A lesson in leadership

By Craig Nudelman

Throughout 2022, I was privileged to participate in a Jewish leadership programme, the Nahum Goldmann Foundation’s (NGF) Network Leadership Seminar. 

It began in February last year and we graduated in January 2023 at the beautiful Tarrytown Manor Estate in Tarrytown, New York. It was an amazing opportunity for personal and professional development. 

As part of the graduation, all 12 international participants had to prepare a Lesson in Leadership, reflecting on what they had learnt in the past year or providing a tangible project going forward. From revitalising their communities to providing platforms of Jewish learning, I was inspired by how we collaborated and provided each other with critical feedback after each presentation. 

However, an NGF event would not be complete without sessions from the amazing faculty who had guided us throughout the year. Rabbi Dr Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, the Senior Rabbi of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland and Dr Daniel Fainstein, the Dean and Professor of Jewish Studies at the Universidad Hebraica in Mexico City, imparted their ‘final’ words on leadership, from Tanach and Gemara texts to those on postmodern Judaism (read Renewing the Covenant by Eugene Borowitz to gain further knowledge as to what postmodern theology and Jewish identity looks like). Text study and grappling with our sages’ words, both ancient and modern, is critical to understanding concepts of Jewish leadership. 

For my own Lesson in Leadership, I was supported by David Jacobson, the Associate Director of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. I used my Lesson to speak about the direction of the Cape Town Jewish community and ways in which we can learn from our global partners. My lesson was entitled Think Global: Act Local

I shared my conviction that as a community, we need not reinvent the wheel when we see a potential crisis emerging. Rather, we should look to our Jewish partners around the world to see how we can adapt their models for our local community. The text I chose to support this message was the Mishnah from Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Aseh lecha rav. Knei lecha chaver” – Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend. We need to find commonalities with our connections, local AND global. In this modern age where we can contact anyone almost immediately, it is easy to find teachers to guide us. We should use this to enable our growth as Jewish leaders today and beyond. 

My cohort’s geographic and Jewish denomination makeup was interesting. The United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa were represented, as well as Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Masorti, Progressive and Reform. Together, we were united as Jewish leaders. It was eye-opening for me, as I grew up in an ‘Orthodox’ home (or as Gideon Shimoni would put it, a non-observant Orthodox environment), as do most South Africans today. We don’t have a Conservative or Masorti movement, and although I have participated in Reform services, I haven’t embraced it as my own religious identity. This experience reminded me that we must learn from our Jewish siblings (brothers, sisters, and those who identify as neither) to move forward as a community and grow as interconnected, multicultural global Jewry. 

I appreciated every second spent in Tarrytown and the leadership seminar in general. It was an incredible year of delving into the concepts of leadership, with all its positives and negatives, opportunities and challenges for self-growth. My Jewish identity has been altered by the amazing individuals in my cohort and by the faculty who facilitated this learning process. A special thanks goes to Rabbi Dr Jeni Friedman and David Jacobson, for giving me this opportunity. I can’t express my gratitude enough. 

After much thought and reflection, my greatest takeaway is that the ‘missing middle’ must be appropriately engaged in the functions within the community. We have to allow key stakeholders who are not currently involved in the community to create a think tank and set up a system which could be seen as a disruption within the organised Jewish community, but which will be a positive force for change. We have incredible leaders who may not fit into the mould we see as Jewish Capetonians (or Capetonian Jews) due to their views on Israel, Judaism, or the future of the community in general. However, if their voices are not heard by the formal community structures, we will be all the poorer.

The people who are in leadership positions now need to empower the youth. There must be a real succession plan in order for the community to be in a stable position once their time within it is over. We can’t rely on the same individuals to donate money and lead the community (and these two often go hand-in-hand).  

My dream for the community is that it becomes more democratic. Yes, the community can vote in elections for the Cape Board for its lay leaders. But how many people vote every two years? How are their constituents’ needs and wants accounted for? It is something that needs to be addressed by more people within the Cape Town Jewish community – we can thrive to survive. With many individuals leaving the country due to other existential issues, this could be a way to make people want to stay. 

I say to our leaders within the community — Aseh lecha rav! Find for yourself a teacher — maybe from a different generation and geographic location. Everyone can learn something new and it’s time we gain new knowledge for our existing structures.

• Published in the February 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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