Scaling Up LGBTQ Equality and Inclusion in Jewish Life

With the Foundation’s grant supporting Keshet’s expansion of its Leadership Project and teen programs now concluded, we are pleased to share reflections from Eugene Patron, Keshet’s Director of Strategic Communications, as we together look forward at the work ahead. The Foundation continues to support Keshet through other grants to the organization.

Until very recently, most institutions in society have failed to meet the needs of LGBTQ people and their families. This also holds true for many Jewish institutions.

Too many LGBTQ people and their families must hide their authentic selves in their own Jewish communities in the face of discrimination that ranges from implicit disapproval to explicit rejection. Keshet believes that for Jewish life to reach its full potential there must be full inclusion and equality for LGBTQ Jews. This is especially critical for Jewish teens in need of support and affirmation to feel proud of both their LGBTQ and Jewish identities.

Thankfully, an increasing number of Jewish institutions – from national organizations and their local chapters to local Jewish schools and camps – genuinely want to become more inclusive. Yet many do not know how to begin, or how to translate well-meaning organizational aspirations of inclusion into tangible action.

Responding to this need, in 2012 Keshet launched our Leadership Project to help equip Jewish organizations with the skills and knowledge to build LGBTQ-affirming communities. Jewish organizations that participated in the first few years Leadership Project trainings and consultation showed substantive impact on their programs, policies, and organizational cultures. In 2015, Keshet approached the Jim Joseph Foundation about supporting the strategic expansion of this work. Along with the Leadership Project, Keshet also sought to expand the impact of our teen programs, in particular our Shabbatonim, which give LGBTQ and ally Jewish teens a safe space to meet, learn, and find their voice as emerging Jewish leaders.

The overarching goal Keshet set for itself was to train, support, share tools, and develop the leadership — of adults and teens alike — necessary to make Jewish youth-serving institutions and communities fully inclusive and embracing of LGBTQ youth and families. To accomplish this, Keshet aimed to scale our work to reach exponentially more Jewish institutions and Jewish young people. The fact that the general climate for advancing LGBTQ inclusion in society has only grown more regressive since the 2016 election makes the importance of Keshet’s work all the more pressing.

Between 2016 and 2019, Keshet launched 36 Leadership Project cohorts, engaging 356 Jewish institutions who together reach 2,184,099 individuals. A 2019 Outcome Survey showed important findings as result of these institutions’ association with Keshet:

  • 90% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they recognize opportunities for introducing LGBTQ inclusive perspectives more.
  • 68% agreed or strongly agreed that they see LGBTQ inclusion as a Jewish value more than before.
  • 90% agreed or strongly agreed that they better understand the needs of LGBTQ members/staff/stakeholders.

These new sentiments already are being reflected creating new LGBTQ inclusive policies and programs; hosting LGBTQ inclusive events, outreaching to the LGBTQ community, and more.

During this period, Keshet also held 16 Shabbatonim, engaging 626 LGBTQ and ally teens. The Outcome Survey showed that because of their participation in Keshet programs:

  • 68% of youth connect with other Jewish LGBTQ youth more than before through social media.
  • 32% connect with other LGBTQ youth more than before in Jewish youth group settings.
  • 30% connect with other LGBTQ youth more than before at synagogue.

Participation by teens in Keshet programs also prompts many of them to engage in more Jewish learning experiences, to become more politically active, and to speak out against anti-Semitism.

The support of the Foundation enabled Keshet to explore, test, and refine strategies and processes important for systematically scaling the expansion of the Leadership Project and the Shabbatonim.

Some of the key learnings that Keshet has incorporated into the planning and implementation of current and future Leadership Project cohorts and Shabbatonim programs include:

  • Designing programs that respond to the needs of specific groups, such as trans youth, young women, and college-age youth, as well as reflecting regional culture and history.
  • Working with core anchor partners in new geographies and leveraging their knowledge and reach to expand local program participation.
  • Utilizing the efficiency of outreach possible through collaboration with national organizations that have robust member networks.
  • Cultivating leadership development for young people by developing mentorship opportunities for program alumni to welcome in and guide new Shabbatonim participants.
  • Encouraging long-term organizational accountability by providing Leadership Program cohort members with regular coaching to help sustain progress toward institutional change.
  • Developing and replicating best practices for program infrastructure, systems, and policies.

A senior staff member of a JCC in the Midwest who participated in one of Keshet’s Leadership Project cohorts said of the experience:

It was one of the first times I have experienced so many different people coming to the table…Keshet provides accountability, support, affirmation, and help to recognize where your resources are. In our year with Keshet, we started looking at making our forms, data, and membership systems more inclusive, as well as many other things we do.

The substantive takeaway from the evolution of Keshet’s institutional change work is that the leaders of Jewish organizations are enacting tangible shifts in policies, programming, and culture, as well as undertaking transformative conversations about LGBTQ equality in their communities. Moreover, a growing number of LGBTQ Jewish youth are taking on leadership roles within Jewish community organizations. Amid these positive developments, Keshet continues to advance the systemic changes necessary for the entirety of our diverse Jewish community to participate openly and authentically in Jewish Life.

Euegene Patron is Keshet’s Director of Strategic Communications. Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project and teen Shabbatonim


5 Tips for Holding a Successful Online Rite-of-Passage Celebration

On the desk in my home office, a computer and tablet were each signed into a different zoom meeting. My tablet echoed with doorbell sounds as thirteen teenagers signed on, faces flushed, excited. I took attendance. We were preparing to celebrate the teenagers’ accomplishments in Kol Koleinu, the national Jewish feminist fellowship they had participated in for the past 9 months, run by Moving Traditions in collaboration with NFTY.

Kol Koleinu invites young Jewish feminists in 10th-12th grade to explore and deepen their feminist knowledge, channel their voices to share their beliefs, and use their skills to create tangible change in their communities.

I told the fellows, “In a few moments we’ll all sign into the Zoom webinar, where you’ll arrive on the online version of a stage.” We went over their speaking roles. I emphasized that although they would have an audience, this event was to celebrate them. “It’s okay to be nervous. You don’t have to be perfect. The most important thing is to enjoy yourselves.” I took questions and then, one by one as if their images flew through the space between my tablet and computer, they logged off and reappeared on the zoom window on my laptop – on stage.

At a time when in-person graduations and end-of-year events have been cancelled, teens are missing out on important rite-of-passage experiences. In-person events can’t be completely replicated online. However, it is possible to create a virtual graduation ceremony or other rite-of-passage event where teenagers can showcase their accomplishments to their community and experience an important sense of closure. Here are some things that I learned as we planned the end-of-year Kol Koleinu event.

1. Provide both a small intimate gathering for graduates and a big gathering for the whole community.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and host of the new podcast “Together Apart,” in which she reimagines virtual gatherings, suggests that as guests go, end-of-year celebrations should “go big and go small:” Big so that graduates have the honor and experience of presenting in front of a crowd, small so that they also get comfort and intimacy of a celebrating with just people they know.

