Leadership and Followership in the Judaic Classroom: Challenges and Opportunities

  • by: Chaim Botwinick


Chaim Botwinick explores the possibility of teaching leadership through exploring Jewish sources and models.

Today’s Jewish day school youth and Jewish educator are experiencing a myriad of social and academic challenges, unsurpassed in recent history. With the evolution of new and innovative technological platforms, learning and teaching opportunities are becoming more exciting and engaging “incubators” for promoting, understanding and exploiting the rich confluence of meaningful Judaic studies and character/leadership development. It also challenges the teacher to think more boldly and creatively about how concepts are transmitted, learned and internalized by students. Several years ago, I had the distinct honor and privilege to serve on a panel of senior Jewish educators and lay leaders who were challenged with the task of defining leadership and followership from a Jewish perspective. Following a lengthy and heated debate, one of my co-panelists stood up from his seat and forcefully posited that “leadership gets all the glory; but, a leader without followers is simply taking a walk… great leaders must be followers, and good followers at that; and that one cannot be an effective leader in the absence of followers.” At first blush, this pronouncement seemed painfully obvious. But, within short order, all of us on the panel began to understand and appreciate the symbiotic relationship between leadership and followership which he was trying to convey.

The purpose of this paper is not to define or describe the differences or similarities between leadership and followership but to describe ways in which these two interrelated attributes or characteristics can be integrated into the Judaic classroom through several instructional models.

First and foremost, it is essential that we understand that followership, by and large, is a concept that is often undervalued, thought to be inconsequential or just common sense as it lingers in the shadow of leadership. To be sure, leadership studies have neglected or limited their focus on follower styles, competencies and attributes where theorists and researchers have focused on leadership almost to the exclusion of examining followership, even though most people are followers most of the time. In light of these aforementioned realities, what follows are several instructional models which endeavor to utilize leadership and followership modalities interchangeably that teachers can apply, adopt and adapt in their respective Judaic classrooms. The rich and robust learning environment of the Judaic classroom lends itself to a mosaic of instructional styles and methods in order for a Judaic lesson to flourish and come alive. It provides an organically rich teaching and learning setting necessary to stimulate and inspire a student’s deep understanding and appreciation of leadership and followership concepts against a backdrop of Judaic knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors.

The use of biblical personalities

One of the most often used examples of leadership in Judaic sources is the manner in which Moshe (as leader) was able to navigate the impossible in order to help Benei Yisrael leave Egypt as slaves and sojourn to Israel. The trials and tribulations in the desert during that sojourn tested Moshe’s leadership and resolve. It provided Benei Yisrael with eyewitness accounts of Moshe’s leadership through faith, trust, vision, strategy and wisdom. It also provided them with a humble understanding regarding the power of followership. In this case, not only were Benei Yisrael following Moshe’s direction, but they were able to understand that Moshe, as leader, was following God’s instructions and command. Here we see a beautiful amalgamation of leadership and followership which coalesced around the Exodus narrative.

Another beautiful example from Humash was when Joshua, the preeminent “follower,” needed to assume the mantle of leadership from Moshe, just prior to Moshe’s death. Joshua, the follower, transforms into the leader of the Children of Israel. Several pedagogic opportunities for learning, reflection and discussion may be posited by presenting students with the following questions:

  • Was Joshua’s followership behavior and disposition a prerequisite for his effective leadership?
  • Is leadership a natural outgrowth of followership and vice versa?
  • When, and how, does followership transition or morph into leadership?
  • Can one be a leader without following (could Moshe lead in the absence of God’s command to lead)?
  • What other example do we see from Tanakh where followership is transformed into leadership and vice versa?

On a broader level, this Judaic classroom conversation can be applied to a wide variety of Tanakh narratives which rely heavily upon leadership and followership for clarity of purpose and understanding.

When introducing these concepts and topics to students, the Judaic teacher may want to engage students in a warm-up exercise. These lesson plans and in-classroom conversations could focus upon the following queries:

  • What comes to mind when you think of followers or followership?
  • What comes to mind when you think about leadership?
  • Are these terms generally used in a positive or negative sense? Provide examples.
  • What characteristics are traditionally associated with followers and leaders? Is there overlap?
  • What Jewish personalities come to mind? How? Why? By engaging students in these framing questions, we “set the stage” for a more meaningful and robust conversation when addressing the roles and impact of Biblical personalities (or even modern/contemporary Jewish personalities).

