Thursday, January 28, 2010

JT News: Planning For The Future

After six years on campus, Rabbi Elie Estrin and his wife Chaya — leaders of the University of Washington’s Chabad House — noticed two things. First, the Jewish community on campus has seen huge growth. Second, the Jewish student groups could accomplish far more if the students who led them were given the skills to achieve their goals.

With those thoughts in mind, Estrin began to work on a plan to provide students with top-notch leadership training. Through mutual acquaintances at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, he was connected with Jan Levy and her program, called Leadership Tomorrow, a local leadership development and community-building organization that counts dozens of CEOs and elected officials among its alumni.

“When it was suggested I speak with [Levy], that was what really pulled it into existence,” Estrin said. “She understood exactly what I wanted from the get-go and we had a really good meeting of the minds, and the format that we envisioned was really the same vision.”

Leaders were chosen from every major Jewish group on the UW campus, drawing on Huskies for Israel, Hillel, Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity and Banot. Estrin handpicked some students he knew would be serious about the program and would be inspired to give back to the community as a result. Others came forward and requested to participate.

“I was looking for people who would, A, learn what vision is, B, implement their vision and not get distracted by pitfalls along the way, and C, have accountability,” Estrin said. “I felt that there were a lot of students with lofty goals but they didn’t know how to apply them. We’re hoping to eventually cause a greater number of students on campus to have a much more mature outlook, with much more knowledgeable and skillful projects.”

The program, a concentrated synthesis of Leadership Tomorrow’s nine-month program that combines the conceptual, skills and application training led by Levy and her colleague Bob Ness, culminates with a project stage where teams of four or five students select a project to work on and present progress at the end of the school year.

“This is designed to make the students take responsibility for leadership,” Levy said. “The students are learning things that are applicable throughout their lives. In the first session, we asked them to write their own life mission statement, and in each session we revisit it and talk about how it’s starting to evolve.”

The desire of the students to attend was evident through their willingness to contribute toward the seminars’ cost, ensuring that they had a stake in the process.

“I only had something to gain by going,” said Daniel Hirsty, a UW sophomore who is a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi and participates at Hillel. “I have a lot of different interests, and learning how to build coalitions and be a strong leader is important. I really just want to propel myself to be a better citizen.”

Estrin plans to continue the program annually, envisioning a competitive program that selects only the top students with greatest leadership potential—and desire to attend. If all goes as planned, he theorizes by the time the freshmen taking this course are graduating there will be up to 80 students who are trained with the same leadership skills and an ability to accomplish even bigger projects.

“We’re not doing this for our organization,” Estrin said. “We’re doing this for the community as a whole. This is not a project that we’re specifically benefitting from. This is a project the entire university community, and eventually the Jewish community as a whole, will benefit from.”