Our end-of-year celebration included a public event on Zoom webinar in which we invited the fellows’ families, friends, and friends of Moving Traditions and NFTY. In this large celebration the guests had their audio and video disabled, with the ability to access the chat function, as they watched the fellows celebrate their accomplishments. After the public event was over, the fellows and I had an after-party where we reflected on the year, shared gratitude, and played some Jackbox games online.

2. Give graduates a role in planning the event and an active role during the event.

As I told the fellows, this event was for them: to celebrate them, to showcase their work, and to provide end-of-year closure. About a month before the celebration, I put up a whiteboard on zoom and asked the fellows to write down all of the things that would make the  celebration special to them. Then I asked them to star what they found most important. Some of the more popular requests were to present their social change projects, reflect on the past year, share hopes for the future, sing together, and play some games.

As we designed, I made sure to weave in as many of their requests as possible. I emailed around a Google Doc where they each signed up for a speaking part. By being a part of the planning and having to prepare a presentation for the event, each of the fellows had a real stake in the event and were able to showcase their leadership in real time for their community.

3. Set a dress code.

This is one of the simplest tips but can make a big difference. At a time when many of us have been joking about changing from our daytime pajamas to our nighttime pajamas, there aren’t many opportunities to get dressed up. And putting on a special outfit can be a powerful mental marker of an important occasion.  Clothes can shift our mindset from “I’m at home on a regular Sunday night in front of my computer” to “I’m attending my graduation.” Clothes can also help participants feel like part of a community. For instance, I asked the fellows to wear the shirts they got at our retreat in the fall.

On the topic of appearances, I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite things to do is watch a recording of myself speaking to a crowd. Not to mention watching a recording of myself speaking to a crowd…while I am speaking to a crowd.  For people of all genders, and young women especially, staring at the video of themselves during a video call can bring up body image concerns and self-criticism, and can be really distracting. Because of this, I strongly recommend that teens select “hide self-view” so their image disappears and they only see the other people on the call.

4. Keep it short and provide multiple modalities.

Many people have been talking about Zoom fatigue—the experience of feeling drained after spending a short period of time on video chat. To address zoom fatigue, I recommend keeping the public portion of the event no longer than an hour. Also, utilize many different modalities like slides, short presentations, music, games, reflection, and conversation. Having a range of different modalities within the event can make the time feel like it’s going by faster and can hold a group’s attention.

Different types of activities can also help evoke different emotions that help the teens process the end of the year. While presenting a final project can make graduates feel proud and excited, a meditation might make them feel sad or contemplative about the end of the year, and music can bring up a range of feelings.

5. Add drama and lots of pomp and circumstance!

Like I mentioned at the outset, an online end-of-year event cannot completely capture the experience of an in-person event. Nothing can replace thunderous applause, walking onto a stage, or post-event hugs or high-fives. But there are still some ways to add extra drama to an online event. For example, imagine a closed curtain with one person in front speaking into a microphone. Then imagine the curtain opening to reveal all of the graduates. We somewhat replicated this by beginning the evening on “speaker mode” where the audience could only see one person speaking. Then we changed the view to “gallery mode,” pulling back the metaphorical curtain to reveal all of the fellows to our audience.

In addition, when we awarded certificates to the fellows, each slide was animated so that the certificates flew on screen as I read off the names of the graduates. Finally, at the end of the event, we moved all the guests “backstage” so that we could all see and hear each other. Then talented musician Chana Rothman led us in an interactive closing number before the fellows and I left for our after-party.

Whether you’re putting finishing touches on a graduation program, thinking about summer online events, or even thinking about “opening ceremonies” for the school year—in which the platform is still TBD—it’s important to think about every step of the program and what will work for your participants and audiences. Every youth deserves that time in the sun, even if it has to shine online.

Jen Anolik runs Moving Traditions’ Kol Koleinu national Jewish feminist fellowship, in collaboration with NFTY and now USY.  





Stories from the Field: Guest Blogs from Students in HUC-JIR’s Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s two-year Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education develops educators’ skills, knowledge, and practice. From early childhood educators, to Jewish studies chairs at schools, to congregational directors of education, and more, participants in current cohorts 7 and 8 are experiencing and engaging in all the challenges, innovations, successes, and learnings that come with being a Jewish educator at this unprecedented time.

The Jim Joseph Foundation, which supports the Executive M.A. Program, is pleased to share HUC-JIR’s guest blog series, Stories from the Field, offering a unique window into the world of Jewish educators and education right now. Read reflections from:

Learn more about the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education.

What Will Happen to Jewish Preschool and the Teachers our Children Love?

When my youngest child started preschool she cried all day long. Erika, a veteran teacher, held her for hours and comforted her. After two long days my little one (now a great big four-year old) was ready to look around, make friends and explore her environment. Now she asks me every day when she can go back to preschool.

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others argued for a 50 billion dollar relief fund for the early childhood industry. Ultimately the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act included only $3.5 billion for early care and education, although it includes provisions for small businesses that can help child care centers stay afloat.

Like almost all Jewish educators, Jewish early childhood educators have worked with tremendous speed, diligence, and focus to master new technologies and pivot during this crisis. Yet unlike other educational programs – such as day school and part-time Jewish education – it is almost impossible for early childhood programs to provide online learning that approximates the care and activities for learning that happen in person, particularly given the close supervision small children need. As a result, it is very difficult for a preschool to make the argument to parents that it can still charge tuition.

High quality early care is an expensive proposition. An elementary school classroom can function with one teacher for more than twenty-five children. But infants, toddlers, and preschoolers require a much smaller ratio to provide adequate care. In the United States, most families pay privately for early care and education. Day care and early childhood tuition is often a sizable portion of a family’s budget and paid month to month. Many families rely on these programs to provide childcare during working hours. When forced to simultaneously work from home and provide care for their small children – as many are parents are doing now – they understandably may not want continue to pay tuition (although some continue to do so). And given the financial fallout from the current crisis, many parents may not have the means to pay tuition even if they wanted to.

Generally speaking, the U.S.’s financial response to COVID-19-related business closures, unlike other countries, is a relief package at the individual level. This response encourages layoffs and unemployment, as opposed to incentivizing keeping small businesses running. Daycares and preschools, which often operate with very little reserve, thus may layoff or furlough teachers rather than continue to keep them on the payroll. Many will not reopen without support.

CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), as part of an ongoing study funded by the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, is currently collecting systematic data on Jewish educators across all sectors, including information on salaries and benefits. Preliminary analysis shows that early childhood educators make lower salaries overall than other full-time Jewish educators (as is also true in general education). And it’s worth noting that recent CASJE research in Jewish early childhood education (ECE) shows that, in some cases, early childhood programs that are profitable often feed those profits back into the larger institutions that house the preschool (e.g. the synagogue) rather than into educator salaries. So while preschools can be important “feeders” into the organized Jewish community, the teachers themselves are often under-compensated. Will early childhood educators who collect unemployment be able to cover their expenses? How will they retain their health benefits in a health crisis? What about the injury to morale that comes with unemployment and to their sense of trust in the Jewish community? Will our preschool teachers want to return when programs can reopen?

