Bending the ‘golden rule’ of Jewish organizational leadership

“When you look at the people who run those entities, you’ve got to ask, where are the women? Where are the young people? Where are the Israeli-Americans, the Russian-Americans, the Sefardim, or people with disabilities?  Anywhere but the top.”

Jay Ruderman’s May 24th Times of Israel blog “Time for a change: How our major Jewish organizations can better represent the diversity of our American Jewish community” from which the above is excerpted, is a poignant call to action for the organized Jewish world. The piece paints a picture of the monolithic and dynastic nature of leadership found within most legacy Jewish organizations- organizations that claim to represent large swaths of the Jewish community. As a 20-something and Jewish lay leader with a generationally-uncharacteristic interest in effecting change through large organizations, I will attest Ruderman’s piece only scrapes the surface of the leadership experience of those not heard in Jewish leadership.

My undergraduate studies in entrepreneurship provide a lens through which to look at this issue. While there’s no handbook for a successful entrepreneur or venture, the study of entrepreneurship has yielded a number of predictive indicators of success – one of which being leadership teams. There’s a direct relationship between the diversity of leadership teams and the number of decisions made with positive impact on the business. A January article in the Financial Times reported that new laws are requiring large European companies to disclose their boardroom diversity policy. Researchers predict that this will have a material impact on investor analysis and ultimately stock prices. In a 2015 McKinsey study of large publicly traded firms- those scoring in the top quartile for diversity, were 15% more likely to produce better returns than comparable firms. Bottom line? The composition of the team making decisions at the highest level of the organization is just as important a predictor of the firm’s health as the financials.

Jewish organizations are navigating choppy waters with seismic waves of generational shifts in affiliation, philanthropic giving, Israel sentiments, and Jewish identity, all simultaneously crashing against the bow. While many have invested significantly in technical changes aimed at roughing the storm- launching small pilot programs, adding more outreach staff, enhancing digital presence, just to name a few, these changes are no more than repainting an aging ship in the eye of a storm. The real answer starts at the top, both professional and lay, often last vestiges of the “golden rule” – which Ruderman defines as “those with the most gold, rule.” It’s time to blow wide open the wheel houses of our largest Jewish organizations, learn from the business world, and ensure top-level decision-making bodies reflect the rich diversity of today’s Jewish community. Only when the top evolves, will our organizations experience the downstream changes needed for long-term relevance.

In order to achieve this diversity in leadership, we must address two elephants in the room. The first- diversity is not representation. Many Jewish organizations represent thousands if not millions of individuals. No boardroom or C-suite could claim to accurately represent everyone, and with decisions needing to be made on a daily basis, there’s no good way to quickly poll an entire community (let alone the Jewish one). This does not at all negate the need for diversity in these top-level teams, but it must be understood that each member does not represent everyone in the community like them. I’ll be the first to admit, that while often the youngest board member, I don’t claim to represent all young Jews. That said, I can add a voice to decisions that might adversely affect young people if made without young people in the decision-making room.
As our Jewish boardrooms and C-suites become more diverse, better decisions are made, and those decisions directly impact decisions made up and down the organizational leadership chain. Over time, our carrier-ship-like organizations begin to change course to better navigate the waters ahead, while at the same time becoming more agile and nimble.

The second elephant- our philanthropic base is not at all diverse. Since the ‘golden rule’ often leads to donors and philanthropists (who often look alike) in the highest levels of leadership, status quo seems the most profitable option. The reality is that the leaders whose voices are noticeably absent can contribute to organizations in many ways, but not necessarily philanthropically. Diverse leadership requires investment. The same generous donors who enable the incredible work of our organizations have the power to catalyze the diverse leadership these organizations desperately need for long-term success.

Donors and foundations, it’s time to double-down on investing in leadership at the top. While the current funding paradigm is focused on programs that are time-bound and have measurable impact, investing in diverse leadership, both professional and lay, will have a multiplying return factor for the organization. Similarly, as funds and foundations consider where to invest, leadership composition should be a criterion. Just as investors are now looking at board room and C-suite diversity before investing in corporations, Jewish philanthropists should take diverse leadership just as seriously before giving. A more extreme iteration might be to withdraw funding from organizations whose boards and C-suites lack critical diversity. Overlooking this criterion not only perpetuates a culture of monolithic leadership, it doesn’t properly invest in our organizations for the long-haul.

Jay Ruderman posited that the ‘golden rule’ of Jewish organizational leadership is the root of our challenges- I would add that it’s also the impetus for change. Philanthropists are key organizational stakeholders who are uniquely positioned to make this issue a priority. When we insist on diversity at the top level of leadership, we ensure the organizations in which we believe and support are best prepared to embrace a quickly changing Jewish landscape while providing the leadership our community needs and ultimately deserves.

About the Author
Andrew Keene is a former North American President of NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement; current Executive Board Member for the World Union for Progressive Judaism and member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors.
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