Jewish Federation keynote discusses Jewish leadership

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Author and educator Erica Brown, who is scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, will look at where Jewish Federation and its counterparts in other communities are today in terms of modern day leadership when she speaks in St. Louis on Wednesday, Sept. 15.  Brown will also address a group of Federation professionals while she is in town.

Brown is no stranger to the Jewish community of St. Louis. A few years back, she served as a weekend scholar-in-residence at Young Israel Congregation in St. Louis. She also consults with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and other Jewish non-profits.

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The Jewish Light caught up with Brown in Washington prior to her St. Louis visit.

What are your duties as scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington? Describe a typical day or week on the job.

I grew up in Deal, N.J. and went to Jewish day school for my last two years of high school. I then pursued Judaic studies in Israel for a year and a half, went to Yeshiva University, where I majored in general philosophy and Jewish studies. I married to an Englishman and lived in London for two years and completed two masters degrees, one in education and one in Jewish studies. Later I went on to finish a third masters at Harvard University in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. I did my doctorate on a 16th century commentary on the book of Esther.

As the scholar-in-residence I do educational programming and teach classes for our staff, donors and community-wide institutions. I also developed and ran the Jewish Leadership Institute for five years and continue teaching leadership with a Jewish touch through my consulting company, Leading with Meaning. I have also just finished my fourth book, “Confronting Scandal,” and writing is an important aspect of my daily life.

How has the nature of Jewish Federation work changed over the years? Have Federations really kept up, or are they “behind the times,” especially in embracing new technologies, social networking and outreach involvement of younger people?

The economic downturn has surfaced many issues that Federations today have to deal with – it’s hard doing more with less, year after year. But this move has also forced Federations to ask crucial questions about staffing, priorities and the role of education and Jewish identity in the fundraising process. To me, this is a critical and welcome development. People give money where they find meaning. Jewish organizations have to make sure that they have a value proposition to add for their donors and I don’t believe we’re there yet.

What are the essential qualities of a Jewish leader, and is there a need for a different kind or kinds of Jewish role models now compare to those in the past?

Jewish leaders today have to be people of deep integrity, enduring vision and capable of inspiring others. We’re facing an ethical crisis today across the Jewish community, and Jewish leaders need to be role models of goodness. Today’s leaders are more scrutinized than before and they need to make sure that the bar is set high and that they can live up to it. They also need to master social media, which was never an issue before.


The Jewish Agency for Israel has shifted from its traditional missions of helping with immigration and absorption to Jewish identity issues and Jewish education. How are these changes being played out?

The Jewish Agency has been around before the State existed, and it’s been a partner in the process of building the State. While JAFI remains true to its enduring core vision, there’s a realization that if Jews don’t have a strong Jewish identity and a strong sense of peoplehood, its ultimate mission will be compromised. We have to be strong no matter where we live, in our homeland or in the Diaspora.

Is there a danger that we might become complacent if we think Israel has become self-sufficient?

I think that’s only seeing half the picture – a picture from a financial perspective and not what it means to be a collective entity that is engaged in a universal project.

What challenges to you believe American, Israeli and world Jewry face as we begin New Year 5771?

I believe that our challenge is to answer the question “Why be Jewish?” in a way that is compelling to young Jews and disaffected Jews and for those who are deeply committed. We have to make Judaism irresistible. We haven’t done that but our tradition contains the riches that would enable us to answer the question were we to try hard enough.


Erica Brown

What: Keynote speaker at the Jewish Federation annual meeting

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 15

Where: Staenberg Family Atrium of the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive

How much: $18, includes dessert reception

More info: RSVP to Sharon Starr at 314-442-3814, email [email protected] or register online at