Dr. Michael Zeldin Presents 2016 HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Graduation Address

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dr. Michael Zeldin, Senior National Director of the Schools of Education and Director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education and DeLeT, presented the Graduation Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles Graduation on Monday, May 16, 2016 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Dr. Zeldin was also presented with the Certificate of Recognition.

His address is below.


Leading in Uncertain Times

President Panken, Dean Holo, Rabbi Geller, Esteemed Faculty Colleagues, Beloved Family and Friends, and Dear Graduates and Honorary Degree Recipients:

.זֶה‏ הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְהוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ

This is the kind of day that God has made so we can celebrate.

We are here to celebrate the achievements of the men and women who have earned their degrees in course and to honor those who have earned their tributes through lifetimes of achievement.  What greater gladness could there be than to rejoice in learning, both academic learning and the learning that comes from reflection on experience.

I want to begin by reflecting on two experiences I had as a youth right here at Temple Emanuel.  Rabbi Geller, I am so grateful that you have opened this sacred sanctuary for us today.  I have been here many times over the years, but only once have I spoken from this bima, and that was the day of my Bar Mitzvah in August of 1963.  I vividly remember that Cantor William Sharlin of blessed memory, cantor of Leo Baeck Temple and the HUC faculty, and Rabbi Max Nussbaum of blessed memory, rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, officiated alongside my father, and that the sanctuary was overflowing with joyous congregants.

The second event I remember took place a few months later, on November 22, a Friday night when the sanctuary was again overflowing, this time not with celebrants but with mourners.  That morning, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated and even as a middle school student I was shell-shocked.

Following that long week of mourning, America set out on a new path. The hope of Camelot was shattered, and we entered an era of great uncertainty with a new leader, Lyndon B. Johnson.  As we entered that age of uncertainty, President Johnson’s leadership proved to be effective beyond belief and tragically flawed both at the same time.  The same Johnson who ushered in the War on Poverty and signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the same man who brought us Headstart and Sesame Street also brought us the War in Vietnam and its senseless killing.  As Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz explains, Johnson’s leadership in domestic affairs was characterized by bringing people along so that all Americans could have a stake in solutions to the country’s problems.  In foreign affairs Johnson led by himself, certain of the correctness of his ideas and convinced that he could win the war by his commanding leadership.

In a famous tractate on leadership written a generation later, Margaret Wheatley captured a new perspective that replaced Johnson's flawed view of heroic leadership.  She entitled her piece “Goodbye Command and Control" and argued that leaders who think they can tell people what to do, whether by dint of their personality or the authority of their position, are doomed to fail.

Just as America in the 1960s faced uncertain times, so too do we in the Jewish community in the 21 st century.  I don’t have to recite the statistics for this audience.  We all know that synagogue membership is declining, that legacy organizations are struggling, and that millennials and even gen-Xers are not joining synagogues or other Jewish organizations the way their parents did.  The future of Jewish life will hang in the balance as you, our graduates, leave these hallowed halls and assume positions of leadership in the Jewish community.  I want to suggest today that you be able to face the challenges of leading in uncertain times by adopting 3 mindsets: continuous learning, multidimensional thinking, and managing anxiety.  I want to share with you my perspectives and insights on these 3 mindsets, won through a professional lifetime of studying and practicing leadership and reflecting on what I was learning along the way.

The first mindset for leadership is the mindset of never-ending learning.  Learning to lead is like traveling from east to west, not traveling north to south.  When we head south, we can eventually reach the south pole and have no place further to go.  When we see learning to lead this way we think that someday we will arrive; someday we will know how to lead.  When we see our learning to lead as continuous, akin to traveling east to west, we know there is always more to learn.

When we are at the beginning of the journey, we know that we have much to learn in order to accomplish what we want to achieve.  We want to learn how to do good, but we are also often concerned about needing to look good to others.  This desire to look good can cast a shadow over many things that we do, and we worry that our failure to impress might undermine our leadership and cause others to lose faith in us.  I would suggest that in order to lead in times like these, we must replace the desire to look good at all cost with the desire to learn at all cost.

