We need a new model of leadership to change the Jewish world

Let’s take it from the theoretical to the practical.

October 10, 2017 20:46
4 minute read.
We need a new model of leadership to change the Jewish world

‘FROM THE moment the first messages of The Shabbat Project went out on YouTube and on Facebook, individuals in communities around the globe responded to the call by establishing their own grassroots committees, working groups and action and task teams to bring the project to their communities. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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We are all called upon to be leaders and within a novel paradigm of leadership – one which flows from the inside out – that is, beginning with leading ourselves and through expanding circles of influence, reaching more and more people around us. This is the paradigm of leadership that our Torah has always taught us and that I have explained in the first three articles of this series on leadership.

Now let’s take it from the theoretical to the practical.

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What does this new paradigm of leadership mean for you and me? How do we make it real? Allow me to present two examples, one old and one new.

One amazing example from Jewish history is that of Elkana, the father of Samuel the prophet. He lived at a time, before our first Temple, when the mitzva of going up to the Tabernacle for the three pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot had become sorely neglected. So what did Elkana do? He didn’t wait for the official leaders of his generation to take action.

He decided to do it himself. He took his family and a few friends and they traveled from place to place in a caravan, creating awareness of this mitzva, telling people they were on their way up to the Tabernacle for the pilgrim festival, and inviting them to come with.

Slowly but surely, over the years, a people’s movement sprung up, to the point where the mitzva of aliya l’regel (going up to the Tabernacle for festivals) was returned to the Jewish people.

A good example of Jews from all backgrounds rising to the call of becoming leaders is the remarkable journey of The Shabbat Project, which began as a local initiative for the South African Jewish community in October of 2013 and spread from there to the entire world, to the extent that in 2016, The Shabbat Project reached Jewish communities in 1,152 cities in 95 countries, across 10 languages, bringing together more than a million Jews.

And all indications are that the project is set to dramatically further expand this year on October 27 and 28.

What led to this remarkable growth? Part of the answer is the fact that the project is being driven by very powerful ideas, the idea of the power of Jewish unity, since it seeks to unify Jews from all backgrounds in all countries, irrespective of levels of observance or affiliation. Furthermore, Shabbat has a compelling message for modern times with its call to a day free from technology, work pressure and the pace of modern life – to a time of family togetherness, community bonding and real connection with G-d and indeed with self as well.

A key part of the growth of the Shabbat Project has been in the method of the delivery of the project to the world. It has not been top-down through official communal organizations and establishments but has rather been a grassroots people’s movement. From the moment the first messages of The Shabbat Project went out on YouTube and on Facebook, individuals in communities around the globe responded to the call by establishing their own grassroots committees, working groups and action and task teams to bring the project to their communities.

We didn’t need to approach and appoint Shabbat Project leaders in the different countries and cities.

The people came to us. We have been providing the marketing and educational material, translating it, designing it and preparing it for our thousands of partners around the world. But it was these partners who made it a reality on the ground. We have thousands of organizing committees in cities throughout the world, dedicated volunteers coming from all backgrounds and affiliation, united by their commitment to Shabbat and to Jewish people, and working tirelessly for The Shabbat Project all over the world.

Some of these organizing committees produce large scale high-profile events like the halla bake, which is being prepared in Buenos Aires for this year, aiming to bring in more than 9,000 women; and the Shabbat dinner in Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, aiming to bring together more than 5,000 people, and last year’s Kabbalat Shabbat service in Bondi Beach in Australia, which brought together more than 1,500 people.

Then there are small events, such as the event arranged by Keli Rae in Fernley, Nevada, where she thought she and her daughter and granddaughter were the only Jews in the city. She sent out a message on Facebook, saying that she wanted to keep the Shabbat of The Shabbat Project, and asking whether there were any other Jewish families who were ready to celebrate with her. Six families wrote to her, and together they celebrated an incredible Shabbat.

These are our people’s partners all around the world and they have made the project possible. This is a new model of Jewish leadership, the power of which we need to harness and unleash. We are all looking for solutions to change the Jewish world for good and to bring about a greater sense of unity and connectedness among Jews throughout the world. The answer is that we have to reinvent the concept of leadership. It needs to be a leadership that is not top-down, but rather a leadership that is inside-out, where people assume responsibility for themselves and for the people around them, a model of leadership in which everyone is called upon to be a leader.

With that model we can truly change the world for good.

The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.

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