The use of key Judaic concepts

When teaching students about leadership and followership through Judaic lenses, the teacher must feel free to utilize the rich array of Jewish minhagim, customs and practices.

They may include, but not be limited to the following:

  • The shaliah tzibur – the person leading the service vs. the people who are participating (read following) in the prayer service;
  • The kiddush – a person reciting the kiddush leads and we respond amen;
  • The Pesah seder – there may be one person who leads the seder and guests follow the leaders;
  • The shofar – a person leads by blowing the shofar, and we fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar;
  • The kohanim – conducted the sacrificial ritual on behalf of the people of Israel.

Another meaningful and potentially impactful Judaic metaphor for leadership and followership, which has significant instructional implications relates to the holiday of Sukkot.

When describing this metaphor to students, there are some individuals who seek to be “builders” (leaders) and others seek to decorate what has already been built (followers). Yet there are others who just want to fulfil the mitzvah of making a berakhah in the sukkah.

The lesson here is very clear – irrespective of your role, you are part of the rich fabric which comprises the beauty of the holiday. Preference or primacy is not given to the leader or follower. They are both intertwined to create the sukkah. It captures the importance of kehillah – community – and treats all as equals. To be sure, leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin, both integral to efforts to create change in today’s Jewish world – a topic which students can and will embrace and appreciate. Other concepts and constructs to consider within the context of kehillah-building may include:

  • Asking students to identify other areas of Jewish customs and celebration which require the collaboration of leaders and followers.
  • Exploring whether the leader, by definition, is more important than the follower. Were it not for leaders, what would there be for followers?
  • How does our understanding of leadership and followership inform Judaic concepts relating to ahrayut (responsibility), kehillah and hesed, to name a few?

Two examples that I often use in order to help clarify and exemplify the dichotomy and confluence of leadership and followership with students are anchored in the teaching of hesed through tzedakah and the centrality of Israel.

When it comes to tzedakah, examples can be drawn and derived from the many ways in which charities are established (leadership) – the who, how and why they are created, and the impact they have had by enabling and empowering people to support (followership) these charities. A rich conversation with students regarding the relationship between the establishment of a charity and the support of that charity can lead to a variety of rich and meaningful in-classroom conversations relating to Jewish philanthropy.

A lesson or a unit on the centrality of Israel is another way in which to engage students in a conversation about following vs. leading. For example, how we support, advocate and promote the critical importance of Israel in our lives is deeply embedded in our understanding regarding our respective roles and responsibilities, as Jews, as a community, as leaders and as followers. The units may be project-based and can have a wonderfully lasting impact on the student’s understanding regarding Israel in our lives. Here too, source material can be used to complement the conversation. Another powerful teaching venue utilizing leadership and followership can be created in the classroom by the use of trigger videos, guest presentations, text study and independent student research – all of which are not mutually exclusive. Students can take ownership of the units by challenging them to identify and create their own instructional models. How would a unit of the book of Ruth exemplify leadership and followership? How about the relation we have to God through tefillah or through hesed projects? What is the student’s role as leader and follower? What is our responsibility to be part of a tzibur or to help create a kehillah? And, what are the consequence when we separate ourselves from community?

In the final analysis, the teacher of a Judaic class, who is passionately committed to this topic, must present the fact that leaders and followers share a common destiny and purpose. They may indeed have different functions or roles, but they are both equally committed to the organization, institution or philosophy of that institution, share responsibility (ahrayut) for meeting similar goals and should both strive to create a better Jewish world in which we live.

Chaim Botwinick is Principal of Yeshiva Tiferes Torah High School in Boca Raton, FL. Dr. Botwinick has enjoyed a variety of senior leadership positions in Jewish education including Principal of Jewish day schools, CEO for central agencies for Jewish education in Baltimore and Miami, and consultant to a wide variety of Jewish educational and communal agencies. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness (Brown Books, 2011).

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