I learned the power of learning at all cost from my grandfather.  I remember visiting him at his home in New York and noticing that every day he disappeared for about an hour.  It sounds like one of those famous Hasidic stories, but my grandfather though Orthodox was a misnagid, an opponent of Hasidism.  In fact, he was the principal of a modern Talmud Torah and a professional fundraiser for the United Palestine Appeal (when Palestine meant something different from what it means today).  One day, as a young boy, I followed him into his study and found him hunched over a large book with Hebrew letters I could recognize but words I could not understand.  When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that every day he would study a daf yomi, a page of Talmud.  Years later, we got a call from my uncle in New York saying that he had stopped studying his daf yomi.  Not long after, we got another call, this one telling us that he had died.  What I learned from my grandfather then was that to live is to learn and to learn is to live, and today I would also say that to lead is to learn and to learn is to lead.

One way we can learn is by adopting the second mindset for leadership in uncertain times – what I have chosen to call multidimensional thinking.  This mindset calls us to welcome complexity and ambiguity and not be seduced by seemingly simple and straightforward solutions to the complex problems facing the Jewish community.

The Reform Judaism of my youth was inhabited by two opposing camps, each of which had a singular view of how to solve the challenges facing Liberal Judaism.  People either supported social action or were in favor of Jewish education.  The Reform Movement had separate commissions for social action and education, and it was rare for one person to support them both with equal fervor.  At the Jewish summer camp I attended in my teenage years, session themes focused either on social action and what campers felt about the issues of the day, or on education and learning about Judaism and the Jewish experience over time and space.

The dichotomy between these two views came into stark relief at the end of the 1960s when Reform Judaism confronted the question of whether to support the establishment of Reform Jewish day schools.  After a tumultuous debate, the Reform Movement voted against day schools, and the reason cited most often was that day schools were not consistent with Reform Judaism’s commitment to social action and the public school agenda.  Despite the vote against day schools at the end of the Sixties, the decades of the Seventies and Eighties witnessed significant growth of Reform day schools, even without the Movement’s official support, in large part because those who favored more intensive Jewish education were in the ascendancy, but more than that, I believe, the spread Reform day schools demonstrated that an individual, a community, and a congregation didn't have to choose between education and social action; they could support both.  Reform day schools teach their students Hebrew and Judaica every day, and they also involve them in social action, visiting the elderly and feeding the hungry.  Reform congregations that have day schools also have vigorous social action programs and have developed various strategies to support public education. The tent of Reform Judaism is big enough to support BOTH intensive Jewish education AND social action.

This education-social action debate is a modern form of an enduring dilemma faced by the rabbis of old who debated which is greater, midrash or ma'aseh, study or action.  They concluded their discussion by saying that study is greater because it leads to action, but if the end goal is action, doesn't that imply that action is greater?  After all, these very rabbis were the same ones who plotted revolt against the Roman Empire; they were people of action!  In the end, they embraced both midrash and ma'aseh, study and action, as essential to their lives and their futures rather than choosing one over the other.

In the last few years the Jewish community has faced a new dilemma as education has been pitted against another alternative:  engagement.   Throughout the Jewish community both legacy organizations and startups are now focusing on engagement.  Synagogues hire outreach rabbis to hang out at Starbucks to engage with millennials, and Hillel hires engagement fellows to go outside the Hillel building to meet Jewish students wherever they are on campus.  Our Reform Movement launched a Campaign for Youth Engagement, and at the same time it closed its Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning.  Some Reform temples have established Centers for Youth Engagement in place of religious schools and renamed their Jewish educators Directors of Youth Engagement.  Don’t get me wrong:  I believe that engagement in Jewish life is important and that relationships with other Jews are essential but stopping at engagement s so often happens shortchanges the individual and the community, and presents a false dichotomy.  Engagement may get people in the door, but only learning about our rich Jewish heritage can provide a reason for them to stay connected once they are engaged.  Just as a generation ago the Reform Jewish community learned to embrace social action and education, now we need to learn to embrace at least 3 dimensions:  social action, education, and engagement.

