The Future of Reform Judaism: How Can We Lead in Challenging Times?

This fall, the URJ’s Leadership Institute is offering a series of three sessions about key concepts that we hope will inspire sacred action within congregations. The series began with Allison Fine’s session about “matterness” and values alignment. The second session is hosted by Marty Linsky, who will discuss leading in challenging times at the URJ Biennial 2015. Here, he offers a sneak peek into his session.

by Marty Linsky

The challenges facing Reform Judaism may feel unique, but they reflect larger forces sweeping through society.

In the Jewish world, the Reform Movement faces issues that are all too familiar: the high rate of intermarriage, the pull of other Movements, including Orthodoxy and Chabad; and the disinclination of Jewish millennials, like their non-Jewish peers, to identify with institutions of any kind, particularly the traditional ones that were part of their childhood.

In the broader community, we are in the midst of a period unlike any before in our lifetimes. Change – and rapid change, at that – is a constant, with all the consequences attendant to it. The future is uncertain and unpredictable, and decisions must be made with inadequate information.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely because you care deeply about the future of the Reform Jewish Movement. If you had figured out how to ensure its robust continuation, you’d presumably be doing it already rather than reading this blog post! By virtue of your involvement with the Reform Movement as an institution, you are, in some profound way, searching without a clear path forward.

And yet, ironically, you are among the best and the brightest the Movement has to offer and to rely upon for its survival.

Where does that leave us?

For me, this picture says that the leadership style, content, and perspective that created and nurtured the Reform Movement since its inception will not be the same as what it needs to move it forward in these uncertain times.

As I see it, the two critical elements of leadership for these uncertain times are: (1) the will to adapt to new realities, and (2) the courage to take responsibility for inventing the future.

Adaptation is difficult because it means letting go of practices, ways of being, behaviors, and even beliefs that have previously served you well. Of course, not all of them must be left behind, but choosing which ones to abandon can be agonizing.

Taking responsibility for inventing the future is difficult, too, because it means acknowledging that, with due respect, the people in positions of authority do not have all the answers. They do not know with any certainty what the Promised Land looks like or how to take us there.

For starters, then, do not look to me or any of other so-called scholars or experts or authority figures for the answers.

Begin by looking in the mirror.

Ask yourself two questions: First, what have you done, or not done, that has contributed to the current challenges the Movement faces? I’m sure you have done lots of things that have helped, but we are all co-creators of our current realities. This means that if you are part the current reality of the Movement, then you are doing – or not doing – something that has helped to create the problems the Movement now faces.

Second, what have you been unwilling to do that might have made more progress toward the sustainability of the Movement? What are your constraints, and which of them are you willing to address in order to make more progress?

After identifying and acknowledging your role, next think about what new leadership for the Movement might look like under these conditions of constant change and future uncertainty.

Let me briefly suggest six elements of what new leadership – your new leadership – might look like under these circumstances:

  1. Adapt instead of just executing.
  2. Run experiments instead of just solving problems.
  3. Invent new practices instead of just searching for best practices.
  4. Orchestrate conflict instead of just resolving it.
  5. Practice interdependence instead of just relying on yourself.
  6. Take care of yourself instead of just sacrificing your physical and emotional wellbeing for the cause.

I’m not suggesting you stop doing everything you’ve been doing and start from scratch. Rather, I’m urging you to have the courage and the will to tweak your own leadership practices, your own behaviors – wherever you are operating from, whatever role you play, and whatever your title – to address the current challenges facing the Reform Movement. There is a lot of truth in the cliché, as you’ve heard Jewish musician Dan Nichols sing it, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

The Reform Jewish Movement is full of talent. The issue is not capacity; the issue is courage and will. You can begin today.

To learn more about leading in challenging times, attend Marty Linksy’s Scholar Session at the URJ Biennial 2015, on Thursday, November 5th, 3:45pm, at Grand 8B.

Marty Linsky has been teaching about leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School for more than 30 years. He is the co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and the co-author of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life and Leadership on the Line, among other books.

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