One leader in the field of Jewish early childhood education shared her long-term fears for the field with me:

Jewish early childhood already has difficulty attracting teachers to this field. If being an early childhood teacher is no longer seen as a secure job will the teachers come back? Programs may be able to reopen in two months, four months, but will the teachers have moved on? Can a program reasonably begin from scratch and onboard a whole new staff and accommodate the same number of children?

The benefits of early care and early education are well-documented in the general education literature (so well-documented that it should be a right for every child in the U.S. to have access to high-quality early education). Specifically for the Jewish community, a forthcoming CASJE study funded by Crown Family Philanthropies (to be released in Spring 2020) examines how Jewish ECE can be a lever for family engagement. But before you can educate and engage, you have to be open and you have to have a trained cadre of professional educator offering high quality care.

Early childhood education is classed in the United States as a caring profession. The expertise and skills of early childhood educators are often undervalued, as is the hard work that caring takes. In this crisis, which sees strong advocacy for airlines and restaurants and any number of businesses that will be hard hit, few have spoken up for the preschool teacher.

Certainly, parents across the country who now are struggling with working from home productively while caring for their small children (including me!) no doubt appreciate the value of child care and knowing their children are in a safe, caring and developmentally appropriate setting. If anything, this crisis proves how essential early care is to working families of all backgrounds. But as a country, again and again we give short shrift to early childhood education. What will happen when the crisis passes and many day cares and preschools are out of business? How quickly will they be able to rehire and open their doors? Where will working parents send their children the day after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted?

Finally, while communities weigh the financial risk of keeping preschool educators on payroll, there are also risks in layoffs and closings and to our shared values. What will we say to the educators who have dedicated their lives to Jewish ECE? What will we say to the many families who love and rely on these institutions, which can be their main connections to Jewish life? I don’t have simple answers to these admittedly complex challenges. But we owe it to ourselves – and to young families and children – to demonstrably value these educators and institutions, and to understand what we have to do to safeguard them.

Dr. Arielle Levites is Managing Director of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) at George Washington University.

originally published in eJewish Philanthropy

To Develop Young Leaders, Start By Giving Them Opportunities

Parashat Yitro contains some of the Torah’s most useful wisdom about cultivating leadership. Moses’ father-in-law Yitro – notably a convert to Judaism – tells Moses that leadership not shared with others is no leadership at all. He instructs Moses: “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, you as well as this people that is with you; for this thing is too heavy for you – you are not able to perform it yourself alone.” So Yitro encourages Moses to delegate some of his responsibilities to a network of judges, responsible for B’nai Yisrael in groups ranging from a thousand people to only ten people. Moses is still responsible for the overall vision – he “shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do” – but the judges will assist him in carrying out this project.

It’s easy for many of us working in Jewish organizations to sign off on Yitro’s wisdom. Yes, delegation can be complicated in practice, but it’s certainly better than trying to do something alone. As Yitro says, that is a recipe for “wear[ing] away, you as well as this people.” What’s notable, then, about this story is not its support for delegation and spreading out leadership – it’s the story’s implicit recognition that no one is ever really prepared for the leadership we ask them to take on. Yitro encourages Moses to find judges who are “valiant, fearers of G-d, people of truth, haters of unjust gain.” Yet the judges Moses eventually appoints are described as having only one of those four qualities (valor.) What are we to make of Moses ignoring three of the four characteristics encouraged by Yitro in the new leaders he is appointing? Based on our work in Habonim Dror’s Bonimot Tzedek leadership development program, the answer is clear: no one is ever really prepared for leadership before taking it on. Leadership development is about giving people more responsibility than they are currently able to handle, while also providing them with the support and guidance to take that on.

Bonimot Tzedek is a program intended to create leaders within Habonim Dror and the larger Jewish community, which we achieve not by identifying young people who already have all of the characteristics we expect in a leader, but by giving all sorts of young people opportunities to take on responsibility, in a way that both meets and challenges their current abilities. We do this through a unique scaffolded model of leadership development. Looked at from the outside, Bonimot Tzedek is a high school leadership and activism training program, where local groups of high schoolers meet biweekly to gain advocacy skills and make their voices heard about the issues they care about. But when we were developing this program, we saw the high schoolers as only one piece of a larger, holistic ecosystem of leadership development. We are equally invested in the development of the local college students who recruit and run trainings for the high school students and the young post-college professionals who coordinate partnerships with local Jewish organizations.

Each of these age-based cohorts – high school-aged participants, college-aged counselors, and post-college regional coordinators – is sometimes asked to take on extreme responsibilities. For a ninth grader, this might look like being asked to speak to your state’s lieutenant governor about gun reform, or being asked to run an event for elementary schoolers at a local synagogue. For a college-aged counselor, being asked to recruit high schoolers to a leadership development program – competing with school, sports, internships, and Instagram – can feel impossible. When one of us, Lia, coordinated the Philadelphia Bonimot Tzedek program the year graduating from college, the task of building genuine partnerships with local nonprofit organizations felt at times to be more than I could bear.

How can we justify giving young people these kinds of responsibilities? It’s simple – we make these vast responsibilities learning experiences rather than experiences of frustration by ensuring that none of the developing leaders are doing it alone. At every stage, participants in Bonimot Tzedek have both a cohort of peers as well as a near-peer mentor. This dynamic is obvious for the high school participants, who attend all trainings and advocacy events with a group of peers and a college-aged counselor. This context of peers and mentor support is what allowed one ninth-grade Bonimot Tzedek participant to feel comfortable advocating for immigrants’ rights at a state delegation public hearing with an audience of more than one hundred people, mostly adults. Reflecting later on her experiences, she said, “I felt very empowered because I was given the opportunity to speak for others who are not necessarily able to do so for themselves.” Speaking truth to power about the rights of immigrants felt like an empowering opportunity rather than an unreasonable burden because of the community this participant was surrounded by – both her peers and her counselors.

It may be less obvious than it is with the high schoolers, but this dynamic of community support is just as important in the work of the college-aged counselors and post-college regional coordinators. Each local cohort of college-aged counselors meets several times a month, both to plan activities for the high schoolers and to support each other through past challenges as well as to go through their own educational process led by the post-college coordinator. None of the responsibilities of an individual college-aged counselor is theirs to bear alone. Even the four regional post-college coordinators, while geographically separate from one another, have their own intentional process. They meet as a cohort online twice a month and in person at a seminar three times annually, as coordinated by the national Bonimot Tzedek coordinator.

Our experiences taking on leadership in Habonim Dror, throughout high school, college, and now in our early professional lives, has confirmed Yitro’s wisdom. From very young ages, we were entrusted with great responsibilities, and we now find ourselves in major leadership positions in Habonim Dror’s central office. In these positions, we have taken on responsibilities that we were not always certain we would be able to achieve. Yet the support of our community and our mentors has made those responsibilities bearable. It’s for that reason that we’re not afraid to ask young people to do more than they think they can currently take on; to the contrary, we believe that’s the only way to build a movement of leaders.

