Inspiring and Teaching the Next Generation of Jewish Leadership

Posted on 03/29/2024 @ 06:00 AM

Tags: CAJE Spotlight

Photo by Monica Neiman, Director Elevate Leadership

On March 18th, Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar, the Executive Director of CAJE, was invited to teach a lesson on leadership to Federation’s Elevate Leadership South Dade Cohort, a six-part leadership program for emerging leaders in South Dade.


The program was designed to give the next generation the strategic and tactical leadership skills they need to succeed.


Rabbi Zarren-Zohar created a lesson entitled “To Be a Jewish Leader: Striving for a Lev Shomea (Listening Heart)” and co-taught it with Rabbi Judith Kempler.


The words Lev Shomea / Listening Heart” are used only one time in the Hebrew Bible and come from a story in the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible in which King David has died and his son Solomon is the new king.


The story begins by noting that G!D appeared to Solomon in a dream and said: “Now that you’re the King of the Israelites, what request do you have of me?”


Solomon replies: “…You have made me king in place of my father David, but I am a young man with little experience in leadership. Grant me a lev shomea / a listening heart to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad…” (I Kings 3:5-9)


lev shomea or listening heart is clearly something that will help the new and inexperienced King Solomon be a successful leader, but why?


The group discussed that having a lev shomea indicates the ability to listen attentively-- not only with our ears, but with our whole selves— our entire attention, our intuition, our compassion, our curiosity.


In other words, this quality invites us to listen beyond words, in order to understand what is happening for the other person.


It means bringing a spirit of inquiry to our interactions and digging beneath the surface to bring about new possibilities of understanding and trust.


After exploring the concept, the group went ahead and engaged in listening exercises that would help them increase their ability to cultivate a listening heart.


The group also explored “Jewish conversational style,” according to linguist Deborah Tannen, best-selling author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” and “That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships.”


Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, notes this style involves interrupting the speaker to add to the conversation as well as a “fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn-taking among speakers.”


Not all Jews exhibit its characteristic features and not all people who exhibit them are Jewish, according to Tannen. But this pattern of conversation found among many Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, differs in significant ways from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest and West.


In a conversation among Jews, participants find the simultaneous talk and quick turn-taking unremarkable; they interpret silences and pauses as evidence of lack of rapport and/or interest.


But those not accustomed to that style, according to Tannen, may see such active listening behaviors as rudeness, verbal hogging and lack of interest in the speaker. The very characteristics that promote good conversation among the in-group can create discomfort or hostility among mixed groups.


The South Dade Leadership Cohort discussed this information and reflected on their own personal styles.


Then we divided the group into chevrutot / learning pairs and triads to study some texts drawn from Jewish tradition about listening.

Below are a few examples for you to ponder:

Excerpt from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Art of Listening


Judaism is a religion of listening, not seeing. Listening is the sacred task. The most famous command in Judaism is Shema Yisrael, “Listen, Israel.” What made Avraham, Moshe, and all the prophets different from their contemporaries was that they heard the Voice that to others was inaudible. In one of the great dramatic scenes of the Bible, God teaches Eliyahu [Elijah] that He is not to be found in the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the “still, small voice” (Melachim/ Kings I 19:12). It takes training, focus, and the ability to create silence in the soul to learn how to listen, whether to God or to a fellow human being. Seeing shows us the beauty of the created world, but listening connects us to the soul of another, and sometimes to God as He speaks to us, calls to us, summoning us to our task in the world.


Questions: Can you think of other examples that support Rabbi Sacks’ assertion that Judaism is a religion of listening, not seeing?


Yiddish Folk Saying


God created us with one mouth and two ears so that we might spend twice as much time listening as talking.


Questions: Have you ever heard or used this saying? Do you think it has an aspect of truth to it?


Hopefully, you now understand more about why having a lev shomea is important to be a Jewish leader.


As you can see from these texts, and from the underlying ethos of the Jewish people, listening is an essential skill for each of us to work on and develop.


Particularly, when people feel listened to with curiosity rather than judgment, they feel safe to express themselves authentically.


You may not agree with their perspective. But listening does not imply agreement. It implies you respect their dignity as another human being like yourself who deserves the opportunity to be heard.


We concluded the session by noting that the job of a leader is to help make other people feel valued and help them shine.


And when you do that, you’ll see that it will empower them to become leaders as well