Dr. Michael Kay is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 16).  He is the Director of Judaic Studies for the Upper School of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.  He can be reached at makay@post.harvard.edu.

In our circles, we speak often about the notion of “community leadership.”  And while we spend a great deal of time analyzing the ways in which “leadership” has evolved over the past century, we have paid less attention to the ways in which “community” itself has changed.  In her 1998 article “Postmodernism and Community in Schools,” Gail C. Furman described a transition from a “modern” conception of community in America to what she called a “postmodern” one.  Whereas communities had previously been based upon a “strong center of sameness” and aspirations of homogeneity, the new model is centered much more around the “inescapable awareness of others, of multiple cultures, of values and belief systems, and of interdependence with those who are different.”  In the Jewish world, we have seen this shift in the increased prevalence of pluralistic institutions and the enhanced celebration of the diverse ways in which we approach our common heritage. 

In February 2007, interest in history and leadership—and some minor masochistic tendencies—inspired me to take on a new personal project: I would read a full-length biography of each President of the United States, in chronological order.  Thirty months and 19 Presidents later (24 to go and counting—only one bio of Grover Cleveland necessary, thank you very much), it has been fascinating to follow the evolution of both leadership and community in this country during its formative stages.  The conception of community grew—for the most part—progressively wider and more inclusive, and governmental leadership became alternatively more centralized and more diffuse.  While Gail Furman’s community-definition revolution of the 1990s has certainly had a major impact on our society, it was by no means the first such change in our history.

As we contemplate our own leadership in the Jewish community, we should be mindful of the ways in which we must adapt our practice to changing notions of community, as well as the ways in which we can use evolving leadership practices to craft the community as we see fit.  The trend toward less stringent homogeneity within communities has brought with it (and in turn has been influenced by) the expansion of distributed leadership, broader empowerment, greater emphasis on cultural education, and decreased dogmatism.  Moving forward, we should seek to be proactive in anticipating the skills and traits that will be most important as we navigate the challenges of leadership in a Jewish community that is at once—in Furman’s words—both “modern” and “postmodern.”