Herding Goats

With goats, you’re supposed to lead from the back. They don’t like to follow people, and in their own herds, the strongest ones stay near the back to make sure the kids and the infirm don’t get left behind. I think the same is true in our Jewish ecosystem – If we want to actually affect change on the level of a shift in paradigm, we need to lead from the back.

I wrote in my first piece about how much it meant to me to feel like I am a part of something bigger. My message was hopeful – that things are getting better in our Jewish ecosystems, and that good ideas are making their way into the fabric of how we talk about the work that gets done. I genuinely believe that, but today would like to focus on an area where we can improve – by living what we say we our values are.

Earlier this week, my friend, colleague and personal inspiration, Andrew Keene, posted on Facebook about a decision he had made to step down from a leadership position that he held a few years ago. He and several others felt that their voices were not being listened to, and instead felt that their invitation to the organizational leadership, the board, had been for show purposes – that they were being used as props. These folks were talking about one of the most progressive and inclusive international Jewish organizations around. During a subsequent debrief with this same friend, he talked about the importance of learning the value of a diversity of opinion from the private sector and challenged my belief that wanting or believing in change. He is of the opinion that a large scale overhaul of our legacy organizations is critical.

While this specific story didn’t involve folks from the Twin Cities or our local organizations, it did reflect what I’ve heard from countless folks during my time developing the YALA Platform – while representation of younger people is growing on our boards and in leadership positions, in many cases, these folks report being “token” millennials and that their voices are largely ignored.

I will be first to say that I do not believe that this is intentional. I believe that folks don’t realize the prejudices they hold. Just this week I had a chance to speak with my cousin Steve who was down in Florida visiting my parents. He works in the field of inclusion, helping businesses and organizations live the ideals that they say they promote. He and I were chatting about my job hunt down here and before I knew it, he was giving me unsolicited advice. Regardless of the advice, I sat quietly and was respectful (Steve is about 30 years my senior).

As the discussion progressed, we noted how some folks hold prejudices, even if they are not aware of them. I pointed out that just a moment before he had suggested that I take an entry level position just to get my foot in the door – any door. I reminded him that he likely still saw me as a young kid, through his unconscious bias of an older cousin and a member of the baby boomer generation. (During editing, my cousin asked me to point out that there was no malice in his reaction nor from the older members of these boards – they and he just fall victim of a normal bias that we all have.) In truth, I’m an adult with advanced degrees, several years of experience in both the for-profit and NFP sectors, with a track record of success (not to mention having a wonderful partner, a dog, a mortgage, etc.). He looked and me surprised and then thanked me for calling him out. We laughed and acknowledged that his advice came from a good place.

This is the same lesson I implore us to remember as we navigate our Jewish organizations and ecosystem – assuredly as intergenerational a space as can be created (if not dor l’dor, what are we even doing here?!).

Most of our strongest and most vibrant organizations have a rich history, usually going back decades, if not more than a century. Their board members likewise are filled with folks with a long legacy of giving – time, talent, and treasure – to the Twin Cities for decades. Many of these folks have held these same positions for longer than I’ve been alive. Younger folks are invited to join but have reported that when they share their ideas and views, they are largely met with eye rolls and condescending responses stating all the reasons they are bad or won’t work. In other situations, I’ve heard younger folks report that they are just there to rubber stamp, or sit quietly and listen for hours at a time. They are forced to ask themselves, with all of the other things competing for my time, how is this supposed to be a priority?

Let this be an invitation to the folks who have been sitting on boards for a long while to learn from legendary shepherds like David, Moses, and Jacob to lead from behind. This might mean stepping down from your position and mentoring a younger person. This means not expecting four-digit minimum fees to participate (aka “mandatory gift”). This means listening to and learning from younger people (also Jews of color, folks from interfaith coupes and backgrounds, the LGBTQ community, and yes – even people with different views on Israel than you).

There is always a path forward, but that path forward is always the same. It starts with values, then words, which, hopefully, become the deeds we live. Without those deeds – without living our beliefs in practice, we stay at the crossroads.

I think we can move forward.

Charley Smith served the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Jewish Federations developing their platform for reaching young adults and millennials. Today he lives in South Florida with his partner, Shaked, and their dog Gever. Charley continues his work with the Federations today managing Honeymoon Israel, Birthright Israel, and the local cohort of the 248Community Action Network.