What makes a leader?

Ask American Jews to name an American Jewish hero and they might say Steven Spielberg or Sandy Koufax.

Perhaps you’d get Sarah Jessica Parker — her mother’s Jewish — or even Madonna, the Catholic superstar who has helped to make Kabbalah mainstream.

But ask an American Jew to name a Jewish communal leader, and you may well get a vacuous expression.

American Jews are towering figures that enliven secular fields from science to entertainment, but leadership in American Jewish communal life has become lackluster, some say.

Others argue that today’s communal leadership is quite effective — just less prominent and more facilitative, in keeping with the times.

For one, the American Jewish community has grown increasingly decentralized, with more groups and foundations taking on special causes.

“I would not say that we have a leadership crisis, we have a diffusion of leadership,” says Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, where she is responsible for lay leadership development.

“The outcome is that it is hard to identify leaders of the community as a whole. Each leader functions in their own milieu,” she says.

However, the decentralized leadership model fits the American Jewish community’s size and multiplicity of organizations, she says.

Furthermore, “The autocratic leader is not a desirable model today,” she says. “Successful leaders use persuasion rather than edicts to inspire people to follow.”

Bahat says American Jewish communal life has shifted toward inclusiveness and team leadership. For example, the AJCommittee has instituted myriad committees to allow members to “own a certain niche in the organization.”

In a culture where American Jews are thoroughly assimilated, persuasive leadership is necessary to compel them to donate to Jewish causes over non-Jewish ones, practice Judaism or marry Jewish. At stake, observers say, is the future of a thriving American Jewish community.

But in trying to rally a community of independent-minded Jews with multiple and even conflicting identities, today’s American Jewish leaders face a daunting task.

In an era of individual empowerment, are American Jewish leaders adapting to the community with the right leadership model? The answer varies from organization to organization.

In general, “leadership has to be fueled by a purpose” beyond mere organizational survival, says Richard Joel, the longtime, charismatic president of Hillel who last year became president of Yeshiva University.

“Do we as a people have a driving dream that fuels us? I worry that that’s in short supply,” he says. Ignorance about “who we are and what we are about is a major informing factor in this.”

“Leadership,” says Joel — often cited in the community as the model of a dynamic leader — “is vision plus an implementation strategy.”

By that standard, just being head of a Jewish group does not necessarily make someone a leader. In fact, many leaders are emerging outside the mainstream organizations.

Some say Jewish institutions themselves handicap their leaders: Many Jewish groups are highly bureaucratic organizations that hamper leaders’ impulses to innovate or be entrepreneurial.

And some institutions cling to outdated mandates, says Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, a premiere training program for Jewish leadership.

“Because the pace of change is so rapid and relentless, Jewish organizations need to thoughtfully assess and reassess their relevance to the challenges and opportunities of the times,” Moses says.

Shifting Jewish demographics — from intermarriage and single-parenting to the emergence of gays and lesbians, dual-career families and increased mobility — have created new challenges for synagogues, he says.

Federations must shift from an “Israel-centric and ‘rescue and relief’ mission to a broader concern with American Jewish education, identity and affiliation,” he says.

Increasing competition among Jewish groups calls for strategic change in function and vision, Moses says.

Due to poor compensation in entry- and mid-level jobs, and lack of professional development, Jewish groups also wrestle with professional recruitment and retention — which, in turn, dampens the potential to attract top lay leaders.

In addition, it’s a tough time to lead in this country.

Like their fellow Americans, Jews have become focused more on individual than communal needs.

Jewish professionals and activists say Americans still live in the era of “Bowling Alone” — a reference to Robert Putnam’s 2000 book that documents the loss of community in America and the lower membership in civic and community organizations.

In addition, the rise of the baby-boomer generation has bred a certain suspicion of authority and institutions, says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: the national Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Trends such as customizing one’s Passover Haggadah or putting charitable dollars towards one’s own pet project, rather than a communal funding pool, attest to the changed psychology, Kula says.

Still, some say there’s not a crisis of leadership — just a shift in leadership style to empower a group’s membership, again in keeping with the times.

“A change in the style of dominant leadership is being understood as a crisis of leadership,” says John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.

“People look for strong leaders who have clear answers, and yet so much of contemporary life leads to nuance and ambiguity,” he says.

