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Q & A with… Dr. Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown

SPRINGFIELD – More than 60 members of the Springfield Jewish community have completed the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School and will celebrate a successful year of Jewish learning at a graduation ceremony on Wednesday, June 1 at 7:30 at the Jewish Community Center. Dr. Erica Brown will be the guest speaker.
Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits.  Dr. Brown is the author of the books “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and “Spiritual Boredom.”  She also co-authored “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood” (all through Jewish Lights).  Her newest book is “Confronting Scandal.”
Previously a Jerusalem Fellow, Dr. Brown is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow, winner of the Ted Farber Professional Excellence Award, and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. Dr. Brown has degrees from Yeshiva University, University of London, Harvard University, and Baltimore Hebrew University.  She has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University and lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.  She writes a weekly internet essay called “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” that appears on the Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” website.
Temple Beth El, the Springfield JCC and the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts support this program.
“I am thrilled with the community’s participation in the Melton program,” said Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz of Temple Beth El, who is currently recruiting students for next year’s Melton class.  Rabbi Katz both teaches and administers the Melton program.
“Melton students have very different backgrounds.  Some are longtime stakeholders in the community, others are just considering conversion.  Some students have been studying Judaism for years, and others are just discovering Judaism.”   While in Springfield, Dr. Erica Brown also will speak to board leadership of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and other Jewish professionals.
The Jewish Ledger recently spoke to Dr. Brown about how she inspires Jewish leadership.

In this day and age, are there specific leadership skills that Jews need that they never needed before?
A: Obviously we need to make sure we use social media to our advantage and that’s a new frontier for most well established Jewish non-profits. On a human level, we have to also make sure that in a culture of entitlement, we use respectful and civil language, particularly in lay/professional relationships. Getting and keeping good leaders is challenging if we don’t teach our followers to be supportive.

Which Jewish leaders have inspired you the most and why?
A: I take great comfort in reading about biblical leaders and their challenges. I am also profoundly inspired by early Zionist leaders and how they created a vision that turned into a reality through sheer determination, hard work and the capacity to dream. They say that only those who see the invisible can do the impossible and I think there’s a lot to that.

What are some of the Jewish texts you draw upon when trying to inspire leadership skills in members of the Jewish communities you talk to?
A: As I said, I spend a lot of time in the pages of the Hebrew Bible but also love mystical texts for the way in which they help us elevate ourselves, seek harmony and strive to bring more light into the universe.

Why do you think spirituality is an important component of good leadership?
A: I think there’s a bankruptcy of inspiration in the Jewish community today when we have reservoirs of it that is more available and accessible than ever before. We have helped people in the past century buy into the myth that you don’t need to be Jewishly literate to run a Jewish organization but we would be shocked if a political leader ran for office without knowing basics about American history and policy. Knowledge helps people feel more confident as Jews and as leaders, and soulful leadership also keeps people going when their strength is flagging.

How can Jewish leaders integrate spiritual principles into their leadership roles?
A: They can study or identify Jewish values that are relevant to their work and find ways to integrate them into board service, Jewish professional work and volunteering. They can say a prayer before they engage their leadership and I have a few on my website www.leadingwithmenaing.com. As an example, I know a synagogue where the board studies two laws pertaining to lashon ha-ra, the sin of slanderous speech, before they begin their meetings. You can bet that this elevates the kind of conversation that follows.

What will our future young Jewish leaders need to succeed?
A: They will have to have Jewish knowledge, a wellspring of commitment to riding the challenges and the capacity to fund a vibrant picture of Jewish life. I don’t think it’s different for young leaders than for older leaders. I just think that based on the research we have about emerging leadership, the millenial population does not value membership or organizational life in the same way that baby boomers do, and we have to rethink the nature of organizational life so that we can have a better, more seamless hand-off.

What made you want to write “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things?”
A: I wrote it because in the wake of the Madoff and other scandals, I saw a growing level of discomfort with how we manage our reputation as a people when high-profile Jews engage in some very low behaviors. We always prided ourselves on using an ethical map that set a world standard. I don’t know if we can say that with the same confidence, and I am deeply concerned that we are not doing enough in our day schools, our congregational schools or our synagogues to strengthen ethics in a very real, practical and impactful way.

The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School graduation will be held June 1 at 7:30 at the Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson St., A dessert reception will follow. There is no charge. For more information about the event or Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, call Temple Beth El at (413) 733-4149.

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