I am writing this article from Fort Lauderdale, in the midst of the Wexner Alumni Institute. It is certainly a gift to be out of Toronto’s record freezing temperatures, but I am receiving a gift exponentially more valuable than a few days in the sun (though I am certainly not complaining), a gift that I will be bringing back to Toronto and to the DJC with me.
When I was applying to rabbinical school fourteen years ago, I also applied to, and was chosen to be part of, the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. Each year, twenty future rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, academics in Jewish studies, and Jewish communal professionals are chosen to not only have our education paid for, but to be part of a community of inspiring, reflective, innovative, and courageous Jewish leaders. It is a group of colleagues and friends I am deeply honoured (and deeply humbled) to learn with and from, including leaders in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox movements, as well as secular and interdenominational expressions of Jewish life. I always leave these institutes feeling supported and nourished, challenged in the best ways possible, and with bolder, richer questions than I came with.
The annual Alumni Institutes are an opportunity to explore the most challenging questions facing the Jewish world and the wider world we live in – to brainstorm, share best practices and leadership lessons, collaborate, and cultivate robust visions for Jewish and contemporary life, as well as the paradigms for bringing those visions into concrete reality. Right at the centre of our conversations are questions about the qualities and practices of leadership. Even though this is a group of influential and knowledgeable leaders of organizations and institutions, one thing these conversations consistently emphasize is that it is not only those in the designated role of “leader” who are capable and needed to embody leadership. In fact, embodying insightful leadership is not the same as being a leader. While there may be only a handful of “leader” roles in any given community or organization, the more members who are reflective and inspired to take on leadership, the more vibrant a community will be. And that includes you!
Some leaders may have inherent charisma or other innate qualities that give them a leadership leg up, but much of what characterizes successful and strong leadership involves learned skills and commitments. The President of the Wexner Foundation, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, spoke in the opening address of the Institute about grit as a key to leadership. True grit makes me think more of John Wayne than Jewish professionals, so I am excited by the fresh image. Drawing from the work of Angela Lee Duckworth, Rabbi Abrahamson pointed to these key qualities: being unafraid to try things and fail; living with personal integrity; courage as a character muscle that needs to be used regularly; resilience (including, among other things, the optimism that it will end well, and the elasticity that if it isn’t ending well, it’s clearly not the end); reaching for excellence over perfection; and holding a passionate and clear vision that is paired with long-term goals and following through. All these qualities taken together characterize the grit of powerful, impactful leadership.
As we approach Purim, I am seeing Queen Esther trading her crown for a grit-worthy leather hat with the brim pulled down just so. Esther never saw herself as a leader. The role of queen in the Megillah was hardly seen as one of authority or influence. And yet, when she made the decision to risk her life on behalf of the Jewish people, going in to see Achashverosh when she wasn’t invited, when she called upon the entire community to fast and pray on her behalf, when she developed a plan to disarm Haman and turn Achashverosh’s sympathies away from Haman and in favour of the Jewish people, she stepped into leadership with true grit.
I am leaving the Institute nourished personally and professionally. I am leaving the Institute curious to explore how you might see yourself taking on leadership in Jewish life and in the DJC community in new ways. I am excited to put our minds toward thinking of the experiments we want to try, the courage we want to muster, the excellence we want to strive for and the vision we want to work toward together, building our community and a responsive, robust Judaism. May this Purim offer us inspiration to be able to increasingly see where and when we can each step into grit-infused leadership.
Please join us at our community-wide wacky, vampy Purim celebration on Thursday March 5th!