“We’re in a much more participatory, consensual process in which people seek to be heard,” he says. “That does not lend itself to strong rabbis from the pulpit giving 40 minute sermons every Saturday.”

In fact, Ruskay says, there currently may be more “excellent, first-rate facilitative leadership in the Jewish community than we ever had.”

Rabbi Richard Block exemplified the shifting leadership style when he took over the pulpit three years ago at The Temple — Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, where the Zionist giant Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver held court for 46 years.

When he first took over, Block says, he joked with the Reform congregation that “this time around, God sent you a rabbi that wouldn’t readily be confused” with God.

The way Block sees it, “leadership has to be experienced through the strength and the voice of every participating individual.”

Kehilat Hadar, an egalitarian minyan popular with young adults on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, follows a similar ethos: Organizers intentionally lead from behind.

“There’s no one figure who’s always conducting things in a public way. That empowers people to lend their own voice to prayer — and that’s my goal,” says Elie Kaunfer, one of Hadar’s co-founders. “This generation likes the empowering model.”

Joel, of Yeshiva University, sent that message in his inaugural speech at the school last year. Known for redefining paradigms with the turn of a phrase, Joel said his purpose at the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy was “to ennoble and enable” students.

Many cite the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as an organizational leadership model: It gives volunteers a clear course of action and empowerment — not just through donating money, but through basic grass-roots activism in lobbying legislators.

AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, says the group has had a “tremendous amount of success” drawing and sustaining various levels of activists.

“It’s a cause they care deeply about, but it’s also demonstrably shown that their actions can make a big difference,” Kohr says.

But the leadership and success of many organizations is hindered by their consensus-driven processes, observers say.

Constantly shuttling between lay leaders and professionals to arrive at consensus takes away from time and energy that could go toward innovation, says Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, a nonprofit that aims to build Jewish identity as a major provider of online Jewish content.

“Innovation is linked to risk-taking, with the understanding that there are going to be some failures, but most Jewish communal organizations are not allowed to fail because of the fear that it will affect fund raising,” he says.

Abramowitz says his group uses a “venture philanthropy” model that has “fewer people involved, but they roll up their sleeves and are much deeper into governance as full partners with the professionals, rather than just consulting or rubber-stamping.”

Success will come for the community as a whole when the consensus builders partner with the innovators, he says.

That was the case with birthright israel, a landmark program that provides free Israel trips for 18- to 26-year-olds who have never been to the Jewish state on a peer tour.

The idea emerged from the New York-based philanthropic foundations of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, and eventually found a partnership with the Israeli government and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system.

The case underscores a trend in which many Jews are taking leadership paths outside the organizational ranks.

The philanthropic world is witness to a growing number of personal foundations, and sweeping communal change increasingly has come from their doors.

“Foundations can do things some of the establishment don’t dare do” because of the public scrutiny of a broad donor base, Bronfman says.

According to Shifra Bronznick, a New York-based consultant to Jewish groups, “Organizations have to find a way to elicit leadership from people at every rank. Our institutions still tend to be hierarchical, bureaucratic, risk-averse and fearful of healthy conflict.”

Stephen Hoffman, who has just stepped down as CEO of the UJC, says, “The challenge is to marry that ideal with the reality of operating within large bureaucracies that seek to deal with competing visions by volunteers in a voluntary system.”

He also defends the consensus-driven nature of Jewish organizations.

Criticism of the decision-making process is “a lament of the people who think they have a lock on wisdom,” Hoffman says.

“Consensus-driven processes don’t always yield the most creative way to attack an issue,” he says, but “that means the leaders have to articulate vision and build support and take the time to do so.”

The AJCommittee’s Bahat says a collaborative process between professionals and lay leaders is enriching — and produces better results.

Lay leaders “often have a better sense as to where the community is, the broader Jewish community and the general community, than the professionals” steeped in the Jewish world, she says. They “enable us to put our ear to the ground.”

In the meantime, there seems to be an untapped well of interest in Jewish life in the community. The trick in attracting activists comes back to the theme of empowerment.

“I find that there are really wonderful people, young and old, who are really desirous today of getting involved. The question is finding the vehicles for that,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“They don’t want to just be seen in terms of what they can give,” he says, but care more about the “substance of the involvement.”