Leah Schwartz is Mazkira Klalit (Director) of Habonim Dror North America. Lia BenYishay is Rakazet Bonimot Tzedek (National Tzedek & Teen Coordinator) of Habonim Dror North America.

B’Yadenu: A Strategy for Whole School Reform

With the Foundation’s grant supporting the B’Yadenu Project now concluded, we are pleased to share reflections and a look ahead from David Farbman, Senior Director of Education at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. 

In 2012, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, and five Boston-area day schools launched the B’Yadenu project with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation. B’Yadenu, which in Hebrew means “In Our Hands,” was designed to shift a whole school to cohesively and collaboratively work to better serve all learners. Essentially a strategic planning process for day schools, B’Yadenu encouraged school leaders and faculty to develop and execute a model for boosting the capacity of educators to strengthen instruction and support for all students. With the project coming to a close, this is a good time to reflect on the successes and challenges we have experienced over the last few years with this ambitious project to re-shape Jewish day schools in ways that better educate diverse learners.

The Significance of the B’Yadenu Model
To better understand B’Yadenu’s potential impact, we need first to consider how uncommon (read: countercultural) the initiative is in the world of education, generally, and Jewish day schools, specifically.

Most schools operate largely under the influence of two powerful forces: urgency and inertia. Taking each of these in turn, consider urgency. Too rarely do day schools address underlying causes or adopt more methodical or systematic approaches to ameliorate challenges. “Fix the problem as quickly as possible,” is the order of the day. The second force is somewhat oppositional to the first. Much of what takes place in schools—from specific lessons to curricular expectations to the daily schedule—results from inertia. Educators tend not to change practice from year to year because when a problem does not emerge (i.e., does not need to be addressed urgently), they see no compelling reason to do so.

At base, B’Yadenu is an effort to break the hold of both of these forces at once.  In terms of urgency, B’Yadenu presses administrators and faculty to consider questions that are deliberately non-reactive in nature like “How can we address the root causes of this problem?” or “How can we institute practices that are most effective, even if they will take many months or years to implement fully?”  At the other end of the spectrum, B’Yadenu aims to open the eyes of school staff to alternative possibilities that they had not considered simply because they were not pushed to do so. Through B’Yadenu, educators are prodded to ask themselves questions like: “What would our school look like if we did curriculum or scheduling or professional development differently?” and “Why do we have to teach this way?”

For school personnel to consider these questions is not only rare, the task is exceedingly difficult, and, of course, the difficulty stems in part from their rarity in being asked. For anyone—educators or not—to examine one’s own habits and assumptions takes candor and care and trust.  That is, deep reflection into how to change current behavior in order to do better requires, first, that we are honest with ourselves and our peers. Second, such inquiry should not be addressed haphazardly, but rather done within the context of a methodical and consistent self-assessment. Finally, the entire exercise of self-reflection must be rooted in an environment of good will and mutual respect.  B’Yadenu revolves around these three principles and seeks to guide school teams to abide by them.

What it Takes for B’Yadenu to Succeed
Engaging in B’Yadenu certainly provides a path toward overcoming norms that tend to be short-sighted. But progress is far from guaranteed. As such, below is a brief consideration of some factors that must be in place to make success more likely.

  1. Controlling role of leaders in the process. Absent heads of school and/or principals within the school consistently and forthrightly insisting that faculty and all staff commit to serious, substantive, and often challenging change at many levels, such change will simply not happen.  Only leaders have the power to say to teachers, “Don’t be concerned about addressing this problem right now. Only be concerned that you address it well.” Once teachers begin to undertake that process of self-reflection, they are far more likely to take on the burden of change and to do so with a deeper sense of the rationale behind their need to change.
  2. Belief in the value of external expertise to help the school do things differently. It simply is not feasible to expect teachers and others in the school to implement new practices without first holding up what these new practices might look like. When outside professional consultants or coaches offer novel approaches or, perhaps equally important, validation for current methods that are sound, they effectively provide faculty with a road map or, at the least, some milestones along the way toward improved practice.
  3. Shared willingness among all involved to allow for change to take place on a relatively gradual scale. If teachers are really going to be overhauling their pedagogy, they cannot be expected to do so at the snap of their fingers. They must navigate through an extended period of trial and error, so that they fully appreciate what works best to elevate their students’ learning. In schools that have been most successful, the transformation in educational practice has taken place over the course of years.
  4. An abiding willingness to change. Perhaps it is obvious to say so, but absent a deep commitment from teachers, learning support staff, administrators and, of course, school leaders that they want to engage in the process, transformation is simply impossible. To undertake the complex process of self-reflection, to learn from external experts, and to persist through the experimentation and honing process is a test of endurance and will. Sustaining that desire to change through the inevitable wrong turns or competing agendas is challenging, but without this uniform and consistent ambition to generate real change, nothing sustainable will occur.

These latter two characteristics together form a healthy tension within successful schools. Striking the balance between these two ends of the spectrum—a demonstrated patience and methodical approach on one side; an incessant drive for improvement on the other—is what ultimately generates enduring and real change.

What Does “Success” Look Like?
What does it actually mean to “transform teaching and learning”? As the question itself implies, there is no single construct that defines transformation. Rather, the change exhibits certain characteristics that, in some combination, can be said to have met the ultimate objective: the evolution of a school toward an institution that meets all learners’ needs and where all learners can thrive. We consider four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners:

  1. Primacy of adult learning. If a school is to live up to its goal of nurturing in children a lifelong love of learning and continual development toward a better version of the self, teachers must harbor this love, as well and continually practiced in systematic ways.  A sound B’Yadenu school is one that features regular times for teachers to collaborate and learn from one another, as well as some form of formal and actionable feedback that structures their learning about their own teaching.
  2. Widespread belief that all students can and should succeed academically and socially. This should not mean that a day school should be expected to educate absolutely any child that seeks to be a student there. Rather, the notion means that for all students that are currently at the school—and for others who are seeking to attend—the presumption should be that the school can successfully educate them. Teachers must continually search for ways to tailor the educational experience to the specific needs of each child and focus on what each child is learning, not what the teacher is teaching.
  3. Steeped in data about student learning and behavior, such that faculty and administrators have concrete evidence about what those “better contexts” are for each student. So, for example, if a teacher wants to know if a student learns more effectively with a certain reading program or another, she will have data to back up when that student is making more progress. Then, armed with that data, the teacher can structure that child’s learning environment that will promote the greatest amount of learning.
  4. School leaders insist that all staff align to the values of high-quality schools, namely the previous three elements: committing to professional growth, nurturing the potential success of all learners, and appreciating how data is essential to identify student needs. This commitment to fill the building with adults who harbor these inclinations is the surest way to build sustainability. With the right people on board, the right practices are sure to follow for the foreseeable future.

One final aspect worth noting. Though each successful B’Yadenu effort exhibited these four components, the schools differed from each other meaningfully in both the particular challenges they were trying to address and the ways in which they addressed them. What matters less, then, is the what of the B’yadenu process, but rather the how by which each school brought about sought after change.

