Dr. Aviva Weisbord on Leadership

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Editor’s Note: Dr. Aviva Weisbord, who recently passed away, was involved in community service in Baltimore for decades. She held leadership positions in several organizations, including Maalot Seminary, Jews for Judaism, AJOP, and The Associated’s Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister’s League (JBBL). Dr. Weisbord served as executive director of SHEMESH, which provides educational support services to Jewish schools in Baltimore. She held a PhD in psychology and counseled individuals for twenty-five years. Dr. Weisbord lived in Baltimore with her husband and children. The interview below appeared in the Summer 2016 issue.

My leadership training began around age five. That’s when my mother, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg, a”h, recruited me to participate in a Ner Israel Ladies Luncheon. Did I know that watching her present a vision to the group, making sure they took responsibility for the implementation of that vision, and then give them all the credit for the final product was leadership at its best? Not a clue! But by the time I was fifteen, my heart and head had absorbed these basic principles; everything else was commentary.

Back then, we didn’t know or think about self-fulfillment, the woman’s role or “maximizing our contribution” to Judaism. Life in our extended household, an environment that included my grandmother, Rebbetzin Feige Ruderman and her mother, Rebbetzin Dvora Kramer—all very strong, exceedingly capable women—was about seeing a need and stepping in to meet that need. That definition of leadership works for me until today, and not only because it was planted in my genes.

To me, the question of leadership is not necessarily about how I find fulfillment or the impact I want to have. It’s about asking, “Why are we here?” It’s about serving HaKadosh Baruch Hu to the best of my ability; doing what He wants in the way that fits the values and standards of Judaism. This is the essence of the difference between leadership by Jews and leadership in a Jewish way. While there is much we can learn from general leadership training, it’s crucial that we combine that knowledge with our Jewish training and apply the basic principles of Judaism to those of leadership.  

I learned a lot watching my mother, a”h, put the issue of domestic violence on the Jewish agenda. It was an uphill battle, with most people wishing she would just go away and take that unpleasant topic with her. There were serious setbacks along the way to establishing safe houses for Jewish women and their children, centers for counseling and education and a cadre of knowledgeable, articulate advocates.

Setbacks—definitely; defeat—never.

Every time my mother hit a brick wall, I saw her passion intensify, along with the dogged determination to give a voice to those suffering in silence.   

She was angry, frustrated, sometimes fed up, but never once did her conviction waiver. My siblings and I watched her, wondering if maybe, just this once, she was too far ahead of her time. She taught us that leadership is about staying the course, even when it hurts personally. My mother was insulted, mocked and shunned. And she just kept going. She personified Paul Wellstone’s incisive insight, “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”

For my mother, this was not a leadership issue per se, although great leadership permeated the entire process. This was about championing a community cause and creating a vehicle that could carry that cause. When I have moments where it would be easy to shrug my shoulders and tell myself that now’s not the time or someone else can take care of a burning issue, the leadership lessons I have learned speak quite emphatically to me: Stand up for what you know is right and keep marching forward. It took several years, but there are now safe houses for Orthodox women in more than a dozen communities across the United States, and the topic is on the agenda of almost every frum organization. More lessons learned: Patience, perseverance and lots of networking.

I don’t think anyone wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to be a leader in my community,” any more than anyone wakes up and says, “I’m going to be a gadol B’Yisrael.” As experience and knowledge accumulate and the tasks for which we enlist grow in quality and quantity, we may come to realize that this is, indeed, leadership. I have the privilege of being a member of the board of directors of ACHARAI, a Jewish leadership-training institute. Interestingly, the individuals selected for the training are all in position to become the heads of their organizations within the next few years; they all went through the process of working for the community and acquiring basic leadership skills and now, after years of commitment and growth, they are ready for a full-scale, sophisticated program offering leadership training through a Jewish lens.

Leadership starts with a sense of responsibility, seeing something missing or off course and then stepping in to create or fix. That willingness to assume a burden, to make a commitment, is the beginning of leadership.

Once it’s not about “Me,” many issues that we find challenging fade away: Is there someone who can do a better job with this than I can? No problem—let’s give her the responsibility. Is it important to train others, young women who will be able to take their place at the heads of organizations? Certainly—I can share my knowledge and experience by mentoring someone and helping her prepare to take over. In fact, I can be objective enough to know when it’s time to hand the baton to the next generation and can do so gladly.

Leadership is also about believing in others. Community leaders get to see the best and worst of community members. We don’t live in denial, but we do focus on the best. John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Often our leadership is about making a positive impact on one person at a time, with no public fanfare or credit. And sometimes, the most important things we do are completely behind the scenes. There have been many opportunities for me to intervene and help settle a machloket, simply because I had worked for and with the people and organizations involved. Helping someone get a job interview, being able to pinpoint community resources and offering assistance to newcomers navigating the search for a home and school are all unanticipated bonuses of committing myself to the community.

All of this takes place as background to the essential task of finding a workable, living equilibrium between nurturing our family and nurturing our community while making sure we are not depleted. When we ourselves are energized (even if fatigued) by our involvements and can be of service guilt-free, that’s a sign of healthy, balanced leadership. It means knowing when taking on one more thing will upset that balance, leaving family members feeling ignored and ourselves torn. I am deeply grateful to my parents and grandparents for making sure that did not happen to us, and I am fairly certain that this is the reason my siblings and I have all chosen to be involved with the community, each in our own way.

Perhaps the greatest reward of serving in leadership positions is the opportunity to know myself and be myself. Living a truly authentic, directed life is what Judaism is about; and feeling that message deeply while conveying it unabashedly is what leadership is about and why it is so compelling.

This article was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Action.