Global Jewish Reflections | In Germany, A Master Class in Jewish Leadership

This Tisha B'Av, Rabbi Daniel Naftoli Surovtsev reflects on the art (and the science) of leadership in the Jewish community.

By Rabbi Daniel Naftoli Surovtsev - Kaplan Leadership Initiative Fellow; Baden-Baden, Germany | July 10, 2023

Rabbi Daniel Naftoli Surovtsev wears many hats as a Jewish leader in Baden-Baden, Germany, creating a space where people of all ages can experience Jewish life.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

The Talmud, in tractate Gittin, tells us that Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza — it’s a brief and powerful story, which we’re reminded of each Tisha B’Av, and I’d like to revisit it now.

At the time of the second Temple, there was a wealthy man who had a close friend named Kamtza and a bitter enemy named Bar Kamtza. Once, when throwing a big party, he instructed his servant to deliver an invitation to his dear friend Kamtza; the servant, however, made a mistake and delivered the invitation to the hated Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza must have been thrilled, assuming that the man wished to reconcile, because he did in fact appear at the party — but unfortunately, when the host saw Bar Kamtza, he flew into a rage and ordered him to leave.

Seeking to avoid humiliation, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for whatever he would eat at the party. When this offer was refused, he offered to pay for half of the party, and when that, too, was rebuffed, he said he would pay for the entire party. The host angrily turned this down as well and had Bar Kamtza forcibly removed.

There were a number of leading rabbis at this party, and when Bar Kamtza was humiliated by the host, they didn’t intervene, which Bar Kamtza took as their tacit approval, or at the very least indifference. He went full-blown supervillain and swore revenge against the rabbis, going to the local authorities and telling them how the Jews were preparing for a revolt against the Roman Empire. The story goes on to tell us how Bar Kamtza’s hurt feelings led to his actual treason and, in another strategic error of Jewish leadership, ultimately led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

There are several layers to this story, and it’s customary to study it each year during the fast of Tisha B’Av. Through the ages, there are many explanations for our past mistakes given by Talmud commentators — but one way or another, these explanations all boil down to improper or ineffective leadership.

Rabbi Daniel Naftoli Surovtsev

Thanks to my participation in JDC’s Kaplan Leadership Initiative — which helps train and empower Jewish communal professionals across Europe (through Yesod Europe, a partnership between JDC and Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe), the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, I’ve been fortunate to get a master class in Jewish leadership and experience a powerful personal transformation.

Of course I knew what it felt like to be a leader (I had already been a rabbi of various congregations for more than five years when I started to participate in the Kaplan Leadership Initiative), and of course, every year on Tisha B’Av, I studied the troubled history of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Still, the beginning of my Kaplan Leadership Initiative experience was associated with a lot of skepticism: Was there really anything new to learn?

But even by the end of our first seminar together, I’d begun to realize that leadership is both a science and an art, and it’s a field that is endlessly diverse, complex, and challenging. Everything depends on leadership! The most important thing I’ve learned is that, since everyone is a leader in some way, power must necessarily be shared. And of course, I met all kinds of people at the Kaplan Leadership Initiative seminars that I never would have connected with otherwise.

I can truly say that after participating in the program, I’ve become a different person.

One of the conclusions of Kamtza’s story is that leadership must always be flexible and sensitive to feedback — only this can help avert catastrophe.

As a result of the Kaplan Leadership Initiative seminars, and with the help of JDC, an incredible project was born in my community: Baden-Baden, Germany. It lasted almost two years, and we’ve just completed “Bar and Bat Mitzvah For All!” — which both trained our young people for their own b’nei mitzvah and had them visit many older members of our community, some of whom had never heard of the ritual. As the community rabbi, I was able to design and print a small study guide on the basics of Jewish tradition, which our youth studied with their grandparents. The incredible culminating Shabbat retreat we had, along with the overall sense of activating our community’s Jewish life, has made a huge difference to our community.

I’ve learned that everyone is a leader in some way, and that power must be shared.

It’s imperative to pay attention to every member of of the community and their needs, and to be a mediator in their process of growth and Jewish learning — not just an observer.

This Tisha B’Av, as I reflect once again on the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, I realize that it’s only through the JDC grant and the Kaplan Leadership Initiative that I was able to unlock a key truth: Only through the harmonious coexistence of different types and branches of leadership can we be successful as a Jewish community.

Rabbi Daniel Naftoli Surovtsev has served as rabbi of the Baden-Baden community for six years. He was born in Minsk, Belarus and received his rabbinical education in Berlin at the Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin. In addition to his main activities in the community, Rabbi Surovtsev blogs on YouTube and Tiktok, teaches on Jewish tradition for schoolchildren, and teaches several online classes.

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