The Future of B’Yadenu
Taking into account what we have learned over the last eight years, what can we say about how the day school universe overall might take on B’Yadenu and what Gateways can do to encourage more schools to become schools that embody the four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners outlined above?

The approach to seeding more B’Yadenu schools must focus on how to draw out the potential readiness of schools and cultivate that potential into genuine platforms for transformation. If we can locate those schools that acknowledge that their current educational program is unable to consistently address the needs of all students, then these educators are on the cusp of developing one of the foundational aspects of readiness: willingness to change.

In our experience, schools can be effectively steered toward being ready to take on the challenges of whole-school change through an honest analysis of current teaching and learning practices and how they serve as impediments to all students succeeding.  In so doing, school leaders and faculty can be enlightened to three of the four conditions needed for whole-school transformation (desire for change, insight into its evolutionary nature, and the value for external expertise).  With these cultural qualities taking root, the school community is then far more prepared to tackle the complicated, but rewarding, work imagined by the B’Yadenu process.

As for the fourth characteristic of strong leadership—which actually stands first in terms of its importance—the very act of organizing a candid assessment is a sign of the school leader’s commitment and vision.

Understanding what characteristics should be prominent in any given school community in order to take on the hard work of B’Yadenu and, in turn, what values we should be aiming to embed to ensure lasting change, we believe the field is better poised  to bring about more widespread success in B’Yadenu projects (or any large-scale school improvement initiative). At Gateways, we will use these lessons to continue to guide and model and plan and strategize and prod more Jewish day schools to become places where all learners, regardless of their abilities or needs, can receive the education they so richly deserve.

Access the B’Yadenu Toolkit here.



Diversity of Leadership: Building a Professional Team That Reflects an Organization’s Target Audience

The recent Brandeis study Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life affirmed the work of Honeymoon Israel as we welcome the 100th group of Honeymoon Israel participants to Israel in a few weeks. After four years of running trips, 2,000 couples from 20 different North American cities have participated and have had the opportunity to be embraced by the Jewish community and to build their own communities of young couples that will hopefully last for many years.

Consonant with the Brandeis study, we have found increased interest recently from the organized Jewish community to become more welcoming. Specifically, we now have broad-based support to welcome the ever-growing diversity and range of young couples with at least one Jewish partner to Jewish life.

While opening doors for initial engagement of these couples in Jewish life is important, sustained and meaningful engagement with them depends on how much we empower young couples to create their own Jewish communities. To that end, we believe that it’s critical that our own leadership reflect the diversity of our constituency. Over the past few months, we’ve begun to “staff up” and we’ve recently hired five new team members. More than 60 Honeymoon Israel participants applied for these jobs and more than half of them were non-Jews.

Three newly-hired Honeymoon Israel national team members are non-Jewish Honeymoon Israel participants. They were so inspired by their new community that they want to make it a part of their careers. As we embrace them as part of the Jewish family, we also encourage them to lead the organization and their community into the future. Their reflections on why they chose to work for Honeymoon Israel, and their experiences thus far, affirm the importance of proactively inviting young couples of all kinds into Jewish life experiences.

Laura Cuellar Bernstein is the new Director of Marketing and participated in a New York Honeymoon Israel trip in February 2018. “Being part of Honeymoon Israel as alumni has been transformative for us. My husband’s family is Jewish and my family is Catholic. As we navigate the intricacies of creating an interfaith family, we’ve explored the commonalities between our faiths, cultures, and traditions. We often find that these point to the same core values: love, respect, and family,” said Bernstein. “Through this experience, we’ve become so close with the couples we met and it’s been incredible to have this community by our side. Honeymoon Israel has given us the support, space, and tools to confidently and meaningfully bring tradition and faith into our home.”

Laura Parker is the new Applicant Experience Manager. She and her husband Harrison Benett participated in an Atlanta Honeymoon Israel trip in May 2019. “I applied to go on the trip because my husband and I found during our wedding planning that we would not be welcomed in the community I grew up in (Southern Baptist), but we were both welcomed into the Jewish community. After our wedding, we began looking to expand our Jewish community from one couple to have over to Shabbat to many,” said Parker. “I fell in love with the intentional community-building while in Israel. Our trip leader and Rabbi led thought-provoking questions, unique Shabbat experiences, and quiet moments with partners that brought a diverse group of 40 adults to bond together in 9 days. I knew before boarding the plane back home that I wanted to work for Honeymoon Israel. The community has been so impactful in my personal and professional life. I am so honored and excited to be a part of a team that will give other couples across the nation (and Canada) an opportunity to build intentional Jewish communities, no matter their background.”

Hannah Smith, Administrative Coordinator, also participated in a Honeymoon Israel trip out of Atlanta. “My partner and I chose to participate in Honeymoon Israel because we were searching for ways to connect with Judaism and incorporate it in a meaningful way in our daily life. The idea of a life-changing ten day trip to Israel with 19 other adventure-loving couples who were also searching for answers seemed almost too good to be true, but we knew we would regret not applying! We ended up having one of the most beautiful, fun, eventful, surreal, informative, and spiritual journeys with our Honeymoon Israel family. We made memories that will last us a lifetime, we found answers to questions we had for years, and we came back with even more questions and ideas that we love exploring and learning about daily. We were also pleased to find that Honeymoon Israel facilitates community building and supplies a wealth of resources for all of the couples once they get home. The staff, as well as fellow alumni, work so hard to assist with Jewish learning and fun events so that we can all stay connected.”

Smith and Parker both knew during their trip that they wanted to be part of the Honeymoon Israel team. Smith adds, “I knew I wanted to work for Honeymoon Israel because I wanted a fulfilling and worthwhile career at an organization that I truly believe in.”

For Bernstein, it was the mission that made her eager to join as an employee. “Before we applied for Honeymoon Israel, my husband and I were skeptical that the organization had a hidden agenda. We were both happily surprised and blown away to find that it’s truly the open and accepting place it says it is. This is what made me want to be part of the team. It’s important to me to create a culture where diversity and understanding are prioritized and celebrated.”

Beyond a career, Honeymoon Israel is designed to provide a community for the alumni on the team. “The community I have found both as a Honeymoon Israel alumnus and now as an employee has meant an immense deal to me. As the non-Jewish partner in my relationship and as someone who has never belonged to any religion/community, I found both spiritual and social connections with Judaism and with Honeymoon Israel,” adds Smith.

The Brandeis study illuminates the reasons why couples with Jewish and non-Jewish partners are less engaged in Jewish life and emphasizes the need to move from welcoming to offering proactive invitations. Young couples want a “way in” to explore and make their own decisions regarding their emerging family’s Jewish identity and life experiences.

We are committed to ensuring that our growing staff and Board of Directors are comprised of all members of the “HMI Family.” This isn’t just a matter of being inclusive—this is a smart business practice. HMI, like other organizations, wants employees deeply committed to and passionate about our mission. We want employees who understand and can relate to all of our audiences so we can best reach, engage, and serve all of those audiences.

