The Myth of Mediocrity: Celebrating Talent in the Jewish Sector

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Adam Simon is the Director of Leadership Initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

This article first appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.

“There is nobody good out there.” “There is nobody to succeed me.”

For years, we have all heard that the “sky is falling” when it comes to Jewish professional talent.

The prevailing mindset seems to be that our sector lacks for any qualified, committed individuals and addressing that challenge will take significant time and effort.

This narrative perpetuates a harmful myth that there is a pervasive dearth of talent in the Jewish community, which is simply not true. I propose that instead of short-changing ourselves by arbitrarily painting the entire Jewish professional force as mediocre, we instead focus on, celebrate and work to attract more of the many stars in our midst.

Take Jordan Fruchtman, the Chief Program Officer for Moishe House. In the last two years alone, Jordan has moved the organization’s headquarters to a new city while retaining almost every employee. He has led the effort to increase staff size by over 50 percent and has helped to increase the number of Moishe Houses from 47 to almost 80 with plans to reach 120, all while building Moishe House Without Walls, a non-house-based engagement model that is spreading throughout the world.

Jordan is one among countless passionate, dedicated and creative leaders currently rising through the Jewish lay and professional ranks. As one proof point from our experience at the Schusterman Family Foundation, we now receive four to five very strong applications for every available spot in one of our leadership programs.

While their style of leadership might not fit the traditional models we have grown to expect, these professionals are eager to lead and to do so in innovative, effective and collaborative ways. Indeed, in ways reflecting strategies that can help both longstanding institutions and emerging initiatives succeed in the 21st century global marketplace.

So what can we do to support the talent we do have? I am the first to advocate for strong investments in training and in pursuing best practices for creating great work cultures. And yet, there is something even more pressing and important we can start doing right now that is free in cost and immediate in effect. In our roles as bosses, board members, hiring managers and colleagues, we can unabashedly tout the promise of these individuals and put to bed any impending forecast of doom.

Celebrating our top talent in this way will yield two important results.

First, as Dan Heath, author of the best-selling novel Switch, explains: by focusing solely on crises or weaknesses in a system, we only manage to perpetuate their negative effect. Instead, to jumpstart immediate and scalable change, we should be turning our attention to the strongest points of a system so that they might be replicated and embraced as the new standard. Yoni Heilman, Executive Director of TAMID, recently wrote about how he has applied Dan Heath’s theory to his own organization and has swapped a crisis mentality for one focused on scaling successes.

Second, great talent begets great talent. Smart, capable individuals have the potential to attract their smart, capable peers. The problem is that they can’t do it in a doom-and-gloom environment. As of now, our tendency to talk about the weak state of Jewish professionals is creating an image that stands not only in contrast to the one frequently found on the ground, but in direct opposition to the one being formed by these young leaders – namely that the Jewish sector can be a place for those at the top of their game.

I admit that I see the clouds too. Evidence suggests our sector will need thousands more talented leaders in the coming years; what training we do offer is often misaligned with the evolving skill set needed to lead; and I often hear skepticism that a talented private sector technology or business professional would ever want to work in the Jewish community. (For more on the challenges and what we can do to address them, check out the Jewish Leadership Pipelines Alliance Report.)

Yet, these realities need only be fleeting so long as we take the opportunity to create an environment that attracts qualified, passionate leaders to for-purpose work. This starts with celebrating and acknowledging the exceptional people we already have. As Gali Cooks, the Executive Director of the Jewish Leadership Pipelines Alliance says, we need to kvell more and kvetch less.

So let’s start now. Over the next several months, in the interest of drawing attention to our bright spots, we will be featuring thought pieces from young Jewish leaders like Jordan currently participating in the Schusterman Fellowship. The Fellowship launched this past spring in order to provide individuals committed to Jewish communal leadership access to a rigorous and customized professional development journey.

Through this series, we hope to share our view of the horizon and offer a glimpse of the kinds of leaders in our midst who are approaching their work with inspiring levels of care, strategy and heart. I have no doubt that their thought-provoking pieces will show that the sun is shining after all.