Is the American Jewish community about to go over “the leadership cliff?”

That phrase, which appears in a sober new study by the Jewish People Policy Institute, an independent think tank, reflects a growing sense that at a time when as many as 90 percent of the top executives of our largest national Jewish organizations, major seminaries, big-city federations and JCCs will retire in the next few years, there is a serious lack of preparation for the transition, with potentially dire consequences for the communal future.

The 26-page JPPI report, prepared by Barry Rosenberg, former CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Federation, speaks of “crisis” and “dysfunction” in describing Jewish organizations in terms of personnel and structure. Among the problems cited are a weak “pipeline” of trained professionals; a concern about “the relevance and sustainability of the current Jewish organizational network”; a “weak and problematic” pool of qualified and motivated volunteer leaders; and the prospect of a younger generation of talented Jewish nonprofit professionals not interested in coming on board mainstream organizations they view as bloated, ideologically stagnant and resistant to change.

Particularly telling about the report’s perception of young American Jews today is this assessment: “With reduced levels of affiliation and loyalty to traditional institutions, interfaith marriage and growing discomfort with Israeli politics, it is less likely that young Jews will proactively seek a career in Jewish organization.”

 

The report asserts that the community “will require an army of professional, volunteer and informal leaders who possess a deep understanding of the current context, and the passion, will and skill to take on the task of sustaining a thriving Jewish people.”

Among the short-term recommendations called for: look to recruit professionals from outside the Jewish community and retiring “baby boomers” looking for “encore careers.” But the strongly held view is that long-term solutions are needed, including the creation of a national center for executive development to train and inspire professionals; making available visits to Israel for extended periods to help professionals better understand the culture there; encouraging and supporting the advancement of women; enhancing the image and status of Jewish organizational work; promoting more equitable power sharing between professional and lay leaders; and expanding and deepening efforts to develop volunteer leaders beyond the “young leadership” model.

“Sadly today,” the report concludes, “we are inadequate” to the “challenge and a broad, sustained and urgent focus on leadership is required.”

But at least one under-40 leader in the Jewish community believes that the JPPI approach and recommendations underscore rather than address the problem. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, in an essay in eJewish Philanthropy, sharply criticized the report, saying it failed to recognize that mainstream Jewish organizations and the CEOs that have led them for decades are not equipped for tomorrow’s realities.

The problem isn’t just leadership succession, says Kurtzer, but seeking to sustain organizations that are increasingly irrelevant to a younger generation uninterested in affiliating with “infrastructure-heavy Jewish institutions.” Instead, the future points to the “thriving innovation sector that is creative and nimble,” he writes, and not to “self-replacement, or worse, self-replication” of and by older CEOs who have been in their posts at mainstream organizations for decades.

Kurtzer argues that “the center of gravity in Jewish life” has already shifted from the big institutions to “sites of true creativity, energy and vibrant leadership.” His message: get on board or step aside.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar in Manhattan, made a similar point, though not as bluntly, at a panel on the changing of the guard of Jewish leadership, held at the recent Israel Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.

“In my opinion, the organizations that are mission-driven will survive and will thrive,” he said. “No one worries about the survival of the high-tech industry,” he noted.

Fellow panelist Malcolm Hoenlein, who has been executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for 27 years, said the qualities to look for in a leader are passion and a desire to bring Jews together. He cited the words of Moses, who told his successor, Joshua, simply “chazak v’ematz,” be strong and of good courage.

Today, Hoenlein said, “we have failed to educate two generations” about Jewish life and Israel. Every generation faces challenges, he noted, and the key is to give young people a cause to believe in based on Jewish history, values and meaning.

It’s true that change has always been a part of Jewish history. Indeed, in this past week’s Torah portion, Moses asks God to choose a successor for him when he learns that, after 40 years, he will not be the one to bring the people to the Promised Land. Someone “who shall take them out and lead them in,” Moses requests, so they will not be “like sheep that have no shepherd.”

God tells Moses to choose Joshua, his faithful lieutenant, and have him stand before the people and “commission him in their sight, invest him with some of your authority.” So Moses laid his hands upon Joshua and commissioned him in front of the people, and they accepted him.

Maybe that style would still work today if we were assured God was doing the choosing. But in our open society, closed-door decisions are frowned upon by young people. And they would be appalled to learn that many of our Jewish organizations hold elections closer to the Kremlin’s style of democracy than our own.

In the end, the true leaders, as always, will be those who are inspired — and can inspire others, transmitting a vision of Jewish purpose that can link our proud past to our hopeful future. The real crisis is in assuring they will have a substantial, educated and caring constituency to follow them.

Gary@jewishweek.org