As more and more Jewish organizations evolve to be more proactively inclusive, we hope that the next wave of community professionals and board leadership reflects the diverse constituencies they serve. We’re proud that HMI has helped young couples connect with each other and build Jewish community in meaningful ways. Equally as important, we believe, is what is affirmed in the reflections above. When non-Jewish adults experience a warm and inviting Jewish community, in some instances they not only want to join that community, they also look to lead and to welcome others in as well.

Avi Rubel and Mike Wise are Co-CEOs of Honeymoon Israel 

Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change

At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:

You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.

By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed.  Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.

Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice.  How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values.  B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.

Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:

In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.

Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.

At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is Vice President of Innovation and Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.





The Intangible Work of Sustainability

Kelly Cohen, Director of JumpSpark in Atlanta, shares how they are using the Sustainability Diagnostic Tool to implement a Community Partner Network to expand Jewish engagement opportunities and to invest in Jewish professionals as the future of Jewish education. 

The Or HaChaim, in his commentary on the book of Exodus says that when building the Mishkan the Israelites “encounter both tangible perceptibles, and intangible imperceptibles.” God had given clear instructions as to how this new dwelling place was to be built and mandated the contributions of the whole community. The tangible perceptibles were the physical building materials that would define the Mishkan’s shape and structure, but just as important were intangible imperceptibles. As the Or HaChaim says, “It was the intangible contributions that enabled the tangible parts to be joined together and to form a sustainable whole, a tent that would not collapse.”

JumpSpark is a part of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative and an Innovation Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. We connect and collaborate with the community to create meaningful and defining moments for Jewish teens, while enhancing the infrastructure of Jewish education and engagement in Atlanta. JumpSpark partners and invest to reimagine existing programs, supports new and innovative ideas, and thinks creatively to meet the needs of teens, their parents, and Jewish educators and professionals that work with them. Simply put, we are trying to build a new ecosystem of teen offerings and support in Atlanta.

Over the past year, JumpSpark engaged over 1300 members of our community with innovative programming including our Strong Women Fellowship, Navigating Parenthood series and JumpSpark Professional. In addition, through Spark Grants, $275,000 was strategically invested by JumpSpark into the Atlanta Jewish teen space. These are our tangibles that build something new. While we have the beginning of a structure, as JumpSpark enters its second school year, we need to directly engage with the intangibles necessary for sustainability.

In the coming school year, JumpSpark will launch a Community Partner Network. This model, adapted from the San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative, is the next iteration in the development of JumpSpark. Through this network, thirty local Jewish teen serving organizations will join forces with JumpSpark to connect the community, expand Jewish engagement opportunities in Atlanta, and invest in Jewish professionals as the future of Jewish education. Over the course of the year, Community Partners will be asked to track teen engagement, participate in Cross Community Evaluation surveys, commit to participation in JumpSpark Professional workshops, and launch a new Teen Israel Taskforce. With an $1800 incentive grant for partner organizations, JumpSpark is able lead the community in working together for an engaged and sustainable Jewish teen ecosystem.

In visioning and implementing this new network, JumpSpark was guided by the Sustainability Diagnostic Tool (SDT) developed by Rosov Consulting for the Teen Funder Collaborative, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation. This tool is a practical, helpful resource for anyone engaged in community building who wants to assess a program or initiative’s readiness for sustainability.  As Aaron Saxe, Jim Joseph Foundation Senior Program Officer, shared, The SDT offers clear indicators and a qualitative sliding scale for communities to gauge progress themselves. Taken together, communities will gain a deep understanding about their readiness to ‘make it on their own.'”

As we embark on the work of building this new Community Partner Network, I am supported by the clear indicators for sustainability laid out by the SDT. We must be focused on how we can show “diverse community organizations are significantly invested in teen education and engagement effort.”  We must put “incentives and structures in place to support communication and coordination among diverse youth-serving organizations and programs” and we must be creating the structures to ensure that, “youth-serving organizations and programs are collaborating effectively to increase economies of scale and eliminate redundancies.” JumpSpark’s Community Partner Network is about taking the first step together as a community to achieve these goals.  The building challenge comes when I ask myself, “How are we engaging with the deeper level of our work—not just with what can be seen, but the intangible contributions from our community that will ultimately hold this thing together?”

What has become clear is that we will never be able to “make this our own” unless we dedicate time to build community and to foster collaboration. In a Jewish organizational world where we sometimes are stuck in silos, a concerted effort must be placed on community-wide relationship development and trust. Diverse constituents must be brought on board through listening and compassion. All this work will take energy, empathy, talent, commitment and time. These are what we can’t track in our metrics or quantify in our reports, but this is what is going to hold it together. If the intangible work has been done to build a community that is unified and committed, we can build something that will last.

JumpSpark is proud to be a part of the vanguard experimenting with the Sustainability Diagnostic Tool. When the Israelites were building the Mishkan in the desert, they were creating a place for God to dwell. Today, as we embark on using this new tool to create and sustain our Jewish future, may we never lose sight of the intangibles holding our work together and the holiness we can create.

Kelly Cohen is Director of JumpSpark in Atlanta.


A Path Forward in Jewish Leadership Development

In her now-famous study on leadership, Tina Kiefer, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Warwick, asked participants to draw a picture of an effective leader. She found, not surprisingly, that the overwhelming number of people – no matter their gender – drew a white man. This study points to the fascinating way in which a particular mental model of leadership shapes both how we see the world and how we might imagine our future, as well as our unconscious biases of what a leader looks like. And it begs the question: what might we as a community achieve if we work to expand our mental models of leadership? 

The recent report from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) articulates a number of core challenges to attracting and retaining top talent for the Jewish nonprofit sector. In particular, it makes a strong case that without increased career development opportunities and resources for Jewish professionals, it will be challenging for them to succeed in their current roles and to advance into new leadership roles. These are indeed the very challenges that led to the founding of Leading Edge in 2014. And over the past five years, we have been working with our partners to nurture emerging leaders and to support organizations to create the kinds of workplaces that attract the best and brightest.

Through this work, one thing has remained clear: there is no talent crisis. There is no shortage of people ready to roll up their sleeves, enter our workforce, and advance to more senior roles. But all too often, our organizations are not ready for an expansive vision of who a leader is and what a leader looks like. Leading Edge believes it is in the interest of the entire Jewish community to have a vibrant sector that is able to recruit, develop, retain and advance leaders of all genders, races, abilities and sexual orientations. Doing so will require a great deal of intentionality and purpose.  

Here are a few insights that Leading Edge has gleaned through our work that may help us all  address challenges related to leadership development and retention.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

If we want to recruit diverse talent to both join and grow in our organizations, we need to ensure that our cultures are built to empower a diversity of voices. The 2019 Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey found that while 70% of the employees surveyed believed that their organizations valued diversity, only 53% actually built diverse teams. There is a gap between our aspirations and our actions. To narrow this gap, we need, as Suzanne Feinspan articulates, to support our leaders in examining the implicit biases that we all carry and bring to bear on our work; we need to empower staff with language and skills around equity and inclusion and get board buy-in for creating inclusive organizational cultures. We need to create workplaces that promote trust, respect, and psychological safety, making space for courageous conversations that honor diverging perspectives. This not only aligns with our Jewish values, but it also drives stronger outcomes because of the innovation that occurs through the meeting of diverse perspectives.

