Teetering on the edge of the Jewish ‘leadership cliff’

Some worry about impending doom if new leaders not found to steer the tribe, while others debate the merits of top-heavy funding of Jewish twentysomethings

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)
Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)

Imagine if you will the Jewish world as Disney’s “The Lion King.” Zoom in to the scene in which lion cub Simba is presented at Pride Rock to the animal kingdom over which he will one day rule.

In this scenario, said Eliana Rudee at a June 20 panel “Changing of the Guards: The Tomorrow of Jewish Leadership” at the Jerusalem Presidential Conference, the Jewish old guard are Mufasa, the powerful respected leader. Playing Simba are college student Rudee and her cohort of young Jewish leaders who are waiting to be presented to the “pride” — the Jewish people.

A Career Israel intern at the Institute for Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR) in Jerusalem, Rudee is a senior at Scripps Women’s College in Claremont, California. “I represent a case study of one who became a Jewish leader,” she says.

She “caught the Israel bug” on a high school trip and began joining and founding pro-Israel clubs at university. Her internship, heavily subsidized by the Jewish community, is “a springboard for a future as a Jewish leader.” And her university helps fund her pro-Israel club, which organized the successful “Less Hamas, More Hummus” campaign which was later picked up by the national CAMERA organization.

Eliana Rudee, the future of Jewish leadership. (photo credit: courtesy)
Eliana Rudee, the future of Jewish leadership. (photo credit: courtesy)

Rudee is, in many senses, being cultivated for a leadership role in the Jewish community.

At the conference, she ended her poised, passionate speech with, “Make more Simbas!”

Presented to the Israeli government on June 23, the Jewish People Policy Institute’s 2013 report agrees with Rudee and indicates Jewish leadership is in a potentially dangerous transitional state, with nary a Simba in sight.

“North American Jewish leadership is entering a period of generational change and a decline in Jewish representation in US Congress. Jewish communities and organizations must encourage promising and talented young people both to enter political life and to take on senior community positions.”

As a result, the JPPI recommends “an appropriately budgeted long-term national cooperative initiative” to recruit and professionally develop new leaders.

Additionally, the JPPI suggests a network of national Jewish organizations with a common goal, and the establishment of a North American Jewish leadership development center.

The report warns of an impending “leadership cliff” as CEOs and other executive baby boomers begin to retire, and questions the “quality of the pipeline” — the ways in which Jewish professionals are promoted and work their way to the top.

Although about 25% of current CEOs  could identify ‘up and coming stars,’ the vast majority doesn’t know where their successors will come from

Quoted in the JPPI paper, in a 2009 Jewish Funders Network report, researchers Michael Austin and Tracey Salkowitz found “although about 25% of current CEOs  could identify ‘up and coming stars,’ the vast majority doesn’t know where their successors will come from.”

Back at the Presidential Conference panel, moderator Shmuel Rosner, a journalist and fellow of the JPPI, wryly said to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations since 1986, “I guess you are Mufasa. When is it time for you to choose a successor?”

“I plan to retire a year after Shimon Peres,” quips Hoenlein, adding, “Age can be an asset, it does grow some wisdom.”

However, young Jews are seemingly disinterested in taking over his reins, preferring instead to create new innovative entrepreneurial Jewish education and social justice programs where their passions lie, according to the JPPI report.

Indeed, the fate of some of these big stalwart Jewish organizations is not a given.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Mechon Hadar. (photo credit: courtesy)
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Mechon Hadar. (photo credit: courtesy)

Panelist Rabbi Elie Kaunfer from New York’s innovative trans-denominational learning center Mechon Hadar drew the largest applause of the afternoon session in saying, “Organizations that are not led in a mission-driven way should be shut down — and that’s a good thing.”

However, for organizations that make the cut and are concerned with the dire findings by think tanks like the JPPI, funds are increasingly spent in courting Jewish twentysomethings, with Israel trips or in funding their social start-ups, often at the expense of fortysomethings looking to be engaged.

The almost desperate focus on youth is the crux of a mini-scandal out of the San Francisco Jewish Federation this week.

In a controversial oped “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement” on eJewish Philanthropy, a “publication for the professional Jewish community,” Michal Kohane wrote an fiery critique of the policy to cultivate the young, while basically culling the middle-aged.

Among other statements considered explosive in the closed world of Jewish professionals, the Israeli-American writes, “I’ve had it with the constant song and dance around ‘young adult engagement’ as the only promise of any Jewish life anywhere ever at all.”

“I’ve had it with smug young people who bring little to the table short of age, whose presence leaves no room for anyone else, and the fact that they are 20 some, or 30 some does not make it cute. And surprise! Contrary to some belief, clueless dinosaurs did not roam the earth a few decades ago.”

Kohane’s criticism was originally posted under her professional title as the director of the Israel Center of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation.

“It came out at 4 a.m. California time and I was fired by 4 p.m.,” Kohane told The Times of Israel by phone.

Her situation did not go unnoticed: Kohane’s piece and subsequent axing is the center of a global debate among Jewish professionals, drawing the attention of media and laymen alike.

To mitigate the damage, Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of Kohane’s former workplace, issued a response, also posted on eJewish Philanthropy. In it she basically writes that she supports “robust meaningful debate”  and promotes “an open environment that allows civil discussion of complex issues,” but that “we have shared with our employees the explicit expectation – one that is fundamental to good operational procedure in any organization – that public communications from within the organization require review and approval prior to publication.”

Seemingly, Kohane was fired for using her title in a critical oped.

Kohane herself sounds philosophical about the whole thing.

“It’s ok to be angry sometimes,” she says with a verbal shrug, citing Moses’s anger at the Israelites when he discovered the Golden Calf. “Sometimes you’ve got to say stuff.”

However the 52-year-old mother of six is anything but dispassionate about the Jewish people’s future. “We’ve created a ‘not-Jewish’ system. In a Jewish system, the older you get, the more wisdom, knowledge, the more thought-of you are.

“Today the energy is very much, ‘Wow, someone 26 showed up to a meeting, oh wow, the world stopped!'”

Kohane says she is not against funding and providing programming for twentysomethings, adding that four of her kids fit that category. She has one qualification, however.

“We must get Judaism out of the sandbox; we’ve got to make sure there’s something for every age throughout Jewish life.”

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