Jewish leadership needs a dose of positivity

Without a deep understanding of who we are and what we stand for as a people, no Jewish leader can provide real direction.

June 16, 2013 21:29
4 minute read.
David Ben Gurion with wife Paula

Ben Gurion 370. (photo credit: courtesy prime ministers office)

Perhaps it is no surprise that the future of Jewish leadership and the next generation’s relationship with Israel appear to be continually scrutinized. The threat of assimilation and the concerted efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel are deeply troubling for Jewish communities across the world. Meanwhile, the security challenges facing Israel are no less grave than at any point in the country’s history.

However, none of this should cause a crisis of leadership for a nation which has survived and thrived for thousands of years.

Although we must adapt, nurturing the next generation of Jewish leaders need not require a revolution.

The most logical starting point is a true understanding of what it means to be a Jewish leader. When we talk about Jewish leadership, we set it apart as something distinct from leadership in general. We rightly assume that there is something unique about being a Jewish leader. For Jewish leadership is not simply a question of leadership by Jews, it is about leading in a Jewish way, based on values and beliefs that exist at the core of our people’s identity.

It is particularly instructive that the root of the Hebrew word for “leadership,” “manhigut,” comes from the same source as the word for “behavior.” It reminds us that Jewish leadership is not about accumulating power for the sake of being powerful. It is about acting in accordance with morals and values and placing them at the heart of a vision for a better future.

But if Jewish leaders are expected to dedicate themselves to building a vision based on national values, then it is clear that their leadership must be firmly rooted in a dedication to Jewish education. Without a deep understanding of who we are and what we stand for as a people, no Jewish leader can provide real direction. Anyone who has visited David Ben-Gurion’s home will have been struck by his enormous library of books. It is natural to wonder how a man with such a huge thirst for knowledge found the time and energy to drive and oversee the birth of the State of Israel.

The answer is simple. Far from disrupting his vision for the Jewish state, learning fuelled Ben-Gurion’s enthusiasm to eventually enact the most significant event in 2,000 of Jewish history.

And as we look to the future, the fact that the Jewish nation continues to thrive indicates that these foundations of Jewish leadership are a winning product. We live in an era in which we rightly take the existence of the Jewish state for granted. Jewish leadership has got us this far. It does not require an overhaul. However, we must also recognize that the ways in which young people engage with the Jewish people and the Jewish state have altered.

What is clear to me, when I meet young people through Keren Hayesod, is that they are no less able, no less talented than generations before them. Nor are they any less willing to claim a stake in the Jewish future. However, they are continually searching for new, innovative channels of engagement. As a result, we must do what we have always done and adapt.

This is particularly challenging in an age when identifying with a collective is increasingly discouraged. We are persuaded to build individual social media profiles rather than join communal organizations.

We must also contend with a trend in Western thought which looks down upon particularism. National identity is often regarded as outdated, even threatening.

Therefore, we must start by adapting our approach to Jewish education, the very underpinning of Jewish leadership. Rather than focus our educational efforts on the bitter tragedies of our past, we must showcase all that is exciting about the Jewish present. We must teach about a nation bound by common heritage and infused with common values. That way, the next generation will understand that they are part of a people with a mission to build a better future, not only to lament a tragic past.

We need to promote our greatest asset, the State of Israel, as the heart of this future. It is after all the ultimate expression of our commonality. That is why Keren Hayesod is so thoroughly committed to initiatives such as Taglit and Masa, which continue to inspire countless young Diaspora Jews by letting them experience and discover Israel for themselves. Through the Ayalim program, we place equal faith in Israeli youth to continue the Zionist dream, backing Israeli students to revitalize isolated communities and to build a sustainable future for them.

The key to our future is helping young people calibrate their relationship with Israel and the Jewish people, to understand that they are part of a special family. As always, education is the foundation for this process. But it must be a positive education, filled with hope. After all, every great Jewish figurehead since Moses has led with one eye on the future. The Book of Dueteronomy documents Moses’ final days, during which he gave B’nei Yisrael a formula with which to build a strong, just society.

Our mission today is also to look forward and to leave our successors with the tools with which they can lead. We must of course search for evermore innovative ways to educate. But if the end result is a message of Jewish pride, Jewish values and ultimately an investment in the future of Israel and the Jewish people, then we can surely look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

The writer is the chair of the Keren Hayesod – UIA World Board of Trustees.

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