Q&A with Rhoda Weisman — Jewish woman on top

Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, which is designed to engender and support a new generation of leaders in the Jewish community, talks about why the Jewish establishment needs to change, why young leaders are just as crucial as big donors and what it’s like to be a woman at the top.

Jewish Journal: Working in a Jewish organization doesn’t sound like a sexy job. Why should people want to go into Jewish communal work?

Rhoda Weisman: I think I have the sexiest job. Because sexy jobs are jobs that provide you with a lot of room to be creative moving toward a real sense of purpose and meaning.

JJ: Jewish institutions seem to be inordinately focused on engaging young people. Why is it important to cultivate young Jewish leaders?

RW: I don’t think that we as a larger community have been successful in creating a very strong pipeline connecting the baby boomers to Gen X and Gen Y. There’s never been a time when leaders in their 20s and 30s have been as equipped for leadership as now: Many of them have come from homes of privilege where they’ve been able to advance themselves in a whole number of areas. So, you have people in their 20s that have the same skills and talents etc., as people my age and in their 40s.

JJ: What do Jewish organizations need to do to entice young people?

RW: The power structure has to be changed. The old model is autocratic, and the new model has to become decentralized and democratic so that the next gen that comes in will have the same say as people who have been there for a while.

JJ: But it seems that the Jewish establishment is resistant to allowing young leaders the same kind of power that big donors have.

RW: They need to learn from the boomer generation of parenting — to look at younger talent as partners and provide them power to make decisions.

JJ: Being of the baby boomer generation yourself, do you ever feel inadequate compared to young ‘talent’?

RW: Not only do I never feel that way — there’s not a day that I’m not excited about growing people’s potential. The future of American Jewish life depends on being able to grow this potential that can carry on the 3,000-year-old Jewish story in new ways.

JJ: What’s the biggest problem facing the Jewish communal world?

RW: A lack of courage and a lack of leadership. But also, the inability to look at oneself and be self-reflective. When an organization is not effective, either change it or let it go out of business. We are at a very crucial point in which the next 20 or 30 years will determine the quality of Jewish life in America over the next century. And the biggest problem is a fear of busting out of the old model.

JJ: You seem to be an unconventional thinker. What does it take to think outside the box?

RW: I never think that something’s not possible. Anything can be moved; anything can be changed. But if something really doesn’t work, than I stop, put it to bed, and move on. I believe in excellence, and there’s no excuse for anything less — Jews in America are used to that.

JJ: Why does philanthropist Michael Steinhardt trust you with his money?

RW: He trusts me because I deeply care about him; he’s not a conduit for his money, he’s a partner. We’re true partners. And, because I have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, in a world where oftentimes women don’t and men do.

JJ: You have a reputation for being intimidating and intense. Why do you think people describe you this way?

RW: To create organizations that are successful, it takes time, a commitment to excellence, motivating individuals, hard work and tenacity. When these traits are attributed to men, they are called driven, visionary, a real leader. When these traits are attributed to women, they are often referred to as intimidating, aggressive, intense, tough.

I’m intimidating because I’ll press for people doing their very best, even when it’s not comfortable. And I’ll live with the fact that people don’t like me sometimes.

JJ: What is it like to be a woman at the top?

RW: It’s a lot of fun! One of the reasons that I’m at this place is that I don’t think about it that much. It’s not been a burning issue for me. It didn’t even occur to me that I didn’t have a place at the table. I felt that I had a responsibility to add to the conversation.

JJ: Is there still a glass ceiling?

RW: Yes. I don’t believe one sex or another should be dominant. Gender balance in positions of power is what creates a healthy community. But there’s a dark side — I don’t know how to say that my back is black and blue from the women that I thought were going to help me. People take out their jealousies on you.

JJ: How would you describe your leadership style?

RW: Leading younger Jews is a tremendous responsibility, and I think what we do is very holy work. I believe that I have someone that I’m constantly reporting to. I’m a deeply God-driven person.

For me the most exciting part about anything I’ve done in all of my work is opening doors and getting as many people into these conversations impacted, inspired, longing to lead, wanting to make the Jewish community a thousand times better than it is.

Engaging young philanthropists — our approach

I have been asked to reflect on the challenge of engaging younger Jewish philanthropists in communal life. As a member of the next generation, I have
wrestled with this question for more than a decade.

Approximately five years ago, at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, we created a division called 21/64 to focus on this very challenge.

