The following is excerpted from the keynote speech delivered to more than 70 new educational directors from across movements at the New Directors Institute, sponsored by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in partnership with cross-movement organizations. The conference took place virtually in July 2022. Cyd Weissman, Vice President of Engagement and Innovation at Reconstructing Judaism and a seasoned Jewish educator, geared her keynote to Jewish leaders beginning new jobs, yet the message has wide applications.
Collectively, the designers of this conference have more than 100 years of leadership experience. We’ve chosen one phrase, above all others, to offer as advice for each of you beginning a new job as a Jewish professional leader. Please put this big idea in your pocket: Learning to Lead Together.
So why is this idea the key idea we hope you carry with you?
Firstly, the word Learning.
Being a leader requires ongoing learning. You can’t learn to lead by attending a week-long conference or by doing it for a year or two. Rather, we want to impress the idea that learning to be a leader is a lifetime of study and practice.
That is good for you to know so that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. And it is good for lay leaders, parents and professionals in your community to know. They can be confident that they have hired the right person for the job by hiring you, and you need to set the expectation that you will be learning the role over time.
Each school has a unique culture — a unique way of getting things done — and you will be learning how best to lead in this new environment. When something new comes up, you do get to say “That’s helpful, I’m learning.” You want to establish that this community is/will be a safe place to say, “I’m learning.”
You’ll want to set the expectation that adults, not just children, are learning and are striving.
A learning culture signals we all can miss the mark — this is what it means to be human — this is a place where we make the opportunity to reflect and try again. Truly, this is what learning means for children and adults — to test, to try, to reflect and then grow — never ever to be perfect. We are all learning
The second word in our big idea Learning to Lead Together is lead.
You are the leader. And in that role, you’ll make hundreds of decisions small and large that will require you to speak up and say what is needed. Think of your leadership voice as your values in action. Be clear about what is most important to you, and what you prioritize, so that your values are the unlimited resource fueling the voice that others will be inspired to follow.
Each of you has a different answer to what you value most. So, I urge you, to take a walk and listen to your own voice, then say it out loud. “This is what is most important to me.”
A learning culture signals we all can miss the mark — this is what it means to be human — this is a place where we make the opportunity to reflect and try again.
There isn’t one way to lead. Find your way and with that clarity, you will direct your community to a vision of worthy Jewish learning.
Have the confidence to do so, born from your experience and knowledge, and make sure that your voice is equally tempered with humility. No one, no matter how experienced, can always know which way to go. So, a leader must humbly be ready to ask questions. I love the quote said about Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, “We don’t outright invent history, but it is often made by the questions we ask.”
So ask. And listen with humility and genuine curiosity. Good leaders are discerners, filtering many voices in order to set direction and priorities. To lead means to speak with confidence and equally to listen with humility.
The last critical word in our big idea Learning to Lead Together is together.
Together. Don’t try this alone, even if your organization wants you to. You have been hired because of your talents, and people believe in you. You must manage expectations, saying outright that a school only reaches its potential when we work together.
You are not the messiah that will or can do it all. It may be tempting for you or for leadership to believe the myth of the solitary leader who will fix it all. Don’t give in to that temptation.
Together is about lay leaders and professional staff. Together is about clergy and teachers. Together is with parents and students. Together includes the colleagues you will gain from this conference. The people who you’ll call and say, “What the … is going on … what would you do?”
To lead together, you have to be clear about your own strengths. I am good at … and be as clear about the gifts you need from others. You may need technical skills from the accountant or tech whiz. Or you may need the creative skills from the musician or artist. Or even the educational wisdom of others. Your work includes uncovering the talents and passions of people around you and inviting them to work with you to create worthy Jewish learning experiences.
Nobody has time to volunteer. That is truer today than it has ever been true. But when invited, when inspired, and when people feel seen and heard, they actually do make the time and bring forward their gifts.
Of course, there are many times when you will decide things alone. You do get to say, “I’m making an executive decision.” And put on your “To Do” list learning and inviting the gifts of the people around you. This way, everyone knows that nurturing our children and families’ Jewish journeys require us to imagine and create together.
To lead together, you have to be clear about your own strengths. I am good at … and be as clear about the gifts you need from others.
Three little words, when put together, make a steady and powerful compass to guide you in the months and even years ahead.
Please put this big idea in your pocket, think about it when things are challenging or uncertain, or even joyful — when you are looking for a way to go and what to do — remember the answer lies in Learning to Lead Together.
The New Directors Institute was organized by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in partnership with Jewish Educators Assembly, Cantors Assembly of America, Rabbinical Assembly of America, Hebrew Union College, Association of Reform Jewish Educators, Reconstructing Judaism, Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Educators of North America.