Like millions of people around the world, I looked on with dismay and considerable concern as three presidents of America’s top universities were called upon to testify regarding the horrific rise in antisemitism on their campuses.
And while, like most, I was disgusted with their inability to offer simple yet firm condemnations of clear Jew hatred, I admit that I was left with an altogether different conclusion at the end of the hearing: When preparing our next generation to become future leaders, academia is perhaps no longer where we should be looking.
I admit that this is a troubling conclusion to come to.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into higher education and we have trained our children that being exposed to an elite university environment is an optimal path to success.
To be clear, education remains a core value and my intent is not to be dismissive of the inherent importance of traditional education. Children and young adults need the discipline and structure that comes with schooling at all levels. Everyone agrees that challenging our minds by being exposed to diverse subjects is an inherently good thing for our personal, social, and professional development.
Universities must continue to strive to achieve those important goals.
But when it comes to honing leadership skills, we must recognize that campuses are failing to serve as the incubators that they might have once been – and critically we are failing our children if we tell them that an elite university education is the gold standard for personal achievement and success.
The question therefore must be what can harvest the positive change our world needs, certainly now more than ever, to effectively cultivate our future leaders?
As a proud Jew, my inspiration for leadership has always been the ancient sources, and hereto is no exception. In the Ethics of the Fathers, it is written that the sage Shimon, the son of Gamilel, taught ‘Study is not the most important thing, but actions.’
Despite being a people for whom education, learning, and teaching are a central part of our natural and cultural ethos, we are demanded to understand that those ideals should not be pursued simply for the sake of doing, but for the specific purpose of improving the world. Even the greatest Torah scholar appreciates that his occupation with study is not merely ‘academic’ but is to obtain the skills to help positively impact their environments.
I therefore strongly believe that we have been presented with a historic learning opportunity to engage our youth in a very real example of what is true leadership and remind them that as important as traditional classroom education might be, very often we can learn from how we respond to real-world challenges and crises.
As the head of an organization that addresses issues of crisis and trauma in the Jewish community, I have been witness to this very evolution of leadership. Whether it’s the young men and women who lovingly serve as big brothers and sisters, mentors, or counselors to children with serious illnesses or dedicated trauma interventionists who run towards crises to help those in need. They simply rise to that occasion and lead others by example. Thousands of volunteers that our organization has been blessed to enlist learn what it means to be a leader in the face of challenge that in my humble estimation is countless times more valuable than any classroom lesson.
The college student who spends his summer volunteering at a summer camp for children with cancer instead of interning at a law firm learns to see a person beyond their limitations, challenges, or differences. He learns to adapt to ever-changing situations and adjust the response based on the individual. The high school senior who spends her afternoons volunteering at an afterschool program for kids learns time management, prioritization of needs, and creative team-building techniques. Skills crucial to the next generation of leaders are honed during these volunteer experiences. They are developed when clear communication is required to fulfill a task while working in teams, dealing with conflict, and most importantly, while feeling empathy for others.
As noted in a study in the International Journal of Business Education which researched the benefits of volunteering, their competencies, and their integration into business education, “it seemed that, if volunteers took care of other people’s problems, they became motivated to learn new ways of solving problems.”
There are numerous examples of personalities and heroes throughout history who serve as living embodiments of leadership but perhaps one of the most eloquent was Martin Luther King Jr. who stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Our children deserve to understand that real leadership and leaders are not made in times of ease, or in the sheltered confines of academia.
The presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn made a deeply flawed calculation in trying to assess the dangers of antisemitism through the academic lens of sterile analysis where all things are equal and most disturbingly “based on context.”
However real-world conflicts and crises rarely allow for such an academic approach to challenge. The greatest leaders rise to the occasion in times of crisis specifically because the stakes are so high, and the conditions so volatile that it demands out of the box – indeed out of context- thinking.