Looking Beyond the Visionaries

Pragmatic Organizers Can Ignite Jewish Social Change

Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon
Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon

By Dana Raucher

Published June 28, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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A generation ago, philanthropists and foundations launched a concerted effort to bring more creativity and vitality to Jewish life. They funded visionaries who they hoped would inspire a renaissance in Jewish life. Through vehicles such as Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas, the Joshua Venture Group, the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Bronfman Fellowships, this wave of innovation grew into a flourishing ecosystem of original and inspiring projects and organizations. They responded to the changing needs of the Jewish community and charted a new course for Jewish engagement.

Many of those organizations are now entering a second stage of growth and are in need of organizational development to achieve greater impact. While it takes visionary leaders to get startups on their feet, the organizations that are successfully maneuvering this second stage are also those in which the founders have expanded their own skill sets, taking on crucial new identities.

The following visionaries are examples of people who have developed expertise, insight and perspective — beyond their ideals — to advance their respective organizations’ missions. These more expansive leaders are the pragmatist, the community organizer and the network weaver.

The Pragmatist

Innovation will come only with new ideas, but for an organization to be sustainable, vision needs to be coupled with realism. The pragmatists in our community are the ones who plan for the long term and develop a roadmap for that sustainability. Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon, took the idea of Jewish environmentalism and created a practical solution through a pioneering organization.

Nigel has continuously honed Hazon’s effectiveness by ensuring that the organization’s infrastructure, standards and procedures are efficient and productive. This has enabled Hazon to become the premier leader in the Jewish environmental movement. Today he is working on strengthening his board, solidifying the staff structure and even making the pragmatic move of merging with the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

The Community Organizer

Community organizers view success as more than organizational growth, they see it as advancing their cause and changing minds. They are attuned to what is resonating on the ground. Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, works for the equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. She first gave voice to LGBT Jews who were not previously embraced by the Jewish community. Over time, Keshet has made the case for LGBT inclusion as a core Jewish value, thereby positioning Keshet’s mission as part of the Jewish community’s agenda. She managed to cultivate a community of like-minded individuals, such as parents, lay leaders and straight allies. She realized, however, that this work could not be done with individuals alone, and so she created strategic partnerships with existing institutions. Keshet has forged relationships with local federations, synagogues, Hebrew schools, day schools, youth groups, summer camps and social service organizations, providing training, consultations and resources to advance the national movement for LGBT inclusion in Jewish life. Keshet further expanded its reach after merging with Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity, with local offices in Boston, Denver and San Francisco.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet
Emil Cohen
Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet

The Network Weaver

Network weavers create partnerships, leveraging the expertise of others through collaborative and mutually beneficial relationships. Mechon Hadar embodies network weaving at different levels of its work. Elie Kaunfer, Ethan Tucker, Shai Held and Avital Hochstein, the co-directors of Mechon Hadar, brought legitimacy and voice to the independent minyan movement. First, the organization has connected independent minyanim to one another, empowering prayer communities around the country so that they could share expertise and insight. At the same time, Mechon Hadar has also woven independent minyanim into the network of broader Jewish life. The organization reimagined and revolutionized a new landscape where independent minyanim are included in the Jewish community. At the 2011 General Assembly, hosted, as these assemblies are annually, by the Jewish Federations of North America, Kaunfer was the scholar in residence, a sign that independent minyanim had become an integrated component of Jewish life today. Starting with a germ of an idea and now a leading voice in 21st-century American Jewry, Mechon Hadar and its alumni serve as ambassadors and grassroots organizers to create a national network of vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities in North America and Israel.

As a community, it is important to support these efforts by promoting a new type of leadership model. Diverse leaders with multiple skill sets are rising to the surface of the Jewish community and will continue to advance and innovate. Funders and support organizations have advocated for change, dreamed of new solutions and invested in building a new generation of leaders. But it is becoming increasingly clear that as stakeholders, we also need to breed and amplify the voices of those who are realists, community organizers and network weavers. Only by ensuring that all voices are heard will we create a healthy, viable and exciting Jewish future. Regardless of one’s involvement in an organization — whether as a participant, a board member or a professional — it is our responsibility to diversify the composition of our change-makers to include visionary leaders who have the skills to take their vision to the next level.

Dana Raucher is executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which has launched the Second Stage Fund.

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