Stosh Cotler eats, sleeps, and breathes leadership, and says all leaders should do the same. “Leadership is learnable—something we practice moment to moment, day by day,” Cotler says.
Cotler is a driving force in Jewish leadership as the executive vice president of the recently merged Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ). She also had an instrumental role in the collaboration which created the Selah Leadership Training program, which works to improve the skills of leaders in the field. Selah focuses on transformative leadership, which involves adopting practices such as daily meditation, journaling, or a restful Shabbat to identify unconscious behaviors and take control of them.
Cotler believes it is important for her to exemplify these transformative leadership practices. “It’s important that I model what I say I’m about—that I walk the talk, that there’s not a disconnect between my values and how I behave, that I’m treating my colleagues with respect, that I’m actually building trust among the relationships I have,” she says. “But [I also want to create] an environment as a whole where people are building trust amongst each other.” All of these together allow for a more open, creative, and innovative dialogue that brings greater change and success, Cotler says.
Selah’s leadership model consists of collaboration and partnership. This may have contributed to Cotler’s success in harmoniously merging JFSJ with the PJA. In addition to leading the senior management team, Cotler heads an ongoing Internal Culture Management Team, which is tasked with creating a new culture for the organization and making sure that it is practiced. This model encourages partnerships instead of competition with other Jewish organizations.
Cotler has been working in the social justice field since age 18. In her mid-20s, she started an anti-violence organization for women and youth to educate individuals and communities on issues of gender justice and anti-sexual and domestic violence. It partnered with another organization on community organizing with young women of color and low-income young women.
But her vision of social justice in a Jewish context is more recent. Raised in a non-observant home in Portland, Oregon, a spiritual crisis in her mid-20s led her to explore Buddhism. But then she happened to attend a Passover seder. “Most of the people were queer, and the Hagaddah that they made incorporated a range of social justice themes, particularly themes around homophobia, transphobia, sexism,” Cotler recounts. “As a queer person myself, it was a shock (in a great way) to be able to bring my full self to the experience and feel like I could be whole in a Jewish space.”
Since joining JFSJ in 2005, Cotler has been passionate about changing the world through a Jewish organization. She believes that if Jewish organizations would come back to the table in social justice movements, it would show young Jews already interested in social action that they can pursue their goals within a Jewish context.
PJA-JFSJ also helps develop young leaders through the Jeremiah Fellowship. This program takes Jews in their early 20s who are interested in social change, leadership, and Jewish values, and equips them with the tools to become agents of change in their communities.
“There are people who are born leaders…who have charisma,” Cotler says. “But in fact what makes a leader effective goes far beyond those types of qualities. Most people who are effective in leadership have a very high level of self-awareness, have the ability to manage their own state, understand dynamics that are playing out in a group, have the ability to create rapport and trust with others.”
Cotler says that this leadership pipeline, where each leader is always developing, is accessible to everyone. “Through really effective skill-building, training, and mentoring, anyone can develop themselves to be more effective in the world,” she says. “If we all think that we’re potential agents for change, it’s really our job to tap into that potential over and over again.”