There Are No Great Jewish Leaders: Now What?

You’re angry.

You’re cynical.

Frustrated, at the very least.

We look around, we wonder, where are the leaders?

The real leaders.  The ones who aren’t afraid of change, pushing a calcified agenda.  The ones who empower the ones around them.  The ones who aren’t motivated by desire for personal attention, power, ego.

The fact is that this is the challenge of the generation before us, and one that is now starting to infect the millennial generation: the lack of true leaders.

The generation before us had some big dudes, some people they could look up to.  They had the Rebbe, they had Rav Moshe Feinstein, they had Rav Soloveitchik.

Every day that someone writes on this or any other blog, complaining about what is missing, what we need more of, there is a common refrain: “We don’t have the leaders we used to.”

And it’s true.  They’re right.

There are some true leaders, the ones who have been sent by the Rebbe, but who have a very localized arena of leadership.  There are some large, powerful voices, thank God, like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  There are leaders empowering others in unheard of ways, like Lynn Schusterman.  There are, of course, a large number of wonderful leaders quietly doing their part for the Jewish people.

But for the most part, these are rare, these are the exceptions.

Instead we hear about a principal of an orthodox school protecting child molesters.  We hear about a Reform rabbi using his position of power to prey on young women, and the leadership that attempted to hide what happened.  We hear about a conservative movement that’s declining largely because of a frayed leadership and loss of direction.

Then there are the “leaders” who would be better described as pundits.  The men and women who think their job is to make noise.  They come from a generation of television, where there were fifty channels, and so they have been trained to think that noise = leadership and vision.  That followers = validation of a mission.

And this is all just the tip of the iceberg, “small” examples among a sea of them.  Ones we hear or read about on an almost daily basis.

And so you’re angry.  You’re cynical.  You’re frustrated.

But that’s dangerous.

Because now you’re starting to give up.

Even if you’re not commenting that we don’t have the leaders we used to, you’re thinking it.

And this is a sickness that has been infecting us, this new generation in ways that may be hard for us to grasp right now because we have still not taken on the mantel of true leadership.  It’s slowly becoming our turn, but not yet, and so we don’t understand what this infection is doing to us.

The biggest problem is that this “anymore” philosophy implies something very scary: that there will never be great leaders again (as some like to say in a way they think is inspiring, but which is, in fact, disempowering, “…until Moshiach comes.”)

The implication of that implication is that, then, we should not try to be that kind of leader.

In fact, one of the things that drives many of us nuts about the past generation is their constant refrain, “Listen, listen, listen, to the leaders before you.  Stop thinking you know everything.  Stop listening to yourself.”

Some of us hate it when they say it, some of us quietly accept it.  Either way, the infection seeps into us.  The infection that we can’t be leaders.  We can’t be great leaders, at least.  We must aim small, and we must keep our leadership within the confines of what has already been created.

The quiet acceptors are easy to understand: they’re listening to a lie perpetuated by people who have castrated their own leadership and are trying to pass it on to their “disciples”.

The angry ones are harder to understand: you’d think they would rebel against this idea, and would do everything they can to become great leaders.

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The reason is that you are much more moved by example than you are by words.  And so, you hear this person say something so ridiculous, and while you hate the words you also see a castrated leader.  And you think: “I hate what he’s saying, but the reality is that here, in front of me, is an example of one of many leaders who is not acting like a great leader.  Not even like a leader.  He/she is in a position of leadership, but he/she is not a leader.”

And so you’re infected, because you don’t see the great leaders around you.  There is no proof to you that it’s possible, no tangible, livable evidence.

This is one of the common laments of the young and/or baal teshuva Chabadniks who live in my community yell: “How can I be a true chassid [and in the case of a Chabadnik, being a chassid is inherently tied to being a leader] without the Rebbe around?”

They’re lucky, in a sense, because they have a semi-tangible reality by which they can voice this refrain.

You may not have even that.  You may not even realize that you’re infected.

So let’s make the diagnosis clear: if you don’t think you can be a great leader, you’re sick.  You’ve been infected by the disease of disempowerment.

One of the worst results of this is that if you feel disempowered, your anger and cynicism eat you up.

Because your anger is righteous.

Your cynicism, justified.

But they result in one of two options:

1. They either eat up your motivation for change by making you so disillusioned that you can’t imagine how even you could make a difference or…

2. They can be your fuel.

What do I mean by fuel? I mean that that anger and cynicism are powerful, incredibly powerful, motivators.  That doesn’t mean we should rely on them, or we should live off them.  But just like any fuel, if they sit in the tank, they do nothing except slowly rot it away.  But if they’re used, they can help you rocket into a place beyond them, rocket into a place of empowerment, strength, and vision.

This is the crucial juncture we are living as millennial Jews.  We have been handed a generation of largely empty, squalid leadership.  We are now cynical and angry.

Which option will we choose as a generation?

In my opinion, so far we’ve stuck to number 1.  We’ve allowed ourselves to let our fuel sit inside our bodies.  Every now and then we let it out with a quick, pathetical whimper of anger online (although we like to pretend it’s a yell).  Social media has become the self-medicating drug by which we’ve allowed ourselves to use in order to dull the pain of our world’s lack of leadership.

It’s time to stop taking drugs, to stop letting the fuel sit, overflowing in our vessel as we slowly lose more and more faith in the world around us.

It’s time we realize: now is our time.  Many of us are spouses now.  We have children.  We are quickly becoming the caretakers of the generation after us whether we realize it or not.

Complaining and self-medicating is a fine way to ignore your own responsibility to yourself and others when you’re younger.  But as you get older, the weight on your shoulders, the one that’s always been there, will become more and more apparent, and more and more heavy.

For so many reasons, we’ve forgotten this, or we haven’t even become aware of the fact that we’re old enough now that we need to start taking over, start turning our anger into action.

But now you know: if you’re angry, you’re right to be angry.

But your anger isn’t enough.  It’s a signpost for the area in which you need to start taking the responsibility of leadership.  It’s also the fuel by which you’ll arrive there.

So burn, baby, burn.  But don’t stay still.

It’s time to step on the gas.