Passing the Torch

There is a special place in the world to come for lay leaders of Jewish institutions.

While all lay leadership positions require tireless work and dedication for no pay, there is something particularly daunting about doing this kind of work within your own tight-knit community. If you’re doing it right, you are constantly forced to choose the best interest of the organization you are leading over the individual needs and wants of the people and families you serve, many of whom undoubtedly are friends. Proper governance and legal requirements often have the good of the whole at odds with what feels right in your heart for the individuals you know so well, and walking that fine line can be extremely delicate, and even painful at times. Being the leader who makes these tough choices does not often help you win friends — in fact, if you are able to maintain the friendships of those who respect you and understand your position, you are incredibly lucky.

Additionally, there is an actual financial cost to being the lay leader of an institution. When I was president of Ben Porat Yosef, people used to ask if I got a tuition discount as “payment” for my time. They would chuckle as I answered “Oh no. Quite the opposite. I have to pay extra for this honor!” If you layer these realities over all of the other leadership requirements for a job well done, you can begin to understand why very few people aspire to a position of leadership within their own community. There is too much downside, and, if I’m being honest, until very recently I believed the only real benefit was knowing in my heart that I helped an institution that I truly feel will change the world for the better. That was enough to make it worth it to me.

But last week, I was blessed to have the kind of “parental” pride and gratitude that I now know is directly borne from the personal sacrifice, love, and dedication of lay leadership. Last week, Ben Porat Yosef was accepted into the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, a prestigious organization that holds its institutions to the very highest standards of excellence and governance.

I have the honor of having formed meaningful relationships with many of the founders of BPY, and I know that for at least a few this was an achievement that was mightily desired but seemingly unachievable. Woven through the foundations of a unique and intricate mission that includes Hebrew fluency, pride in the school’s (and the Jewish people’s) Sephardic roots, and a desire to connect our families to God in an authentic way, is a basic, incontrovertible thread of excellence in education. Though the phrase “excellence” holds distinct and varied meanings in different contexts, the measures of NJAIS cannot be denied as a valiant endeavor to define, measure, and teach excellence in education.

Words cannot adequately express the gratitude that I feel for the past, current, and even future leaders of Ben Porat Yosef. Though I often said that BPY felt (and still feels) like my baby, this feels much more significant than simply pride in my child’s achievements. Because, unlike with my own children, I was given this baby to hold for just a short while. Many creative, talented, and caring leaders came before me, and my job simply was to take care of this great institution while I could, and then to pass on the responsibility of nurturing its growth to another set of capable hands.

Watching the stunning maturation of an organization you love so much come under another’s care comes with an immeasurable sense of gratitude and pride. And, I must add, also with a great deal of relief. Relief because my time to lead, and all of the joy and the pain that goes with that leadership, is behind me. Relief because there is a new set of leaders, in many ways more able than I, who will spend sleepless nights and hectic days tending to the next phase of growth.

As I move into my next life challenge — which I expect will have a multitude of similarities and also distinct differences from my lay leadership position at BPY — -I look forward to watching from the sidelines as my baby grows under the thoughtful and tender care of its new leadership. These feelings of pride and joy, of relief and gratitude, this is what makes it worth it. Through the painstaking decisions and the endless work and the uncertainty of what “doing the right thing” means when there is no perfect answer, I hope the prospect of one day feeling all of these things will keep our communal leaders going.

You are all heroes!

About the Author
Cheryl Rosenberg lives in Englewood, NJ where she is a councilmember representing Ward 1 and a member of Kehilat Kesher Synagogue. Cheryl is the senior director of marketing and communications for Prizmah: Center for Jewish day Schools and is the immediate past president of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. She is an executive board member of Teach NJS, a leadership councilmember of the Jewish New Teach Project, a recent graduate of the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, and a long-time activist in the areas of civil liberties, equality, and women’s rights.