We also need to ensure that our workplaces are free of harassment, discrimination and abuse. This is something that I think a lot about as a male in a field in which 70% of employees identify as female. I am aware of–and know that I still can learn more about–the opportunities I have been given and the way in which my voice has often been privileged over female colleagues because of my gender.  

The process shapes the outcome

We’re all familiar with the old adage “what got you here won’t get you there.”

Given the deeply networked and at times familial nature of our sector, recruitment and hiring in our field is often done in an informal and unstructured way and, more often than not, people hear about jobs through their connections. Networking to find talent can be a tremendous asset –and a tremendous liability that excludes talented and qualified candidates from landing roles because they do not hold the same kinds of relationships with connectors in the community. 

Leading Edge recently published a CEO Search Committee Guide, which among other things contains extremely helpful advice from feminist leader Shifra Bronznick, founder of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, on eliminating bias from the process of hiring a new CEO. Bronznick stresses that search committees should run an entirely structured process, from how resumes are rated to how interviews are assessed. Assessors should rate each candidate independently before knowing the ratings from other committee members. This will help eliminate groupthink where bias thrives.

The limits of Cultural Fit

The recent study commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative finds that at least 12-15% of the 7.2 million Jews in the United States are Jews of Color. Though we’ve seen emerging efforts to support the leadership of Jews of Color in our community, it is clear that our workforce is nowhere close to representing our community.

Oftentimes the language of “cultural fit” is used to exclude candidates from under-represented groups, such as candidates of color, from being hired. The term cultural fit, which originated in the 1980s, refers to screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they might have on an organization (e.g. do they align with the values, beliefs and norms of the organization?) While we certainly believe in the importance of cultural alignment, we also see the way in which the language of “cultural fit” may be used to exclude candidates who bring an under-represented identity or perspective to the organization. This feels all the more live in our community, where a prerequisite to being hired is often previous work in or familiarity with the Jewish community. If we think about the history of those who may have been excluded from mainstream Jewish life, it is not hard to see how focusing on “cultural fit” in hiring processes can result in maintaining a certain level of homogeneity in our organizations.

Diversity as a lens

We know in our hearts that the opportunities for leadership are as diverse as the people who make up our community and er are constantly thinking about how we might support and amplify a wide range of models of leadership. We are inspired by such efforts both in our community, such as Yavilah McCoy wrote about recently and models of leadership beyond our immediate community

People often ask if Leading Edge will create a separate area of work to tackle issues such as women’s leadership. In fact, we are embarking on a project – generously funded by the Genesis Prize Foundation and the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition – to understand and address the root causes of the gender gap in leadership in our community. However, critically, we plan to integrate the learnings and actionable items from this project into all of our efforts, rather than maintaining it as a separate line of work.

This approach, we believe, is indicative of the urgency and possibility we see now in the Jewish leadership space. Yes, we need to act now to fill the void of leadership–and the diversity of leadership–throughout the Jewish community. And yes, the talent exists to support a new generation of Jewish leaders, reflecting an expanding mental model of leadership. We are learning about effective strategies to cultivate this development in long-lasting ways, and we share these learnings to help the field. Together, let’s support the talent within our community, welcome new talent, and continue to change how Jewish leaders are supported–and who Jewish leaders are. 

Mordy Walfish is Chief Operating Officer of Leading Edge

Polarity Challenges in Developing Jewish Leaders

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

Efforts to define and address the contemporary nature of “Jewish identity” and to develop approaches to “Jewish continuity” that have the power to appeal to Gen-X, Millennial and Gen-Z audiences of Jews have been the focus of the majority of Jewish professional spaces that I have been blessed to navigate as an educator and communal professional for the last 20 years, and are highlighted in the Center for Effective Leadership’s (CCL) recent report on Jewish leadership. What I have seen less of in these spaces are approaches to engaging Jewish identity and continuity that do not operate from an often unconscious, yet underlying assumption that the Jews that we are attempting to most engage through Jewish services are White.

As a younger CEO of a newly established nonprofit, whose mission is to service and empower the leadership of Jews of Color, it is important for me to build partnerships with philanthropies and institutions that appreciate the rewards that our community has experienced through years of unified Jewish institutional focus on facing crises and existential threats to our survival. And it is important to find new opportunities that are emerging for Jewish institutions to embrace the diversity of contemporary Jews and environments where rapid social change and emergent realities encourage leaders to engage adaptability, versatility and innovation in order to secure impact and relevance within the communities they serve.

It seems that the state of life itself in 2019 encourages many Jews to seize the opportunities of a diverse world and be whatever type of Jew – affiliated, loosely affiliated or just human – that they would like. As a leader who has benefitted from various fellowships and leadership cohorts offered within Jewish institutional frameworks, this freedom to “Just do JEW” in many ways was granted to this generation by leaders of previous generations who innovated and resisted within the institutional frameworks of their day and created the security and social support necessary to yield a container for today’s most powerful Jewish innovators to flourish.

As a Jewish woman leader of color, navigating and seeking support within a majority White Jewish institutional framework, innovating and resisting has been challenging. It is crucial to study and appreciate how the work of powerful role models like Shifra Bronznick of Advancing Jewish Women Professionals and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service have influenced my own journey. The strategies and frameworks that these White Jewish women utilized to create equitable pathways for what they hoped would be all Jewish women’s leadership empowerment were essential to my success and I would hazard to say the success of many Jewish women leaders today. Yet even with all of the strides and accomplishments in this space, the frameworks and pathways created for women leaders of 2019 do not establish clear roads to leadership for Jewish women of color nor sufficiently remove the equal sign that persists in many Jewish spaces between Jewishness, Woman-ness and Whiteness.  Welcoming the tension that exists between embracing the strides and ongoing challenges that Jewish institutions navigate regarding new opportunities to live Jewishly at the intersection of race, class and gender helps me to stay curious regarding what remains possible for a new generation of Jewish women leaders of color.

In 2014, 10 percent of American Jews identified as Black, Asian, LatinX or mixed, and 12 percent of all Jewish households in New York City, Long Island and Westchester identified as biracial or non-White.* These numbers indicate the presence, in the greater New York area alone, of over 66,000 Jewish Women of Color in the Jewish community whose lives and leadership matter.*[Pew Research Study on Religion and Public Life, 2014]

My desire to appreciate and utilize all that I have learned in White majority Jewish leadership spaces, while also agreeing to engage adaptability, versatility and innovation in my approach to being a transformational Jewish leader, inspired me to build programs within Dimensions that can support Jewish Women of Color in finding new language to allow their Jewish identities and leadership to be expressed and valued outside of an exclusive paradigm of Europeanness and Whiteness. Through “The Jewish Women of Color Resilience Circle,” Dimensions supports Jewish Women of Color (JWOC) in experiencing themselves as other than “other” as Jews.  In many spiritual communities and in Jewish communities specifically, Jewish Women of Color have yet to experience what it means to be central, clearly spoken to, and equally relevant in the derivation of Jewish ritual and practice. In Dimensions’ projects, we utilize a transformational leadership approach to support JWOC empowerment and to create a consciousness of JWOC thinking, JWOC love, JWOC spirit and JWOC power in the world. In our gatherings, I support Jewish Women of Color in developing a Jewish practice for themselves that resists any assumptions of White supremacy.  I do this work with love and compassion and I engage participants in supportive opportunities for ongoing reflection and re-evaluation.