“Engaging the next generation” used to signify the transference of leadership, like passing a baton from one generation to the next. Today, with the average life span increasing from 47 years old in 1900 to 78 years old in 2000, there are now four generations above the age of 21 in American society and four generations of adults who want to be engaged in Jewish life. Therefore, “engaging the next generation” actually means engaging multiple generations at once.

In the Jewish community, our institutions are often led by traditionalists — those born between 1925 and 1945 — whose worldviews were imprinted with World War II, the Depression and the Holocaust. In giving back, they have built many of the institutions that are pillars of our communities.

Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, outnumber traditionalists and now represent the majority of our communal leadership. Their generational personalities were formed by the founding of the State of Israel; television brought the secular world into their Jewish homes.

Post-World War II economic opportunities led some to the suburbs, where they built synagogues and JCCs, while others contributed to the social movements of the ’60s. With these distinct experiences come divergent lenses into Jewish life.

Add to that picture the different life experiences and styles of philanthropy of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1999. No wonder we are struggling to understand and accommodate additional generations, making our communications and planning even more complex.

Through 21/64, I travel to different communities in North America consulting with families, foundations and federations about multigenerational philanthropy. My experiences across the United States and Canada — and affirmed by research — tell me my peers are self-confident about their Jewish identity, yet remain hungry for ways to connect.

I have started to comprehend that the question isn’t whether the next generation is prepared for its communal responsibilities. The question is whether the community is prepared for the next generation.

Some communities are just now realizing it is time to add more seats to their boards and allocation tables for members of Generation X. Those more forward-thinking communities that already have begun to engage the next generation are realizing that the very act of engagement actually changes the shape of those tables.

The post-baby boomer generations in America have grown up with access to opportunities across race, religion, class, sexual orientation and even global boundaries that previous generations did not have. Technology has become more than TV in the living room — it’s a way in which community is formed, connections made and communications conveyed.

The experiences these 20- and 30-somethings bring, the vocabulary and skills they draw on, the diverse social circles they move in, the questions they pose, all require a shift in the way our federations operate. Are we willing to adapt how we operate for the sake of who we want to engage?

If we endeavor to engage them on their terms and not just change the window dressing on what already exists, we will be planting the seeds of long-term relationships and our own Jewish future.

For example, this year I worked with a community that has made the engagement of 20- and 30-somethings a priority. However, when I asked what “engagement” meant to members of the community, I heard four different answers.

To a traditionalist, engagement meant creating an agency for young adults. To a baby boomer, engagement meant creating outreach activities for 20-somethings.

When I asked the Gen-Xers what they hoped engagement meant, they envisioned seats at an allocations table. For a Gen-Yer, engagement signified a meaningful experience of Jewish life having nothing to do with allocating dollars or attending social events.

Eventually this community committed to involving Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers in structuring allocation decisions that affected themselves and their peers. But more important, I would ask us all to consider how members of Gen X and Gen Y can help the whole federation system. In the 21st century, wouldn’t we want experts in 21st century management, technology and communications — those who grew up with it — to help lead?

This idea was reinforced for me recently at the Family Firm Institute annual conference, where I heard a lecture on adaptability in family firms. The session description read “long-term survival and success and continuity is fundamental to their purpose.” I couldn’t help but compare this take on multigenerational family businesses to Judaism and the Jewish people’s attempt at long-term survival.

John Ward, co-director of the Center for Family Enterprise at Northwestern University, found that those family firms that could balance the family’s traditional business with the innovative ideas of the next generation were the most adaptable and therefore the most likely to continue down the generations.

Ward emphasized that those families who seek their adult children’s understanding of today’s markets have a better chance at long-term survival than those who continue to do just what they have been doing. In fact, it is their ability to adapt, to hold the paradox between traditional practice and innovation, where the real creativity takes place and continuity is achieved.

Continuity is not merely repeating what we have been doing with traditionalists and baby boomers because that is who is leading now. If we can take the long view, reflect on our centuries of Jewish life, and from there hold the paradox between Jewish tradition and next generation innovation, we will be focusing on the right goal. If we can “go to the balcony,” as author William Ury offers, and see from our historical perspective that we are talking about the continuity of a people and not of an organizational model, we will be better prepared for our community’s long-term survival.

In the Jewish world, I have witnessed this approach among a group of 20- and 30-somethings who envisioned Slingshot and The Slingshot Fund. The founders, committed to Jewish tradition and their family legacies of philanthropy, seek to highlight and support ways in which the tradition is resonating with the next generation.