Core Values for Strong 21st-Century Jewish Leadership

August 26, 2013

There are many different kinds of leaders, different leadership traits, and different processes of leadership. Ultimately, one must be authentic to their values, personality, and social change philosophy. These core principles outlined here helped to motivate me and help me navigate difficult issues where I yearn for better realities.

1. Be willing and able to step up where others will not


“[Hillel] used to say… in a place where there are no people, try to be a person of courage” (Pirke Avot 2:5).

Do not always go after the prestigious and cushy position that already has 20 other candidates. Instead, raise your hand to volunteer and lead for the needs that no one else sees or embraces. To lead, one ideally should exist in 4 cognitive and affective realms (empathy, analysis, vision, and action). One must see the big picture emotionally, intellectually, morally, and strategically. Then one must help others see and feel this reality and gently guide them to become part of the solution.


2. Be willing and able to stand alone but also to build a base


“As long as one is but an ordinary scholar, he has no concern with the congregation and is not punished [for its lapses], but as soon as he is appointed head and dons the cloak [of leadership], he must no longer say, ‘I live for my own benefit, I care not about the congregation,’ but the whole burden of the community is on his shoulders. If he sees a man causing suffering to another, or transgressing, and does not prevent him, then he is held punishable” (Shemot Rabbah 27:9).

Be ready to stand up (even alone) for the needs of the other. Ultimately to succeed though, one generally needs a strong base of committed “followers” who are also prepared to sacrifice to create real change.


3. Be prepared to sacrifice some level of personal comfort for the greater good

“If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land…But if he sits in his home and says to himself, 'What have the affairs of society to do with me?… Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!'—if he does this, he overthrows the world” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2).
Do not walk away from a world that does not seem as if it directly concerns you, or as if it has nothing to offer you. Instead, be the leader who improves and stabilizes that world, so that it can sustain itself and grow into the future.

4. Be confident but have true humility

“Shemiah said: ‘Shun authority.’ Just what does this mean? That a man should not on his own place a crown upon his head. But others may do so” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 11).
Do not be concerned with accolades and recognition for your service, but focus instead on the job itself with the best motivations. Do not hide from praise for your leadership (as holding up the public example can often be necessary and good), but do not seek it, either. 

5. Lead together

“’The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers’ (Deuteronomy 29:9) – Even though I appointed over you heads, elders, and officers, all of you are equal before Me, for the verse concludes, ‘All are the people of Israel’” (Midrash Tanhuma Nitzavim 2).
Be willing to stand up on our own, but you create real change when you inspire others (and even create a movement) who are prepared to rise and lead together. As a leader you are essential for too many reasons to count, but you and we as a community need more collective leadership in order to survive and thrive. Know when to step forward to exercise leadership and when to step back to create room for others.

Jewish leadership in the 21st century requires commitment to a handful of values and Jewish core competencies. There is a lot at stake as we work to improve our communities, support the vulnerable, and create more just societies. We must raise the bar holding ourselves to higher standards in our leadership to ensure we move from good intentions to effective moral consequences. The process of our leadership should unite more than alienate and inspire more than burn out.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the “>Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of “>Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named

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