Multidimensional thinking of this sort can unleash the creative and innovative leadership that is so necessary in these times of uncertainty.  Futurist Steven Johnson in his groundbreaking book Where Good Ideas Come From explains that innovation is rarely if ever the result of break through moments.  Rather, he says, "the quickest path to innovation lies in making novel connections" between familiar ideas.  By embracing social action and education and engagement we give ourselves the gift of confronting colliding ideas and fanning the sparks of creativity that follow.  Embracing multidimensional thinking can be uncomfortable, but once you start thinking this way you begin to unlock the creative leadership so necessary in uncertain times.

The third and final mindset for leading in uncertain times is our knowing that the primary task of leadership is managing the anxiety that uncertainty breeds.  When people are not sure what tomorrow will be like, they get anxious.  The challenge of leadership is to resist the temptation to share in that anxiety; instead we need to work to reduce it.

Many of us who go into Jewish professional life do so because we love people…and because we want to be loved by them.  The most powerful emotional intelligence we can use to build the relationships we need is empathy.  Through empathy, we connect with others because we feel what they feel, whether at moments of personal joy or at times of loss or frustration.  The master of empathy in the American political arena was Bill Clinton who would connect with people on the campaign trail by telling them, “I feel your pain.”

Yet when those around us are anxious, empathy can be a trap ensnaring us to get involved in the drama instead of remaining apart from it to develop a broader perspective.  Being overly empathic with other people’s anxiety can debilitate us, taking away our capacity to see clearly.  Think of a snow globe; when shaken up by anxiety, the scene becomes murky and unknowable.  Only when anxiety calms down is it possible to see a situation clearly.  The task of leadership is to avoid shaking up the snow globe and instead to calm things down.  That is why leadership can be practiced by anyone throughout an organization.  Anyone who works to bring calm clear-sightedness is exercising leadership.  As Rabbi Edwin Friedman teaches in his masterful work on leadership, A Failure of Nerve , the hardest part of leadership is remaining connected with people while not taking on their anxiety, staying in relationship with people while steering clear of their nervousness.  To do so effectively, it is more important to have compassion than empathy, seeking to understand others' perspectives and fears rather than taking them on as one’s own.  Staying connected and remaining detached at the same time is the both-and approach that is effective in managing the anxiety of those around us.

One of the most powerful tools we can use to manage anxiety and remain in relationship is hope.  We learn from Vaclev Havel, the poet, playwright and president who led the velvet revolution against Communism in Czechosolvakia, that hope comes from within, no matter what the surrounding circumstances are like.  “This type of hope,” Havel tells us, “is related to the very feeling that life has meaning.”  When the Biblical preacher Kohelet set out in search of meaning, he tried pleasure, wine, the love of a partner, and even wisdom.  Yet he concluded that all of these are  הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, vanity of vanities, not the source of meaning.  In the end he figured out that meaning and the hope that comes with it reside in the energy and enthusiasm with which we do our work here on earth:

.כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא יָדְךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּכֹחֲךָ, עֲשֵׂה‏

Whatever you set out to do, do it with all your strength.

Hope also comes from vision.  The prophets of ancient Israel articulated a vision of a time of peace and justice when all peoples will ascend the mountain of God together.  The author of Proverbs (29:18) understood that the people perish without this kind of vision and the hope that comes with it.  To provide hope we need to articulate a compelling vision for Jewish life and a repaired world and to link our synagogues, schools and agencies to that larger vision.

In addition to giving our best efforts and articulating a compelling vision, hope also comes from knowing that no situation is ever hopeless.  Hope has always been at the core of the Jewish people’s view of life.  For 2,000 years our people kept alive the hope of returning to our homeland, and we express our hope today in the anthem of our people, Hatikvah.  We sing

עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ, affirming that our hope will never be lost.  The future may be uncertain, but the present is a time of unprecedented Jewish creativity in every field of human endeavor.  We can build on this foundation of creativity to assure that Jewish life will continue to thrive in the years ahead.

All of us here today, whether we are graduating or receiving an honorary degree, whether we teach at HUC or elsewhere, whether we are a member of the Jewish community or come from a different faith community, can bring leadership to our broken world in these uncertain times by committing ourselves to continuous learning, embracing multidimensional thinking, and providing the clarity and calm that brings unending hope grounded in a creative and compelling vision of a revitalized Jewish people and a repaired world.

Ken y’hi ratzon ur’tzoneinu, may this be God’s will and may we work to make it our will too.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu