Relationship-Based Leadership: The JFNA Approach

Jewish leaders should be able understand the history of the Jewish people and how this history impacts the present and the future.

Jewish institutions throughout North America are appropriately concerned with how to cultivate the next generation of leaders, but this concern should not be confused with panic. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to work with a group of young people who have the skills, abilities and desire to make a difference in the world. The exciting challenge for the organized Jewish community is to effectively fuel the flames of this passionate group of individuals in order to add their voices and their experiences to an ever-changing global Jewish context.

At The Jewish Federations of North America, the National Young Leadership Department has realized that what has gotten us here, through the 20th century, will not necessarily get us through the 21st century. We must create programs, touchpoints and most importantly relationships that will expose these individuals to the Jewish world, Jewish traditions and Jewish values, if we want them to be superb Jewish leaders. And once these relationships are created, we then must build sustained networks where individuals will understand the power that they have by being in relationship with others. Just as they are the center of spokes on one wheel, there are others who have their own outward spokes. And when those wheels turn together, anything is possible. Therefore, our charge as a community is to create a pipeline of leaders, so that at the beginning of the 22nd century, people will not be concerned about the “leadership crisis.”

We take a three-pronged approach to the task. First, we recognize that not everyone is ready to be, or wants to be, a leader in the Jewish community. To that end, JFNA partners with over 50 organizations on an annual gathering, TribeFest (, which provides ample opportunities for young people to understand the landscape of the Jewish community, its institutions, its traditions, and its leadership, and make personal connections, in order to advance on their path once they are back at home. Follow-up programming aims to keep participants engaged afterwards.

The second step is to recognize that there are those who are, and want to be, emerging leaders—people committed to the Jewish world but need further development of skills and knowledge to make an educated difference for their community. JFNA therefore serves as a consulting firm to its local federations, working on a daily basis with local professionals who are providing programming, content and conversations to this next generation of leaders. Additionally, through national conferences such as the Leadership Development Institute, JFNA has created a series of programs that individual agencies might not be able to do on their own. And of course, there is a power in the collective. When Jewish people come together to learn, they create memories and feelings of connectedness.

The third step is working very closely with the committed core. In that vein, JFNA is extremely dedicated to those young leaders who take part in the National Young Leadership Cabinet ( For the past 50 years, this experience has fostered and promoted Jewish leaders by designing a program that advances the qualities, knowledge base, and habits of Jewish leadership.

What are the qualities of an engaged Jewish leader? At JFNA a Jewish leader is one who understands the importance of how Jewish values and learning underscore what we do; one who has a commitment to philanthropy; one who can articulate the mission and needs of the Jewish (local and global) community; and finally, a person who wants to be a participant in and a builder of a network of like-minded yet diverse people. The Cabinet experience begins and ends with relationships. Each local and national professional understands where a leader is coming from, what they are passionate about and how they can act on that passion.

Over the course of several years these leaders are exposed to skills training, the past and current global Jewish context, and the realization that asking for money isn’t something to fear, but to embrace. The joy of philanthropy is crucial when thinking about leadership development. The ability to give a capacity gift needs to be recognized and celebrated; one shouldn’t apologize for asking for money, but rather, see themselves as the conduit through which the Jewish community is sustained and strengthened today and in the future. We offer leadership experiences and platforms each year, including speakers’ training, caucus leading, study missions to understand the needs overseas, and advocacy days in Washington, DC, to provide hands-on training for leading at home. We hope that by the end of their experience on Cabinet, they are positioned to be leaders in their local federations, day schools, Hillels, JCCs, synagogues, and other agencies in the Jewish world.

What is the knowledge base for Jewish leaders? Jewish leaders should be able understand the history of the Jewish people and how this history impacts the present and the future. Jewish leaders should feel comfortable with how the values of Judaism inform the work at hand. Jewish leaders should be proud practitioners of Judaism, in that they proudly display their commitment to a Jewish life that reflects the history, traditions and values in whatever way that finds meaning in their lives. Equally important, they should understand the issues facing the Jewish world today. They should have a sense of the demographics with which they are working, the challenges that they are facing, and the opportunities that lie ahead. While knowledge is power, having these tools and a deep understanding of their origins is essential for the effective Jewish leader.

What are the habits of transformative Jewish leaders? We recognize that not all Jewish leaders look and sound the same, but there are some characteristics that are common to those who are most excellent. Do Jewish leaders need charisma? Do they need to have influence? Of the many habits and attributes of Jewish leaders, I would emphasize the following: the capacity to be self-reflective about their own strengths and weakness and compassionate in their interactions with others; excitement to learn new skills, recognizing that each of us are on a perpetual journey to do better; and finally, placing these skills and ideas into practice in partnership with others. Hillel’s popular teaching from Pirkei Avot nicely sums up these behaviors: “If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?” People who seek leadership only for gratitude and recognition without making a difference in the community in which they are a part would not, in my opinion, have the habits we are trying to cultivate.

The day school world, which is a microcosm of the larger Jewish community, has at its fingertips parents, alumni, supporters, and funders who have the necessary pride and passion to change and advance the mission of a particular school. By recognizing where people are on their own personal trajectory, senior professionals and lay leaders must work with these individuals, ask them about their passions and put them to work. But they must do this by being given the tools to succeed and the freedom to add their voice to the crucial conversations of the day.

I started with the premise that by doing the above we won’t have a leadership crisis in the 22nd century. But the fact is that in 100 years, our context will be different than it is today. Just as today we need to thoughtfully re-evaluate our behavior, a dynamic system and dynamic leaders will always reflect upon themselves. If we create and clear the path now for those on a leadership journey, there will always be people to walk it. ♦

Rabbi Rachel Ain is senior director for the National Young Leadership Department at the Jewish Federations of North America. She can be reached at and followed on twitter @RabbiRachelAin.

Rachel Ain
Attending the Crisis of Leadership
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership