These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Investigation: ‘Leading from Behind’

Posted on August 21, 2013 by David Bogomolny

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The Genesis at Brandeis University program where I’ve worked for the past two summers has many moving parts on the participant, staff and faculty levels. The ‘investigation’ component of a residential staff member’s responsibilities is an opportunity for professional development, through which the staff person explores an element of hir work at Genesis (or its sister program BIMA) on a weekly basis with a mentor and then shares hir findings at the summer’s end.

This year, I had anxiety at the start of the program about how I would I manage my responsibilities as Lead Community Educator (CE) to my fellow staff members with my own needs – so I decided to ‘investigate’ how to best manage this balance. From past experience I knew already how busy the Community Educators would be throughout the summer – attending meetings, planning activities, running programs, guiding educational expeditions, and supervising residential life. So it was hard for me to imagine managing those same responsibilities on top of supporting the other residential staff members and directing the Genesis program with a bird’s eye view on all of those moving parts.

[expand title=”Side Note: Feeling Successful in the ‘Community Educator’ Role”]
Putting aside, for a moment, my responsibilities as the “Lead” CE, I found that I exceeded all of my personal CE goals. After having familiarized myself with the Genesis Program last year, I was able to prepare myself in advance and navigate my responsibilities throughout the course of the summer successfully. Here are two examples:

  1. Whereas I’d found it challenging in 2012 to meaningfully involve myself with the community of Russian speaking participants (BGI Fellows recruited and sponsored by the Brandeis Genesis Institute) due to time constraints and my parallel leadership role in the mechitza minyan community, I was able in 2013 to create and implement mechanisms that allowed me more flexibility to engage the BGI Fellows.
  2. Running an “expedition” for the first time in 2012 was challenging, as this project-based learning model was unlike much of what I’d been familiar with; I felt unsure about how much to expect from myself and my participants, and how to direct their learning without providing them the content myself. In 2013, having already run an expedition, I planned and implemented my expedition with confidence in my participants, and my group did all the work themselves, tackling the subject matter head on and learning from the experience.[/expand]

Staff Orientation

During staff orientation, I felt the tension of balancing the pressure of effectively preparing the staff for the Genesis/ BIMA summer programs with my personal needs, as the new programming that I’d designed with Timna (the Lead CE for BIMA) had to be tested before we were to implement it with our participants the following week. It was important to me that our ideas would work well and receive “buy in” from our fellow staff members.

While I was responsible for preparing and running some of staff orientation week, I intentionally aimed to sit back as much as possible, intending that the group would learn through interaction and action. Such was my strategy (for example) when leading an information session on Russian-Speaking Jews (RSJs). I deliberately gave significant floor time to other speakers; and then prompted the group into a conversation about the stereotypes that they held about RSJs before handing out two articles and pairing the staff off into Pardes-style havrutot (learning partners) to discuss the content.

I also regularly took note of my energy levels – both physical and emotional – and made sure to give myself “alone” time during optional outings whenever I needed it. On the final night of orientation week before the participants’ arrival the following day, the staff went out for ice cream, which was tempting – I could have taken the opportunity to informally socialize with other staff members. Still, I was aware that with the start of the program on the following morning I would have no opportunity for time alone, and that I felt tired – so I ended up opting out.

Creating Leadership Opportunities

Timna and I agreed during the week before orientation that one of our goals was to maximize the particpants’ opportunities to lead programs, and we established a framework for empowering them to develop and implement hofesh (free time), sha’arim (connecting, lit. ‘gates’), limmud (learning) and other sessions. We called these avodah (work) contributions.

This mechanism worked remarkably well – and it was in this spirit that I scheduled a meeting for all participants interested in having and running regular prayer services (including the mechitza minyan), aiming to empower the participants to schedule and run services for themselves. To the greatest extent possible, we aimed to put participants at the helm of all summer activities, and requested that staff members seek out participants to partner with when developing programming.

Interestingly, this actually created work for the staff, as we had to run brainstorming sessions, arrange meetings with our participants and incorporate their interests and ideas, while ensuring that programs flowed coherently and could be implemented successfully. The balance of sharing the reins with participants, while ensuring order and quality control required high levels of staff involvement and time investment.

Reflecting upon this in the context of my investigation, it struck me that “leading from behind” (empowering others to lead and including them to the greatest extent possible in directing the flow of programs) might not have been the most effective mechanism for balancing my responsibilities along with my personal needs.

The First Week

During the first week of the program, as the participants had just arrived and were acclimating to their summer home at Brandeis University, many logistical matters had to be coordinated between the residential staff and the Office of High School Programs (OHSP). As Lead Community Educators, Timna and I were primarily responsible for handling such issues, speaking to the OHSP on behalf of the participants in our residence halls and our staff and dealing with unexpected emergencies.

