How to Lead with Authenticity and Empathy During Times of Crisis

Each of us is responsible for leading our respective organizations. Many of you have the unique honor of leading a school or educational institution, a challenging and a demanding job. How many times during your career have you been called upon to weave authenticity, empathy and spirituality into your messaging? It’s not an easy thing to do.

During the Jewish holidays this year, I had the honor of listening to an incredibly talented leader do just that. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Ph.D., the Senior Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) in New York City, has a unique ability to connect with his congregation in a most powerful way.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a day filled with awe, deep introspection, fasting and asking God for forgiveness for the sins that we’ve committed during the preceding year. This past Yom Kippur, which ended the evening of September 25, as the final service of the day was nearing its completion (called Neilah, closing of the gates), Rabbi Cosgrove spoke passionately from the heart and implored the congregation to make amends with anyone they had wronged and to ask God for forgiveness.

Toward the end of his unscripted remarks, he grew very emotional and asked all of us to simply love one another. Love, love, love, he implored.

In a world full of hate, strife and war it was a stirring plea from one of the nation’s most prominent Rabbis.  It was one of the most iconic Rabbinic moments I’ve ever witnessed.

Fast forward a week later to the weekend of October 7-8.  My wife and I had traveled to New York to attend services at PAS for the end of the fall Jewish holidays where we celebrated Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. It turned out to be the most bittersweet ending to the Jewish holidays as the State of Israel witnessed one of the most horrific, highly coordinated terrorist attacks in its history. As I write this, more than 1,200 Israelis have been murdered and more than 100 taken hostage by the radical Islamic militant group, Hamas.

As we walked into the synagogue, past artfully designed concrete pillars (the types that you see in front of government buildings) that had been strategically placed to clearly prevent someone from driving into the entrance, we noticed an NYPD police car parked out front. This was part of a coordinated police effort to provide increased security to New York City Jewish synagogues and institutions, in response to the unfolding violence in Israel.

We then had to pass through metal detectors and undergo a bag check, under the watchful eye of PAS security personnel. This was before we reached the sanctuary as news of the horrific attacks in Israel was unfolding in real-time. The American Jewish community has a deeply religious and historical connection and bond with the modern State of Israel. For many PAS families and clergy, those ties and bonds run incredibly deep.

“Leading with empathy, compassion and understanding during times of crisis makes a difference.”

Jonathan Oleisky

At the midpoint of the festival morning Shabbat service (the Jewish Sabbath), at which the congregation was also celebrating the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of two young people, Rabbi Cosgrove did something that he said he’s never done before. As he spoke about the unfolding attacks in Israel and offered both comfort and a prayer for the State of Israel, he asked all of the teens in the sanctuary (some of whom were visibly upset by what they were hearing), to join him in a conversation about the events unfolding in Israel and leave the service for a short while to meet with him (only if they were comfortable), while the Associate Rabbi and Cantor continued to lead the service.

Rabbi Cosgrove sensed that the most vulnerable members of the congregation (pre-teens and teens) needed to unpack and speak freely about the horrors that were happening half a world away in Israel. It was a remarkable moment. Here was the Senior Rabbi of one of the most prominent synagogues in America, recognizing in real-time that he needed to answer questions and try to ease the pain and confusion that was so evident on the faces of his younger congregants. It was a moment of great empathy and leadership. 

To those school leaders who are charged with the social emotional development of your students, leading with empathy, compassion and understanding during times of crisis makes a difference. The world we live in has sadly grown increasingly more hateful and violent. The students you serve are keenly aware of this fact. Be there to support them 100% in times of crisis. They look to you as the leader of your school for guidance, insights, support and comfort.

We can all learn from Rabbi Cosgrove’s words: the world simply needs more love. It just does.

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

Read the latest post from Kalix President Jonathan Oleisky.
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