Aaron Dorfman is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumnus and Vice President for Programs at American Jewish World Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the late 1990s, I was serving as youth director at a synagogue in Northern California. I had worked hard to build up the seriousness of the youth program, including re-instituting having the youth-group president serve on the synagogue’s board, a practice that some adult board members found discomfiting.
In advance of a particularly sensitive board meeting, one of these board members uncovered a technicality that disqualified the youth-group president from being present. He convinced the board chair to “excuse” this young man from the meeting. The chair notified me and asked me to convey his decision to the youth-group president.
I was infuriated by what seemed like a bald-faced disenfranchisement of the youth whose leadership I was trying to nourish; as a young professional myself, I was indignant at the disempowerment the young by the old. I resolved to thwart the plan, which I did through a political maneuver that publicly embarrassed the chair and, I thought, taught him a lesson.
In retrospect, the righteousness of my cause was undermined by the self-righteousness of my conduct. The leadership lessons still resonate: (1) Whenever I feel animated about the rightness of a position, I need to train a highly critical eye on both the feeling and the position—it’s when I feel most certain that I am often the least honest narrator of my own experience. (2) I should strive never to be seduced by the desire to teach someone a lesson, no matter how deserved I think it is. (3) In the vernacular of liberation theology, I should always assume a hermeneutic of generosity: People’s intentions are almost always decent, and finding ways to understand and seek mutual interest almost always pays off.