Beyond this, the first week also demanded a level of preparedness so that all staff could comfortably prepare for introductory activities, and the Community Educators had additional responsibilities. For example,

  1. Timna and I had designed a community-building project to begin on the first day of the program and continue all summer. It involved a lot of art supplies, including wooden stakes, CDs, spray paint, multicolored permanent markers and many, many yards of wire. However, the wire had to be cut into many smaller pieces (two per participant), and we only had one pair of wire cutters – so Timna and I took responsibility for cutting wire for our staff one night, as free time was extremely limited and there was no other time to get the supplies ready.
  2. The expeditions first met that week, and every Genesis CE spent time preparing for hir three hour introductory session, including myself. Launching an expedition involves group building, an engaging introduction to the “leading question”, an opportunity for input from the participants, and a “hook” to draw them into to the project. Building confidence and engendering substantive curiosity and excitement among our expedition groups was critical for an effective launch.
  3. Avodah contributions for the coming week were selected and planning began that Friday, as it would every Friday for the duration of Genesis/ BIMA. Actually scheduling the participants’ activities (and ensuring that the participants could run them effectively) required time that we didn’t have before Shabbat… so Sunday was the only day that we could arrange the schedule for Monday, even though it was the Community Educators’ day off. In order to jump start and reinforce the avodah system, I opted to work for part of my day off.

In short, that first week was particularly demanding, and I did not manage to strike the balance that I wanted.


During staff orientation and in my expedition group, allowing my participants creative reign drew them into the programs that I ran and inspired them to produce results that they were very proud of. For example, several of my expedition participants planned the opening BIMA/ Genesis ceremony for Tisha b’Av themselves, and tapped into the shared emotional experiences of their peers to produce a tremendous program that profoundly affected much of the community.

While leading from behind proved to be successful for me in smaller groups, it did not serve me as a strategy on a larger scale. Therefore I sought another approach that would allow me to find the balance I wanted, and gradually I came to delegate certain tasks to other Community Educators. Having created the summer-long “on duty” schedule for the staff, I knew which CEs had switched their days off for others, and I approached those who had elected to work on particular Sundays with tasks that I would otherwise have been attending to myself. This freed me to rest on my Sundays off, which re-energized me.

Residential Life

While I succeeded in certain ways in my investigation, I remain uncertain as to whether or not I acted appropriately in others.

As Lead CE, I was primarily responsible for residential life in the Renfield Hall, which housed the male bodied Genesis/ BIMA staff and participants. My approach to residence life was light handed, trusting that the participants would act appropriately, while maximizing the degree to which I interacted with them after dorm ‘check-in’ and offering them guidance over strict discipline. In some ways, this was very successful – the level of trust and comfort between Renfield residents and staff seemed high.

However, I failed to communicate my approach to all of the other Renfield staff members, which resulted in some mixed messaging, and this was also out of sync with the staff of the Shapiro Hall who were attempting to enforce the BIMA/ Genesis residential policies more rigorously. In truth, this was mostly because I hadn’t considered residential life responsibilities in the context of my investigation, I hadn’t articulated my approach even to myself, and never having had such responsibilities as a ‘Lead’ before I hadn’t known what to expect.


Ultimately, the summer was quite a learning experience for me, never having served as Lead CE before. I was encouraged to find that I’d learned from my previous summer as a Community Educator, and was better able to fulfill my responsibilities as such – understanding myself and the program much better. In the same way, I learned about functioning as a ‘Lead’ by working with Timna (she had served in this capacity before) and simply by filling the role to the best of my ability.

Also, I realized that I had conflated several different ideas early on in my investigation. Namely, 1) ‘Leading from Behind’, 2) ‘Stepping Back’, 3) ‘Delegating’, and 4) ‘Favoring Guidance over Enforcement’. Of course, these are all related, but they were most appropriate and most effective to different extents in different contexts. Now, having served as a Lead CE this summer, I have a better understanding of the program’s needs and expectations for that position; and how to best manage my time – balancing the needs of the program and staff with my own well-being.

Of course, this write-up is not comprehensive, and not written in an orderly enough way, but it serves me as a summary of my investigation and a basis for further thinking. I deeply appreciate the degree to which Genesis and BIMA are invested in the professional development of their staff members; and speaking from personal experience I know that I have grown as a Jewish educator over the past two summers at Genesis. The program’s many moving parts somehow come together every summer to generate a powerful, changing experience for participants and staff alike, and I think that’s amazing.