team someone in organizational development with a Jewish educator and create a program in-house, usually through a federation or some central agency, that can begin to tackle some of these issues, as many federations and Jewish communities around the country have started doing already,” Brown said.

Good planning and establishing the groundwork for future leadership is vital, Brown said, particularly because research has shown that young Jews are becoming less and less engaged in the traditional infrastructure of Jewish life.

“We’re realizing that we can’t take Jewish identity for granted,” Brown said.

“We have a tremendous culture within Jewish life generally of volunteerism, but if you’re 44 or under, chances are that only 30 percent of you are volunteering Jewishly. Fewer people are giving back to the Jewish community.”

“I think it has to do with what we call ‘the hyphenated Jewish identity.’ It used to be that identity worked more vertically-that being Jewish was your top definition of self, and other things came beneath it. Today, in a hyphenated Jewish identity, you might be a Jewish-vegan-chess-playing-father, and the ‘Jewish’ part of the identity may not take precedence,” Brown said.

“I think today there is a lot of ethnic pride and awareness of being Jewish, but much less of a central commitment to being Jewish.”

That waning interest has translated to tough times for Jewish organizations, who are scrambling to get members, and particularly young members, Brown said.

“Twenty-five or 30 years ago, you came into a community and became a member of a JCC, you became a member of a synagogue. These were things you did almost automatically when you moved in,” she said. “Today, that’s not the case. The Jewish leadership of today and tomorrow is going to have to consider how you bring members in when Jewish identity is so permeable.”

However, Brown said she is not worried about the future of American Jewish communities.

“We’ve been around for thousands of years, we’ve done so through hope and expectation and high achievement, and I don’t see that changing,” she said.

“I’m encouraged by the number of people who come to classes, who want to be more involved,” Brown said.

What does concern her a trend that she calls “anti-intellectualism” among many young Jews, where people treat Judaism as simply a lifestyle, and fail to connect deeply with Judaism and the Jewish community.

“That basically means getting involved in Judaism as a long-term commitment, as opposed to having visitation rights, ” Brown said, “which for me has to do with taking Jewish life seriously. There are thousands of years of tradition of study, of getting involved, and of leadership,” she said.

“We’re a very small people and we need everybody. We can’t afford for people to turn their backs on Judaism, because if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will take care of us?”