Educator criticizes North American Jewish leadership
MONTREAL — The Jewish community should take note: bad leadership may be worse than no leadership at all, says U.S. writer and educator Erica Brown.
In addition, current North American Jewish leadership is in a vacuum and suffering from a culture of managing, not visionary direction.
Speaking recently to an audience of about 200 at the Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem synagogue, Brown, 46, a faculty member of the Israel-based Wexner Foundation, author of seven books and scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, lived up to her reputation as an engaging and provocative figure in American Jewish life.
Brown is observant and has a popular website (www.ericabrown.com). She challenged the audience in seminar style during her one-hour talk, in keeping with her goal of making people “uncomfortable” in the search for answers to proverbial Jewish life questions.
“I am not here to make you comfortable,” she said, daring them to think hard about the conventions they’ve lived with.
She posed questions and expected answers in return to the overall question put forward: “Where have all the Jewish leaders gone?”
Jewish leadership is adrift in a swamp of “murkiness” and self-satisfied drift towards inertia, she believes.
Real leadership, she said, involves the ability to make unpopular decisions and to eschew a sense of self-entitlement.
But no leadership, she stressed, is still better than bad leadership.
“I know presidents of synagogues,” Brown said, “who never go to shul, and leaders spend their whole time ‘putting out fires.’”
The Jewish community in North America, she said, has spent a century building up Jewish organizational life, yet has not adapted to the younger, emerging generation of Jews who are not turned on by Jewish institutions and are drawn more to issues of social justice and spirituality – if not necessarily ritual observance.
“We tend to bounce from leader to leader and then we see how leaderless we actually are,” Brown said.
Interestingly, Brown, using several biblical sources (she also teaches regular Torah classes), tried to demonstrate how the Bible does not generally take a “positive view” of leadership, since so often leadership can be driven by ego and a sense of entitlement in some cases, while others don’t want the burden.
Even Moses initially said no, she reminded, when God wanted him to lead the People of Israel.
At the same time, Brown added facetiously, people want leaders because they “need someone to blame” when things don’t work out.
In a very real way, she said, to be a good leader involves being a good follower, in the sense of acting as “heirs” to the Torah example and Jewish ethos.
“To see yourselves not just as leaders but as followers, as masters of the knowledge contained in the Torah… that carries the ‘power’ for great leadership.”
Brown’s latest book, Leadership in the Wilderness, uses the Book of Numbers to show how leadership helped the Jews survive the ordeal of the desert on the way to the Promised Land after their liberation from slavery.
Her website, as well, has its own link to the issue of leadership, citing numerous “Leading with Meaning” training workshops for Jewish organizations.
In reference to her book, Brown explains on her site: “I have always been intrigued by power and powerlessness and how power within institutions works. Spending time in sacred pages helped me understand why truths about human adventures so long ago still hold truths about human nature today and how the wilderness is an apt and poignant metaphor for leadership.”