Justice, Mishegas, Politics

"The Changing Culture of Jewish Leadership"

Professional Leadership ProjectI got involved with PLP (“The Professional Leaders Project”) for one reason and one reason only. Their signature event is a conference held in California, and attendance (including travel) is heavily subsidized. A nearly-free trip to Santa Monica in autumn? Sign me up!

PLP at the time offered three signature programs: the conference, called ThinkTank; an Academic Fellowship that funds folks studying for an MBA along with a Jewish Studies degree; and LiveNetworks, a professional development concept that brings together groups of 20 individuals — 10 Jewish professionals and 10 laypeople — for monthly meetings combining Jewish learning with leadership training. There are five different LiveNetworks around the country.
ThinkTank brings together members of the Fellowship, members of the LiveNetworks, and other young Jews deemed worthy — collectively referred to by the organization as “Talent” — for what basically amounts to a three-day explosion of the LiveNetworks concept into an orgy of networking, learning, and good old-fashioned drinking and carousing.
I joined the Northeast LiveNetwork, not really knowing what to expect (other than the aforementioned trip to LA). I found myself introduced to a pretty incredible group of young Jewish leaders and potential leaders. But there was the first issue. For the most part, those of us brought in as “professionals” were much further ahead in our “Jewish careers” than the “volunteers,” most of whom weren’t actively volunteering with anything at the moment. It made for great mingling, but problematic development workshops.
Those workshops were problematic for a couple of reasons, it turned out. We were never exactly sure what we were being “developed” into, other than the oft-repeated mantra of the organization assuring us they were turning the leadership of the Jewish people over to the next generation. (A reasonable goal, right?) By the end of the year, we figured out that PLP was trying to give us skills to find and utilize mentors, but from a curriculum design perspective, the course was a mess.
On the other hand, this is where some of the real strengths of the organization shine through. First and foremost, PLP has an incredible rolodex, and they put it to use in the service of their Talent (their word, I still feel like a tool even typing it). And, as I mentioned, PLP’s ability to bring really excellent people together under one roof — both established leaders and young up-and-comers — is nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps most importantly, PLP listens to their constituents and changes when necessary.
A lot has changed in the year since I joined the 2008 Northeast LiveNetwork.
First of all, the structure of the LiveNetworks is being reworked. I don’t know how much of my cohort’s feedback will be incorporated, but I have every reason to believe the organization has been receptive. After investing a lot of money and effort into a Web 2.0 mega-site, PLP heard from us that we didn’t want another place to create profiles, blogs, etc., since we were all already doing those things on facebook, blogger, and elsewhere, so PLP changed their web strategy. In a more recent program called SkillSummit (PLP loves to brand and hates the spacebar), participants in the first meeting found more diversity in our starting points than PLP anticipated, so we asked for different level tracks. Those tracks are being instituted for the second SkillSummit meeting this month.
And that’s the next big change. PLP has instituted new programs to serve their Talent beyond their initial PLP programs. They’ve launched the SkillSummits to provide training in community organizing, fundraising, and lay/professional relationships. The Hartman Institute and PLP have partnered for a Global Beit Midrash connecting PLP Talent in the US with Hartman’s scholars via videoconferencing. PLP has also added a Rabbi-in-Residence to their staff, Rabbi Scott Perlo, so they can increase their Jewish learning offerings, including a recent series called “Torah for Tough Times,” offering sessions with titles like “Staying Ethical and Refining the Soul in the Current Economic Crisis.”
PLP recently announced they would not be taking on a new cohort of Academic Fellows for the coming year, at least in part to conserve economic resources. So I was pleased to see they’re accepting applications for LiveNetworks and ThinkTank for the coming year.
I can’t say that every minute I’ve spent with PLP has been the most worthwhile use of my time, but I can’t say any of the time was wasted, either. If the only thing I had gotten out of PLP had been the people I’ve met – some of whom qualify as “contacts,” others as “friends” – as we say, dayeinu. But along the way, I’ve also learned a bit of Torah, gotten some good ideas about how I can be a better professional and a better volunteer, and even netted one of those Birthright Israel NEXT Shabbat Dinner grants despite never having participated in Birthright (through a partnership between Birthright and PLP, who happen to share many of the same funders).
I’m already filling out my application for next year’s ThinkTank. I hope I’ll see some of you there, too.

7 thoughts on “"The Changing Culture of Jewish Leadership"

  1. This is interesting. While a subsidized trip to California and missing a few days of work would be nice, I can’t help but think that these programs are not geared towards volunteers with children (or at least discourages their attendance). Time is money. Unless one is a Jewish professional, this is missing both work and family and this is probably time that I and many other parents don’t have.
    For all the talk about the future of Jewish leaders, why does it seem that programs like these are designed for non-parents and once you have children your voice is no longer as interesting? Who do they think will actually be pushing for better school curricula and programs for the next-next generation? There’s something wrong with the future of Jewish leadership if the base assumption is that few leaders in their 20’s or even 30’s have children.
    My opinion is purely from this post and searching around their website so perhaps I am completely off base. As someone who attended their programs, did a non-trivial number of participants have children? If not, can you think of ways this program can be redesigned to be more flexible. Would it still be a useful program if the 3 day conference wasn’t mandatory and the regional events were opened up to slightly more people? If there were more regional programs or separate groups/schedules within each region?

  2. @dlevy – I think that you did an excellent job of covering PLP, their strengths and weaknesses. As a SkillSummit and Global Beit Midrash participant, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some incredible people, gain some new perspective, and learn about the world of Jewish Organizations.
    @dd – Much of the program is definitely geared at those under 30, generally who don’t have children. My guess is that PLP’s assumption is that once people have children, they tend to fall back into the gravitational field of a synagogue, and are more likely to be connected than a 20-something without children.

  3. Yoni,
    This is what really bothers me. Do people stop being leaders and agents for change once they join synagogues? Are synagogues supposed to completely ignore people in their 20’s? Why does it seem like there’s a push to treat synagogues as completely separate entities that are not capable of connecting to anyone in their 20’s. There was the one Steven Cohen study showing that people in their 20’s do less with synagogues, but assumptions like these turn a moderate trend into a self fulfilling prophecy.
    Just my rant for the day.

  4. To be more specific, is this program and programs like it designed to bring in less connected Jews or is it supposed to give people who are already young Jewish leaders tools to be more effective? They sure make it sound like it’s the latter, but they’re designing a program that targets only a fraction of young Jewish leaders.

  5. I think it’s a little of both. There are certainly plenty of folks involved who have kids. I think three or four of the twenty members of my “hub” welcomed new babies to their families in the last year alone. I think we all make certain choices in order to participate in whatever it is we do. For some, that means taking three days away while the spouse watches the kids; for others, that might mean nursing in the back of a plenary session.
    That said, I don’t think this (or any) program is designed to target the entirety of young Jewish leaders, nor should programs aim that way. One size doesn’t generally fit all.

  6. @dd You raise a good point. I can only speak from my experience, but in St. Louis, congregations are struggling to bring in 20-somethings. Part of the issue is geography, the congregations are mostly located in the suburbs, where families tend to live, but young adults do not. Another piece of the pie is the membership issue, young adults are being targeted as potential members, donors, and cogs in a system which doesn’t seem to offer anything in return for this age group.
    The idea is to target those leaders who are outside of the standard Federation sphere of influence, and utilize their networks to engage those who are totally uninvolved.

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