For six decades, baby boomers have reshaped American society, as they entered each new stage of their lives. They’re about to do it again. And the possible effects already have some in the Jewish community talking — and worrying. In the next 10 years it is projected that about 90 percent of the top executives in the Jewish communal world will retire. Which begs the question: Who is going to take over?
This is an issue addressed in detail by Barry Rosenberg — himself a newly retired, longtime federation executive in St. Louis — in a report on Jewish leadership that he prepared for the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank. Rosenberg expresses concern about the Jewish executive “pipeline.” He reports that the vast majority of Jewish organizational CEOs don’t know where their successors will come from.
While some might ascribe that result to poor succession planning, Rosenberg asserts that such planning is difficult because “the Jewish nonprofit environment is widely seen as less than optimal.” And he predicts that fewer young Jews will seek a career in a Jewish organization because of “reduced levels of affiliation and loyalty to traditional institutions, interfaith marriage and growing discomfort with Israeli policies.”
We aren’t so sure about those conclusions. Indeed, the significant expressions of interest from a wide variety of applicants in recently vacated, or soon-to-be-vacated, major Jewish organizational leadership positions appear to indicate that Jewish communal service is viewed more broadly as a viable, meaningful and rewarding profession and not the backwater of Jewish life that some may fear.
According to Rosenberg, the long-term solution to the professional staffing problem will come through a “shared responsibility” for the crisis by “CEOs and governing boards.” But until that shared responsibility is understood and implemented, Rosenberg suggests that organizations seek to delay their CEOs’ retirements, recruit leaders from non-Jewish organizations and “recruit baby boomers seeking an ‘encore career.’”
Here, too, we are not so sure Rosenberg is correct. Rather, there appears to be a rising cadre of young Jewish professionals with a deep commitment to our community and traditions, who are aiming for leadership jobs, and come to the task with a 21st-century edge that will enable them to pick up where their boomer predecessors left off and raise Jewish communal life to even greater heights.
And it appears that we are not alone in our perceptions. Rosenberg’s conclusions have generated a debate in the Jewish world, including in eJewish Philanthropy. Among those challenging Rosenberg’s conclusions are Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Misha Galperin, CEO of international development for the Jewish Agency for Israel. While each raises a different approach, Rosenberg is being challenged from the young and the older, who have confidence that upcoming leadership will be up to the task for Jewish life’s needs in the current period and beyond.
Nonetheless, the debate is an important one, and is a conversation well worth having. It is good that we are talking openly and thoughtfully about how to create the next generation of leaders, and how to cultivate a vibrant Jewish community for them to lead. Our future depends on it.