Alan Solow is Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and JCC Association of North America. He is also a trustee of UJC, a member of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, a member of the Board of Sinai Health Systems and a board member at CLAL. Professionally, he is the Vice Chair of the Restructuring Group at DLA Piper LLP (US), where he resides in the Chicago office. He can be reached at Alan.Solow@dlapiper.com
In August 1999, I headed off to Utah for my first experience with the Wexner Heritage Foundation. Ten years later, I find myself serving as the Chair of both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America. In this week’s parsha, Devarim, Moses recounts many of the events that have occurred during the period of our wandering once we were no longer enslaved. It acts as a reminder to us that it is important to take stock of what has happened in our past, and to make certain that we have absorbed the lessons that will assist us in discharging our responsibilities as we move forward.
Without referring at all to my notes, I can remember very clearly the key points in Rabbi Nathan Laufer’s opening address to our Wexner class. He emphasized the importance of vision as a principal component of leadership, and asked us to be open to the need to promote change within the organizations to which we were committed. He also told us to dream big. He made sure that we understood that being part of the Wexner program created an obligation on our part to think about how we could achieve our potential in the Jewish World. The educational units that followed the next two years gave us the foundation on which to stand as we ventured off to sort out the many opportunities we would each have to serve.
One of the great lessons for me from my Wexner classmates was that pluralism mattered. I was raised in a Reform home, but had belonged to a Conservative congregation. I now worship in a self-described post-denominational shul. I had spent a fair time in Jewish organizational life prior to Wexner, but I knew few members of the more traditional community. I also had limited exposure to those from the AIPAC, New Israel Fund or Day School world. My classmates with those backgrounds made enormous contributions to my thinking, even when, or perhaps especially when, I did not agree with them. The value of learning that there were multiple legitimate and well grounded Jewish perspectives rounded out and sharpened my own philosophies and approaches as a Jewish leader. It made me understand that respecting pluralism did not mean that others had to listen to my viewpoint, but that I also had to account for theirs.
This widening of my vision helped me to turn my focus to JCC Association. JCCs, at their best, are flagrantly pluralistic institutions. They serve the full range of communal participants, from the most connected to the unaffiliated. Strong JCC leadership requires that all of these folks learn to share a facility and a community. Much of my work in the JCC Movement has been about using JCCs as vehicles to assist every Jew in discovering the unique Jewish journey that he/she wishes to pursue in order to make life more meaningful. Wexner taught me that there is no single path to personal growth, and that different elements of our Jewish tradition and learning resonate differently to people precisely because each human is unique.
My work at JCC Association has now taken me to the Chairmanship of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. There, I work every day to try to help our various member organizations, who represent the full range of Jewish interests, listen to and learn from one another in the hopes of strengthening our communal voice. It requires application of so many of the Jewish Leadership lessons I began to learn in the mountains a decade ago. As I have the privilege and responsibility to lead this important organization that depends upon consensus, it remains important to recall the journey that I have travelled to arrive at the place I am today, with full knowledge that much opportunity lays ahead.