Erica Brown

We need visionary storytellers

Passover challenges each of us to re-create history and make history. It reminds us that great leaders inspire, writes Erica Brown

March 27, 2017 12:57

Passover, in some ways, seems to offer an ancient leadership development programme that took Moses from silence to song. In honour of Passover, let’s think together about Jewish leadership. The Jewish leadership craze is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Jewish organisations, many of them old and well-established, are offering more and more leadership development programmes. Here's why...

The world of philanthropic giving has changed radically. Micro-giving, designated giving and hands-on philanthropic work have been quick to replace long-standing models of charitable giving. 

Jewish non-profits that were typically top-heavy on the bureaucratic front have been forced to trim down and lower overhead costs. Social media has made everyone a critic and forced new levels of organisational evaluation and self-reflection. 

Research on millennials has showcased a distaste for organisations generally; membership and dues are less important to an emerging generation of leaders than commitments to social justice and spirituality. Out of all our organisational abbreviations, it appears that the letter “J” is the most important one to this population and the one least valued and explained. 

Young adults want to know what an organisation stands for and, when we can’t give a compelling answer, they are quick to look elsewhere for charities that are more articulate about their values, more nimble and responsive. 

Since people can connect in lots of new ways, the networking that organisational affiliation once offered is less necessary. 

Many legacy organisations whose original mission has been fulfilled or is no longer relevant are in danger of obsolescence; young Jewish start-ups get more and more funding. 

I often use a metaphor that helps me understand recent changes in Jewish communal life. There was time when you moved to a new city and became a Jewish joiner. You joined a synagogue, sent your children to Jewish day school or an after-school programme, joined a Jewish community centre and gave donations to local Jewish causes. We’ll call this the fixed-price menu. It was all laid out for you.
All you had to do was enter and pay your way into a well-orchestrated Jewish landscape.

Stage two: the fee-for-service model. Instead of accepting communal offerings wholesale, many opted to pick and choose, to enter organisational life only when needed. People join a synagogue for a milestone event and then leave. In demographic studies in the US, we started to notice some unusual findings. There are people who send their children to Jewish schools but are not members of synagogues. The fee-for-service model in restaurant terms might be called an a la carte menu. Take only what you want. 

We have changed the menu again. People come in and out of Jewish organisations. They experiment. Brand loyalty is passé. People want to enjoy the benefits of what an organisation offers without properly supporting it — the tapas menu. It’s hard for legacy organisations to adapt to this change because these episodic joiners often don’t pay rent, dues, or salaries or give to annual campaigns. 

Here’s where leadership development comes in. We create programmes to make our organisations better to combat these problems. This emphasis on leadership may be productive; it may also mask a much larger, darker truth. Ultimately, we don’t need better fundraisers. Money comes with meaning. We need visionaries to chart new, unseen courses. The time has come for disruption, mergers and acquisitions, for new ways to think. Just because an organisation has always existed, doesn’t mean it should continue to exist. 

There are some we absolutely must sustain. We must take care of the frail and elderly, educate the young and make sure everyone who needs a meal will get one. But we also need to face a sad reality: many Jewish non-profits are no longer as relevant as they once were. We can’t guilt people into support (but goodness knows, we try). We have to inspire them. 

We are suffering an inspiration deficit. If you want to stay relevant, create great storytellers. That’s the ultimate message of Passover. Share a great story enough times, and others will want to be part of the magic. Own this story, and tell it better. Passover challenges each of us to re-create history and make history. It reminds us that great leaders inspire.

Dr Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.



March 27, 2017 12:57

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