Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Leadership in Changing Times: A New Year’s Resolution

In a polarized world where there is an inclination to choose sides rather than find common ground – has there ever been a more vital time to rededicate ourselves to an organization designed to help bring the Jewish community together to repair the world? Indeed, “the times they are-a-changing,” and some of these changes lead to well-placed worry about our future. How should our Federation respond and provide leadership?

According to leadership guru Warren Bennis, “An exemplary leader motivates people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things.” It is vitally important to stay engaged in public policy debates. At the same time, the essence of our Jewish values is the bringing together of people of good will to move beyond debate and do good work. When we come together to take care of our most vulnerable – when we inspire the next generation to become actively engaged in creating our community of the future – we are accomplishing our work and it has never been more crucial! Our Federation’s tagline, Stronger Together, is reflected in our mission statement:

We bring the Jewish community together to help those in need and to strengthen and preserve the Jewish people at home, in Israel and around the world.

Bennis taught, “There are several things we want from our leaders. First and foremost is competence and results.” We are proud that our mission is truly reflected in our deeds. For example, at a time when important debates are taking place about funding education, our Federation was nominated by a teacher at the Homer Davis Elementary School – a public school where over 90% of the students require food assistance – and was honored to receive the statewide Partners in Education Award. In our decade-long relationship with Homer Davis, we provide food boxes every Friday to children (now up to 80 per week) and their families who otherwise might go hungry on weekends, and healthy snacks to every kindergartener, every day of the year. We have a cadre of Jewish community volunteers who serve the roles of homework helpers, teacher aides, art specialists and school counselors. We fulfill teacher wish lists, buy school spirit shirts for all the students and rally the Jewish community around school supplies and toiletry drives. These results can only happen when we come together.

And while we participate in the discourse as to how we should support Israel and respond to Israeli policies, our Federation puts its efforts into building living bridges between Tucson and Israel – providing a personal, meaningful and interactive experience. Whether it is helping to plan a trip for Tucson’s firefighters to visit their counterparts in Israel for mutual learning, or facilitating an exchange of 12 Israeli and local Tucson educators – we foster real and earnest relationships that can lead to understanding. This year our Weintraub Israel Center coordinated “twinning” projects between 18 Israeli classrooms and 18 classrooms in Tucson’s synagogues and schools. We led Birthright trips for college students and young adults, helped fund our Tucson Hebrew Academy’s eighth-grade trip and planned a Men’s Leadership Mission that included dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. All of these efforts fostered a deeper understanding and helped create real relationships that have changed lives. These results could have only happened by our coming together and responding to changing realities.

Per Bennis, “We also want our leaders to engage others in a shared meaning. A great leader can make people buy into their ideas simply by engaging them.” Toward that end, the Federation works with our 16 key Jewish organizations (synagogues and agencies) to convene a Jewish Community Roundtable that meets quarterly to discuss key issues in Jewish life. Our Roundtable task forces focus on services to those with special needs, services to elders and teens, tackling key issues that can only be effectively addressed when we do it together.

Finally, according to Bennis, “A leader should nurture the culture of growth. This entails providing a sense of hope and belonging.” While we should never understate our challenges, it is vital that we demonstrate our sense of hope and commitment to a bright future while holding fast to our core values.

As we approach the New Year, I often draw inspiration from Rabbi Jennifer Krause, who observed that we would be well served if we would view the Book of Life as “the Book of Yes.” Rabbi Krause explains, “We can stand trembling, waiting for judgment, waiting for the next flood, fire, calamity, disaster, already planning where we’ll hide, and how we’ll circle the wagons. Or, we can imagine who will we become, how will we rise, roll, surprise ourselves with courage, creativity, power and resilience – and we’ll do so by saying, ‘Yes.’ ”

Dr. Warren Bennis’ insights on leadership in changing times confirms the obvious – being a great leader in today’s world is not an easy task. Even in these times, the Federation remains focused on its mission to “motivate people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things.” As we approach the High Holidays and another New Year, I hope that you will continue to empower the visionary, creative and committed lay leaders and professionals who join together to support Federation’s efforts. With your participation, our results will indeed remain focused on the positive, and we will help repair the world, as we have always done. In doing so, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Yes.

Stuart Mellan is the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

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