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Diving into Leadership and Jewish Peoplehood in Boston

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The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation partnered with Israeli organization, MAOZ, to provide seven Schusterman network members with a two-week leadership development experience in Boston from October 22 - November 4, 2014. The program included a week-long management training at Harvard Business School complimented by several days focused on building networks in the American Jewish community alongside rising stars from the Israeli social sector.  

Jennifer Zwilling is the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Hillel International.

Last fall, I was honored to be one of seven Americans selected to join 32 Israeli leaders from the MAOZ Fellowship, a program designed to invest in top emerging leaders in Israeli society. The two week program included a week at Harvard Business School and a week exploring questions of Jewish peoplehood. 

Throughout the two weeks, the Israeli and American participants supported each other to broach new, uncharted territory: learning in English, accounting and finance tutorials, public speaking and unfamiliar expressions of Jewish life. We shared our stories, our rituals and our life experiences. During this encounter, we not only gained valuable new leadership toolsets but also challenged one another to consider new ideas about diversity, pluralism, intermarriage work-family life and much more.

While I consumed a tremendous amount of new content, my most powerful insights came from personal encounters. The moments of learning were subtle, and at other times, intense and even painful.

On the very first day, I arrived in Boston excited for the experience and a bit nervous about having left my family for two full weeks. At the opening circle we introduced ourselves to one another. The first Israeli began, “I’m Sigal, I’m married to David and we have three kids…” As I looked around the circle for David, thinking he must also be in the group, the next introduction began in the same way. I was struck that the Israelis introduced themselves not by their positions and organizations, but by their families first. Even in this intense professional learning environment, my Israeli colleagues made clear by their introductions that family was a key part of their identity. How refreshing it would be if Americans did the same in our workplaces!

At a seminar at Harvard on “Leadership Presence” we coached one another through an assignment to use a personal story to connect with and motivate others. During the workshop I developed and shared a story that, to my great surprise, moved both me and my audience to tears. In sharing a personal story in this way, I was able to recognize my ability to be emotional, yet fully in command of my message and audience.   

The lessons from the Harvard classroom continue to reverberate several months later and I speak regularly with several of the participants as we use one another as hevruta to discuss lessons from the Harvard Executive Leadership Seminar and apply them to key decisions we are making in our own work contexts. 

While one might expect the rigor of Harvard Business School to have been the hardest part of the experience, in truth, I found our exploration of Jewish peoplehood the most challenging. We grappled intensely with issues of pluralism and the tensions between secular and religious identities. Many of the Israelis were concerned for the future of American Jewry and by the high rate of intermarriage in the U.S. 

One evening after a day of site visits to Boston-area Jewish organizations, the group reconvened to debrief the day. My new Israeli colleagues expressed two seemingly contradictory sentiments: Wow, there is so much creativity to Jewish life in the U.S.! and Allowing for such diversity could destroy Judaism. 

I was struck that even many of the secular Israelis had this concern. The group struggled with this tension throughout our exploration of Jewish peoplehood; many of the Israelis were struck by the uniquely American innovations in Jewish life and even saw the potential of what these myriad expressions of Jewish life might offer Israeli society. And, at the same time, many wondered what might be risked by broadening our notions of “Jewishness” and who is a Jew. There were several moments of conflict and emotion in these conversations. We struggled mightily with how to create a notion of peoplehood that could both preserve the essence of Judaism and yet be inclusive to its vast plurality.   

Moments of Jewish ritual brought our diverse group together, and offered a glimpse into the possibilities of what broader conceptions of Jewish life might offer. One Saturday night, the American participants led a simple Debbie Friedman-style havdalah service which all the Israelis, even the most religious, attended. Both the most secular and stridently religious told me how moving the experience was. At our final Shabbat, a diverse group of participants led Kabbalat Shabbat, bringing Shabbat reflections, stories, songs and rituals from their family, army, synagogue and pop culture contexts to share as one community.

Despite the challenges of our peoplehood conversations, and the divides we were unable to bridge in those two weeks, I am hopeful that the provocative conversations coupled with the genuine friendships and respect among the diverse members of the MAOZ cohort may one day blossom into a better future for Israel and the Jewish people.

I returned home with wonderful new colleagues, more confidence in my voice as a leader, new language and frameworks to apply to my work at Hillel and a renewed sense of hope for the future of Israel, manifest in the cohort of Israelis poised to assume significant leadership roles in the years ahead.

I feel blessed to have been part of this experience, to benefit from the gift of two weeks away from the day to day demands of work and family to immerse myself in learning, reflection and the community of MAOZnikim. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.