Wanted: Jewish Leaders for the Digital Age

We've gone from being People of the Book to People of Blogs, Facebook and Twitter. If Jewish leaders don't learn how to engage with this dynamic online world, they risk irrelevance.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
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Esther D. Kustanowitz

“Now remember, behave. You’re representing the Jewish people.”

If you attended Jewish school, summer camps or youth groups, you learned early that it was your responsibility to adhere to a higher level of behavior. You probably learned that Jews were commanded to be “kedoshim” (holy), an “am kohanim” (a nation of priests), and an “or lagoyim” (a light unto the nations). In other words, we were designated as leaders from birth (if not before). But how can we all be Jewish leaders, and how do you lead a nation of leaders?

This has been a challenge for decades, with Jewish American nonprofits creating an “alphabet soup” with their acronyms; with boards and committees forming constantly; with the conflation of the terms “leadership” and “development base.”

If any recent trend has reinforced the “we are all leaders” syndrome, it’s the advent of social media. Social media is an equalizing platform for expression; people become experts or commentators or gurus, and form online congregations that, in many cases, are as powerful as their offline community institutional counterparts.

Emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, the growth of online leadership has produced strong, opinionated personalities of varying ages and perspectives; some have formal leadership training or a rich Jewish educational background, but most of them don’t.

The Jewish people have always been abundantly opinionated, and now we’ve all got megaphones. We have gone from being People of the Book to People of the Blog, then to the People of the Facebook and Twitter, embracing these platforms as a “license to pulpit,” near-rabbinating on things that we’re passionate about, from cause-based promotion to social justice, from online Jewish geography to parenting. It is within this world, a world filled with wide, shifting definitions, compelling personalities, loud conversations and some conversational debris, that today’s Jewish leaders find themselves. And in order to represent the needs of the people, you have to listen to their voices.

Digitaldaya.com, a site whose mission is “helping digital leaders leverage the power of digital platforms to influence and engage the world in the 21st century,” recently released a study indicating that in 2013, near 100 percent of world leaders would have a presence on Twitter. These world leaders (or, most likely, their communications staffs) understand that this is a new age for communicating with constituents, and that “traditional media channels are no longer adequate or in some cases, even effective.”

For one thing, media isn’t top-down anymore. While the world used to be full of consumers, the social web is full of “prosumers,” who produce content as well as consume it. And nothing is more frustrating to a society of prosumers, who feel actively involved in shaping message and distribution for messages they are passionate about, than a leader who isn’t listening.

Today’s best leaders live and interact online, accessing the wisdom and taking the real-time pulse of the crowd; they are visible in important conversations and accessible to constituents, “liking” comments and validating the opinions of others.

It’s all very creation-of-the-world, only everyone is Creator, and everyone is God-as-site-inspector, seeing the work and proclaiming it “good.” A leader who authentically connects with constituents, listens to their concerns, and actively addresses challenges is better equipped to serve both the local and the global Jewish community. A leader who engages continues the conversation, which generates information that can help build, repair or enhance a relationship.

That said, most leaders don’t do this. They don’t think they have the time, or view it as a waste of time. And while some of them are right (I don’t need Barack Obama to be glued to my Twitter feed), those who discount the medium entirely are losing out on a direct line on the thoughts and passions of the people they are representing.

To an extent, this is an issue of scale and the bandwidth that, when it comes to being a leader, is only so wide. So world leaders use social media like celebrities: As a broadcast media channel with minimal talkback or interaction. They are more likely to have “fans” or “followers,” rather than “partners” or “investors.” But Jewish nonprofit leaders are not likely to command Obama’s 24.6 million followers; this smaller audience pool entitles 21st century Jewish leaders to take a more constituent-centered approach. Social media can be their copilot in forming relationships, deepening commitment, creating a multidirectional flow of information, and mobilizing users as partners.

This contemporary community blurs lines between leaders and constituents are, in many cases, blurred in terms of demographics and responsibilities. It’s not a split between old and young; it’s a split between old approaches to leadership and community and more creative and contemporary definitions of what it means to lead.

Think about the typical Jewish organization that, simplified, wants constituents to do three things: Participate in/attend an event, share the organizational message and contribute (time and money). Those were good goals back in the day – participation, or just showing up, was considered success. Sometimes a cover charge would cover the contribution aspect, and while sharing the organizational message was hard to track, if someone gave or attended repeatedly, the assumption was that the message had made an impact.

Today we know that attendance does not equal engagement. Organizational messages get lost in the flash of the capital-E 'Event', but can and should be nurtured and developed online before and after the in-person event. And while some of today’s potential passionate message-bearers may not have the time or spare cash to donate, some may support the organization or cause by using the social web to share a story that resonates.

Social media isn’t a magical incantation that reveals lost tribes looking to re-engage with classical Judaism. It is not itself the story. We need to develop strong stories, and allow social media’s miraculously wide reach to help us share these stories more effectively, to connect with each other and strengthen our engagement, thoughtfully, strategically and authentically.

So how can today’s Jewish leaders make digital media engagement not just a factor and a communications strategy, but a central part of a working ethos for 21st century Jewish life? Learning the tools is an important step: Reading the Facebook newsstream daily, morning coffee-and-Twitter, listening and responding. Even if you start small, taking increasingly more assertive steps into the ocean of social media provides a slow build of knowledge, creates muscle memory for the mechanics of it and prevents information overload.

But those are just the technical steps. Because social media interactions are only as meaningful as the intentions of the people who use them, Jewish leaders, especially, should let our texts and traditions guide them. Love your neighbor as yourself, so don’t post anything that would be embarrassing to yourself or others. Don’t separate yourself from the community; let social media help you connect with more people, and make deeper connections. Find for yourself a teacher, because the world changes rapidly, and we all need to keep learning from someone. When the people come to you with a challenge, be a Moses and take a risk: Farm out the legal system to judges as opposed to trying to enforce the law all by yourself, or change the laws of inheritance to permit daughters to inherit their father’s estate.

And when you’re out there in the vastness of the internet, listen to others - because you can learn from your teachers and colleagues, but from your students most of all.

So go. Lech lecha. Leave your comfort zone and go on this journey of connection. But be careful out there. After all, you are representing the Jewish people.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant who specializes in social media. A consultant to the ROI Community, she recently became a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America. She blogs, tweets, and is working on a book, “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After.”

Credit: Bloomberg