Betting on a Jewish Future: How the Kaplan Leadership Initiative Supports Young Jewish Leaders

Sasha Gutenberg, Hillel director in Novosibirsk, Russia, writes about how the Kaplan Leadership Initiative has empowered her to join an international community of young leaders who are building the Jewish future.

By Sasha Gutenberg - Director, Hillel Novosibirsk | June 11, 2020

Sasha Gutenberg is a young Jewish leader benefitting from the training and network offered by the Kaplan Leadership Initiative.

Made possible by a generous grant from Edward and Carol Kaplan, the Kaplan Leadership Initiative is a JDC global program that provides critical tools and support needed to cultivate leadership among Jewish community professionals in Europe, the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Latin America.

Kaplan fellows are proven Jewish professional leaders who aspire to expand their impact on their organizations and communities through better management and leadership skills within the context of Jewish life. In each region, the program includes four intensive seminars in four different locations in the field, Israel, and Chicago.

The Kaplan Leadership Initiative’s global reach enables participants to expand their network and shared learning to create a true cadre of global Jewish professionals.

In this blog post, Alexandra Gutenberg, the 27-year-old director of Hillel Novosibirsk, talks about her Jewish journey and the role the Kaplan Leadership Initiative has played in her professional development.

Growing up, my family never told me: “You can’t do that. You’ll never be able to pull that off.” Instead, they said, “Nothing is impossible for you,” and that’s what ended up being my most important motivator. To me, the world always seems profoundly possible. If there’s a problem or challenge, there’s always a way to resolve it. I absorbed that with my mother’s milk.

In my position as Hillel director in Novosibirsk, Russia, I’ve encountered many programs focused on leadership development, but the Kaplan Leadership Initiative is the first one I’ve come across that helps Jewish professionals become leaders, taking into account all of our needs and all of our potential.

Before I really began my Jewish journey (and I was already 21 then!), I would have been terrified to go on stage and speak in front of people. I’d had leadership roles in the past, but I think I was missing some kind of confidence in myself, some kind of groundedness.

Over the last few years, I’ve truly changed and not just because I have so many new and different skills. It’s because Jewish community leadership is special. It’s not like speaking in a lecture hall to a crowd, just giving away your energy and getting nothing in return. Instead, it’s a constant exchange. When I see the students I work with growing, when they participate in one of my programs and then develop their own ways of giving back, I feel like I’m growing, too.

What I love most about the fellowship is the people. They all have this absolute fire in their eyes.

What I love most about the fellowship is the people. They all have this absolute fire in their eyes. We each have so many different challenges, many of them unique to each of our communities, but we all still show up, ready to grow. It’s a “wow” moment for me each time we get together.

The Kaplan Leadership Initiative isn’t a one-size-fits-all program. It keeps in mind our differences around the world, with separate divisions for Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union (FSU). That’s what’s most important, that we are developing not just as leaders in our Jewish organizations, but also with the added context of what’s going on in our countries. The situation here in the FSU is totally different from what you’d find in the rest of the world.

In 1951, after the Holocaust was over and everything had supposedly calmed down, a completely different world began for FSU Jews. The Soviet authorities had already banned religion, but now there was a new division between ethnic and religious Judaism, along with increased anti-Semitism. In the rest of the world, you only have one word  ‘Jewish,” to cover both identities, but in Russian-speaking countries, a person might identify as either “Hebrew” or “Jewish.” Ethnic and religious here are two separate identities. There was a lot of assimilation and people really suffered because of their Jewishness.

Now, we live in a completely different world, with passionate young people who are living proud and open Jewish lives. When I interact with elderly Jews in my city, they’re still surprised by that. They can’t understand why we’re unafraid, ready to live openly, active in the community, and committed to cultivating a Jewish future.

There’s a Hillel quote that always inspires me, and I’ll paraphrase: “If not me, then who?” If my voice is already being heard and helping to make change, then why shouldn’t I keep going and keep making an even greater impact? I think young people are really the ones most capable of changing things, because I’ve sometimes found that the older you are, the more fossilized you can become in your thinking. Novosibirsk — like every Jewish community should be — is a place where young people can speak and where people will listen to them.

Sasha in a training seminar with other Kaplan fellows.

The current coronavirus pandemic is a great example of how I’ve learned how to adapt and think strategically. The Kaplan Leadership Initiative has been a huge part of my evolution there. Starting in mid-March, we moved our whole community online, taking advantage of the opportunity to invite in speakers and leaders from not just Novosibirsk but across the former Soviet Union and around the world.

As we’ve worked to fundraise locally and become more self-sufficient, a recent Kaplan session helped me develop a strategy to turn some of our active Novosibirsk Hillel students into ambassadors of our work able to develop their own fundraisers on social media. 

I’m particularly proud of our volunteering efforts, which we do in partnership with JDC and thanks to its investment in these initiatives across the former Soviet Union. We’ve read bedtime stories to children, made quilts for the elderly, and produced videos to lift the spirits of families with special needs. My favorite initiative brought Shabbat to every home. We have a “Golden Age” club in our city, who normally celebrate Shabbat together each Friday in our Jewish Community Center. Now, of course, they are at home and self-isolating. Our young people made boxes for them — complete with Shabbat dinner, Shabbat candles and blessings, grape juice, challahs, and instructions for how to join our service on Zoom — and our volunteers with cars delivered these toolkits all over Novosibirsk.

When I first started working in the Jewish community, I was motivated by the fact that I really wanted my grandchildren to live Jewish lives, to find their own place in the community. Now I feel like being a Jewish communal professional is like a game I can win. There’s so much I can do, so much I can change, so much I can bring to the table.

I’m definitely a gambler, I’m betting on a Jewish future, and I want to win.

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