By Dr. Bill Robinson and Mark S. Young

[This is the first in a weekly series “When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?

This question is, or should be, a driving force behind what we all strive to do in Jewish education and Jewish life. We are constantly encountering challenges in our field that require effective, distributive, and transformative leadership. We need talented, well-trained, and inspired educators dedicated to the cause of Jewish education in order to navigate these challenges with the creativity, collaboration, and wisdom required to achieve our common vision: a flourishing Jewish life across the center of the Jewish People in North America.

This is an imperative that William Davidson, z”l, knew when he exercised the Leadership Difference two decades ago, with his vision and generosity to found a pluralistic graduate school of Jewish education in his name at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Now, 20 years later, we take pride and honor in the nearly 1,000 alumni who have emerged from our graduate and immersive, long-term, professional-development programs. Through our alumni, William Davidson’s vision is realized, as we have flooded the field with trained talent who are exercising their own leadership difference each day as heads or senior educators in day schools, camps, Hillel, youth groups, congregations, federations, and a myriad of other Jewish educational settings, as well as innovating new institutions including Lab/Shul, Matan, Outdoor Jewish Adventures, and Eden Village Camp.

So, we are asking our alumni to share with you their experiences and ideas about what constitutes leadership that makes a difference. In the release of our first three Leadership Difference videos, you can hear Nancy Parkes (director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center), Yoni Stadlin (founding director of Eden Village Camp), and Alisa Rubin Kurshan (former executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York) share their wisdom on leadership. In the coming weeks, on eJewish Philanthropy and Jeducation World, additional alumni will be posting their thoughts on this critical issue to our field.

And, this coming May 17 and 18, we will celebrate all of our alumni with two days of fun and learning from one another, along with our faculty and stellar guests Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, and Ruth Messinger of AJWS.

Why? Simply, our alumni success is our success, and we are committed to continuing to support them: with a new postgraduate mentoring program, professional development, networking, and gatherings. Directly put, our alumni inspire us daily with the difference they make through their leadership. To provide them with renewed inspiration and opportunities for them to inspire each other is our way of exercising the Leadership Difference throughout the entire field of Jewish education.

It was perhaps fitting and fortunate for us that as we entered this 20th year of The Davidson School and launching new efforts to support our alumni, that the Schusterman Foundation released their alumni playbook. Interestingly, none of the case studies profile alumni engagement in the sector of higher education, so it has been a fun, unique challenge to adapt their prescriptions to our arena.

The playbook makes it clear to “set a vision, get to your alumni, and build strategic programming,” allowing your alumni to quickly seize leadership roles in every part of the activity process, from planning to mentorship. This creates a vital forum for ongoing learning and professional growth. It also prescribes within these steps to clean up one’s alumni database, get a baseline for where alumni are at, and launch an engagement program with, if you can, a huge launch event. As we are adapting this playbook, it has proven very useful.

Of course, our celebration and engagement efforts are not only to honor the past and celebrate the present. We are also planning for our future. Our alumni have an essential role to play in securing at least another 20 years of preparing innovative leadership grounded in scholarship at The Davidson School. As such, the goal to truly realize William Davidson’s vision is far from complete and really will never be. In the spirit of Lo Alecha, “we are not required to complete the task nor are we free to desist from it.”

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Mark S. Young is the director of Alumni Engagement for The Davidson School.

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