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Filling The Leadership Void: A Proposal

Filling The Leadership Void: A Proposal

A 2009 study by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies predicts that during the next decade 65 percent of mid- and upper-level management of Jewish organizations will retire and their replacements will increasingly be non-Jewish. That’s quite a radical concept to those of us who believe in the “soul” of our organizations.

When you read the “36 Under 36” insert in The Jewish Week, or other inspiring stories of promising and committed young talent, you feel inspired and convinced that there is nothing to worry about. But if the Bronfman study is correct, there is a tremendous gap between the pool of people that show interest and potential to lead in the Jewish community and the pool of people that will lead Jewish organizations.

One practical problem is that when an organization invests in someone promising, another one with deeper pockets poaches that person, according to the Bronfman study. To bridge the gap, some kind of outside intervention is needed.

I approached a number of Jewish leaders with a prospectus to build and operate a College of Jewish Leadership. It would offer a four-year post-denominational program leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree in organizational administration, leadership and public policy on a tuition-free basis to 120 students selected from all over the Jewish world. The program would include a specialized curriculum offering the best resources on the planet, a one-year internship, extensive world travel and support finding a suitable job. The campus would include a hotel and conference center to attract the highest demographics within the Jewish community while giving them and the students a chance to network and share ideas.

A property was selected in upstate Monticello that offered the ability to do this at one-third the cost of a normal development. The hotel would operate at a profit and, along with income from an endowment and dormitory fees, fund the college. The prospectus was the product of two years of research and contained everything down to the curriculum, detailed financial projections, architectural renderings and indications of governmental support.

The problem? The Jewish community was in a huge funk after the Madoff scandal and in the midst of a real estate recession; people said to come back even when it costs three times as much because at least we’ll then have income to talk about it.

So maybe it was the right idea at the wrong time.

After considering the feedback, my colleagues and I refashioned a summer program for Jewish leadership development that would aim to accomplish most of what the college would have done for 1 percent of the cost. The program would be open to Jewish students who have completed some college but have not yet committed to a career. The American Jewish University of Los Angeles would host a program which would consist of six weeks of summer instruction, followed by two weeks of travel to Israel, an Arab country and a developing country (China, Brazil, etc.), plus an internship the second summer at a Jewish organization. Students will receive substantial college credit. Tuition for 100 participants will be free or heavily subsidized. Cost of running the program will be $1.2 million or $12,000 per student.

Considering that Birthright Israel invests about a quarter of that amount per person into trips to Israel available to all young adults simply for being Jewish, wouldn’t it make sense to invest in 100 people with potential and the stated ambition to be Jewish leaders? Try it for a summer, monitor the participants, tweak the program and try it again at some point and see what happens. I don’t have the perfect formula for creating leaders. But this is an experiment that is relatively modest and doable.

One major obstacle, though, is that philanthropy in the Jewish world today consists of fewer players than one might think. Similar to Wall Street, there are a few bellwether figures who are perceived as the “gatekeepers” who must bless a startup idea in order for most others to even consider it. This leads to safe choices, cliques in funding, and people not willing to take risks to go into new directions, especially if success endangers established interests. Present players also feel overcommitted in the current environment. To make a difference, investment has to come from new players willing to get into the game and create new possibilities.

The Jewish world needs to move its game to a new level. We need to invest in future leaders at a life-transformative moment, sensitize them to Jewish issues and show them that we care enough about our institutions to make them worth leading — and to create an expectation of excellence that reflects the capstone of Jewish achievement after all these centuries of development. We also should invest in a place of meeting, a place where Jews of all stripes can recreate and share ideas among themselves and elites from around the world. These action items also constitute an opportunity for Jews to broadcast a compelling positive message and to demonstrate leadership to the rest of the world at a time when many Jews are questioning the relevance of Jewish communal life.

Solutions are not going to arise through symposia paying lip service to the lack of leadership. Those events are entertaining, but nothing comes of them. “Young Leadership” has to be more than a codeword for new fundraising blood. Programs in place that haven’t worked are not an argument for abandoning the effort but rather to find a better way to recruit new leadership. The problem is complex, and there are no obvious answers. Making the difference is going to require serious work, seed money and innovation by those who are truly committed to a concrete result. It also needs new players willing to take a chance with new ideas and to step up to the plate. The proposed summer program is a viable opportunity. Anyone care to join me in making this happen?

Ivan Ciment is a director of the Morningside Group of Companies in New York City. For more information, see

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