Group Weaves Jewish Themes into Training for Social-Justice Leaders


The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By: Nicole Lewis
May 5, 2013

Rebecca Epstein was skeptical when she was asked to apply to the Selah Leadership Program, a national training effort for Jewish leaders at social-justice organizations. After all, she was not active in Jewish life.

"I was not sure this was going to be the community for me," says Ms. Epstein, a senior director at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "I was totally wrong."

Not only did Ms. Epstein complete the program but the training, self-reflection, and personal connections derived from Selah eventually prompted her to leave her job as a nonprofit management consultant and seek out the job she holds now.

"Selah gave me the confidence to be a good coach as a young person as well as the courage to leave that pretty safe role and put my own skills to the test as a manager," says Ms. Epstein, who has also served a two-year stint on the program's advisory board. "It gave me the permission to become a leader."

Reflect and Learn
Selah seeks to strengthen Jewish social-justice leaders and their organizations by providing leadership training and establishing a professional support network to keep them connected to one another and to what they learned during the program.

The program is a project of Bend the Arc: a Jewish Partnership for Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for social change, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

Selah's training sessions are run by the Rockwood Leadership Institute, a nonprofit group that provides leadership training for people at advocacy organizations. The word "selah," which means "rock" in Hebrew, appears in Hebrew prayers, signaling a moment of reflection before delving into the next passage.

The program's organizers hope to offer participants a similar opportunity to reflect and then to learn and grow.

"Most of us in the nonprofit world do not get formal training on how to successfully navigate and embody new leadership roles, and then we are not set up to reach the potential we have," says Stosh Cotler, executive vice president for Bend the Arc and a Selah past participant and administrator. "Selah is one answer to bridge that gap: what we know should happen and making it real in the world."

Practical Ideas
Surveys show that 53 percent of Selah participants regularly apply what they learned at their jobs, and 37 percent sometimes do.

Now in its ninth year, the program has more than 275 graduates from more than 200 organizations. It receives three times as many applicants as it can place in each class of 22 to 26 people, who complete a six-month training program.

Some of the classes draw from a national applicant pool and others incorporate participants from only one region, such as Boston, Washington, or the Bay Area.

The group gathers for a few days at the beginning and end of the program to work with Rockwood Leadership Institute trainers and one another on identifying leadership principles and putting them to work.

In between the program's two group meetings, participants complete weekly homework assignments. They also follow the Jewish concept of chevruta, studying in pairs and speaking with their partner daily to recite their sense of purpose and keep them mindful of skills they are striving to learn.

Andrea Levere, president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, called her Selah partner from the train on her way to work to recite her phrase: "To bring honesty and commitment to all my relationships and to the movement to increase economic justice in this country."

While she eschewed some of what she refers to as the "touchy-feely" elements of the program, Ms. Levere says she absorbed practical ideas that she shared with her senior staff members. Most helpful: strategies for determining which issues need immediate attention and which ones can be set aside.

Sharing these lessons with colleagues represents a key program goal, says Ms. Cotler. "We knew we didn't have enough money to train everyone," she says. "We are focusing on thoseName

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