As an aspiring transformational Jewish Woman of Color leader, I also model the prospect that JWOC can lead and operate meaningful leadership lives outside of a paradigm for work that supports our own oppression. In my leadership, I take seriously that in modeling and prioritizing my own self-care, I offer Jewish Women of Color a chance to connect to their humanness and thus their frailty.  My approach to leadership encourages emotional literacy and the confidence to admit when we are hurting or struggling, without succumbing to fear that we will be seen as weak or inadequate.  In my work with Jewish women of Color, I often address the challenge that when a woman leader of color lives even a small portion of her life publicly, that public too often expects perfection and, by virtue of being a leader, that she has already conquered the challenges she advocates against. My approach to transformational leadership provides Jewish Women of Color with opportunities to take off their capes and masks, be vulnerable, share our burdens, and seek and offer help to one another as we develop our capacities for leadership.

According to the Jews of Color Field Building survey “Counting Inconsistencies,” of the United States’ 7.2 million Jews, at least 12-15%, just over 1,000,000, are Jews of Color and in some communities, at least 20% of Jewish households are multiracial. For many, witnessing the profound social transformation occurring within contemporary Jewish communities might be cause for distress and alarm.  For others who are willing to engage the “Both-And” of Jewish communal growth, these times offer an opportunity to explore new ways of growing Jewish community and engaging Jews that will only emerge when leaders choose to welcome tension and swing between our established social polarities, as noted as one of CCL’s Jewish leadership challenges. The goal of Dimensions’ Jewish communal projects is to serve as a catalyst for enhancing the transformational leadership of Jews of Color and Jewish Women of Color. The JWOC Resilience Circle has created a necessary space for Jewish Women of Color to honor and care for themselves while giving voice to their experiences. It supports and makes more visible the leadership and meaningful communal work that Jewish Women of Color are accomplishing. Dimensions teaches our partners to center the work of Jewish Women of Color as valuable within larger Jewish communal spaces and encourages those interested in engaging under-served populations of Jews, to create personal and organizational resources for sustaining these extraordinary Jewish women.

Although the context has changed, Dimensions is leading initiatives that are concerned with Jewish identity and continuity. Our programs approach Jewish continuity as an opportunity to engage difference. We create Circles of Resilience that can sustainably engage Jews of Color, and Jewish Women of Color specifically, because we believe that the lives, families and future generations of all Jews are invaluable to the realization of a beloved, inclusive and multiracial Jewish future for all of us.

Yavilah McCoy is CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting.

Promote Dialogue: Next Steps as We Navigate Education Challenges in Training for Effective Jewish Leadership

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

In their first-year interim report on Jewish leadership development, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) identifies five challenges facing those who wish to cultivate Jewish leadership today. One of those five, Education Challenges, encompasses, but is not limited to, the following:

  • that there is a “lack of clarity around terminology,” and no “agreed-upon definition of Jewish education;”
  • that trends in Jewish education have been towards a consumerist approach asking, “what does the market audience need (or want);”
  • that individuals also want to be, as Dr. Jonathan Woocher z’l put it, “prosumers – empowered to create their own educational experiences, and to guide them on lifelong learning journeys;” and
  • that it is not clear who “does the work” of Jewish education. Are they those whose job titles includes “Jewish educator” or those who work in a frontal classroom setting? Or, as Shuki Taylor of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education says, “professionals from fundraisers to program directors to farmers need to see themselves as educators, who should approach their work from a learning perspective?” (I happen to agree with Shuki on this point).

Examining the above, it is clear that just within the Education Challenges bucket, CCL points to numerous challenges when thinking about cultivating leadership. My reflection after reading this section of the report is two-fold. First, we need to prioritize ongoing dialogue on these issues and second, we need to clarify the definitions many of us already know but others may not.

In regards to dialogue, CCL points out that as we think about the future of Jewish education—and its many related complex and important issues—people will articulate differing opinions and visions. Inevitably, some people’s will be strong and impassioned. Coincidentally, these three variables—an important issue, when emotions run high, and when opinions differ—often are the markers of a critical conversation between two or multiple parties that must occur to address and resolve differences. An effective and responsible leader makes it a priority to engage in these conversations head on, with transparency, a great listening ear, and kindness, no matter how fraught they may be.

The challenges stated in the CCL report should further motivate our Jewish education field to have these critical conversations. These conversations must be with diverse groups and held in public spaces.  A good example of this is the open and frequent dialogues hosted at the William Davidson School of JTS. These included conversations about the goals, purpose, and scope of education and involved colleagues from across the spectrum of Jewish life.

I suggest that an effective leadership approach to navigating the many issues CCL highlights is to prioritize discussion over determination, dialogue over absolutist decision-making, and be pluralistic and multi-faced when we decide whom to invite into conversation, gathering a diverse selection of Jewish educators and leaders and to create an environment that welcomes and appreciates various perspectives. In my view, such an approach will generate more innovation and collaboration then holding particular stances that can limit one’s impact or influence.

In regards to clarifying definitions, I was curious to see some of the challenges stated in the report, as I think at least a couple have already been resolved. For example, there are agreed upon definitions of Jewish education.  Most would commonly define Jewish education as involving the exposure to or transmission of knowledge and engaging learners in experiences between an educator(s) and learner(s) that involve or speak to a particular body of content. Now, what is included (or not) in this body of content? What are the shared goals and purposes of our work? These are great and deep questions—and ones we must discuss. Again, I don’t believe we should set a goal to determine finite answers. We will never get to consensus! Yet, we certainly can say that there is some consensus around what Jewish education is, and we should amplify this to as large an audience as possible.

A second example is the perceived conflation between informal and experiential education. Conflating these two educational approaches was an issue earlier this decade for many deeply involved in Jewish education. There is an understanding now that “formal vs. informal” references the Jewish educational setting, whereas “frontal vs. experiential” commonly relates to an educator’s approach to the educational experience or learning. These definitions, to me, are pretty clear and irrefutable, with many thanks to Dr. David Bryfman, Dr. Jeff Kress, and other colleagues who have written on this. The task now at hand is to amplify these definitions for clarity to the broader community. In our work to build the Jewish leadership field, we must effectively communicate what we already know.

Which brings me back again to the importance of dialogue. Many of the education challenges before us as outlined by CCL are indeed complex; thus our charge for leadership must be to advance the conversation, and to spur new innovations and paradigms for Jewish education to consider. We must also make our work a bit simpler by leading through the iterative process, allowing our work to constantly grow and evolve, and to communicate our work frequently and broadly so we all can respond, converse, and learn from each other.

Mark S. Young served as the Managing Director, Leadership Commons at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary