Leadership crisis?

In a curious piece in yesterday’s Israel Hayom, Isi Leibler decries a leadership crisis in the diaspora. That of course, is not much in the way of news. Oh, wait, but maybe it is. Leibler claims that “the key professionals dominating the scene are close to retirement, yet failing to groom successors.”
What’s odd, though is exactly what he thinks leadership is. I can’t speak as well to the European scene…Since I know the American scene best, let’s focus on that. Leibler singles out AIPAC as the exception to the rule and then mentions the “the three major public political organizations — the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (the Presidents Conference),” as apparently representative of the entire Jewish community leadership in the USA.

He points to the fact that each of these organizations is headed by a charismatic figure (talented professional) reaching retirement age and also are the key fundraisers.

While he’s certainly correct in this analysis of these organizations, I wonder why he considers this the “leadership” of the Jewish community? While perhaps in Europe the same big institution/everyone-with-the-same-voice yet prevails, looking at the USA with that same pair of yellowing and cracked old glasses is kind of bizarre. His analysis -that young people are “averse to accepting leadership responsibilities,” is also strange. Saying that young people are choosing not to lead organizations rather than that young people (or, frankly, middle aged people) are locked out by extremely wealthy men (and yes, it is men, almost exclusively) who happened to come of age at a time of good fortune for those with an entrepreneurial bent, who then rigged the game so that those who came after had no say unless they too had the money to force their way in.

But let’s put that aside. The organizations that he mentions (at least in the US) are not the Jewish community. They don’t represent the majority of the Jewish community. In fact, let’s be honest, they represent mostly the people who Leibler says are, “Jewish billionaires [who are] “adopting” organizations or assuming “leadership” in return for providing the funds to meet budget requirements.”

In contrast, at least in the US, there are many, many young (and middle-aged) Jewish leaders who do represent the spectrum of the Jewish community, in the sense that they head hundreds of smaller Jewish organizations who speak with a multiplicity of voices representing a broad spectrum of the Jewish community – and whose voices are little represented by these dominating plutocrats, who are significantly more conservative on Israel than the majority of the Jewish community – particularly the younger Jewish community, and several of whom are also more socially conservative -such as Adelson, whom he says “will undoubtedly be recorded as the premier Jewish philanthropist of this era and the greatest individual donor to Birthright and many other crucial apolitical Jewish institutions such as Yad Vashem.” Apolitical oh really. Because the raising of the holocaust to the foundational Jewish myth, over and above any Jewish religious content, ignoring of the rabbinic narratives of the destruction of the Temple which address the same questions, and which focus on the victim status as a rationale for any and all behavior, no matter how reprehensible, is definitely without any political content, no.

This is definitely a view that comes out of a particular generation, and it is the source of Liebler’s view that “the capacity and courage to resist anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli onslaughts” is what Jewish organizations ought to be focusing on. Nevermind that even in the heyday of organization building, that wasn’t the only, or even main, role of Jewish organizations, which served a great variety of purposes.

Nevertheless, Leibler -despite missing that the Jewish community does not speak with a unified voice, and is represented much better by smaller, younger, more nimble organizations who are part of a great spectrum of Jewish (focusing in my case on American, but probably this is true everywhere) voices- hits one nail on the head:

The challenge confronting Jewish organizations today is that, despite being desperate for funding, they must resist being turned into personal fiefdoms of unaccountable billionaires who may promote personal political agendas which run counter to mainstream Jewish interests.

This is a problem in the Jewish community not only for these mega-orgs still lurching around, but even for small organizations and synagogues, where those who donate often maintain excruciating control over programs, mission and direction.

Just as a side note, last year, a number of Jews involved in the Occupy movement branched out from Kol Nidre to starting a subsidiary movement called Occupy Judaism, and as part of it (together with the discussion of economic justice in general together with the wider Occupy movement, and together with the interfaith movements such as Occupy Faith), we stressed having this discussion about who calls the shots in the Jewish community, from pre-schools to synagogue to funding of organizations. It seems fairly obvious in retrospect, but many community rabbis when invited to join in programs, declined, because they were concerned about appearing to be criticizing people – in their own communities who gave money to fund programs in their shuls. Because that sentence is a little ambiguous, let me clarify a bit: we are not talking about 1%ers, but moderately well-off people in the Jewish communities who are donors on moderate levels, but who were able – without saying a word- to squelch much-needed criticism about how those with money in our communities channel the conversation and vision of where we’re going, in some cases, without saying a word – just the very thought of their disapproval served well enough to dissuade rabbis – rabbis! from participating in either internal conversations about money in the Jewish community and in some cases in wider conversations about money in society. So extra kudos to those who worked in pulpit life who were brave enough to stand up (and in many cases bring their communities along), but as to those who felt unable – this is a dangerous way to maintain a community, particularly one of this generation (by which I mean pretty much everyone under 50), which will not be wealthy, by and large, and who mostly, like their generational counterparts, will be working whatever jobs they can get. Oh, and by the way, that includes those working for Jewish organizations.

3 Responses to “Leadership crisis?”

  1. I just put this response on Israel Hayom’s Facebook page:
    Since your website does not seem to have a comment function, I am writing here to respond to yesterday’s piece by Isi Leibler entitled “A Looming Jewish Leadership Crisis.”

    It is clear from what Leibler writes that he has an extremely narrow view of just what Jewish Life means for those of us who live in the diaspora and how the choices of the older established organizations have virtually no bearing on day-to-day Jewish life in our communities.

    Does leadership only count if one is the leader of a national organization? Are defending Israel and combatting anti-semitism the only two valid roles for the diaspora to play in Jewish Life? I would answer a strong “no” to each of these questions.

    I am a synagogue education director, and I am 35; I am also the board member of a national organization for Jewish Educators, NewCAJE. Jews my age are stepping into leadership roles as both professionals and lay leaders all over the United States; This is happening both in older, established institutions and in the amazing amount of new organizations which have been developing over the past decade or so. My small circle of friends, all around my age, includes all of the following and more:
    - The new Director of Teen Learning for USCJ
    - Two Heads of Day Schools
    - Multiple synagogue education and youth directors
    - Regional youth group and camp directors
    - Founders of organizations that promote Jewish life in myriad forms
    - Funders of organizations who are just beginning to spread their philanthropic wings

    Something that most of us share in common is an understanding that successful initiatives moving forward are not going to be giant, top-down projects, but instead grassroots ideas that start small; many will fail, many will bloom, a select few will blossom on a national level.

    As both a volunteer and professional leader I would feel insulted by Leibler’s stance if it was not so obviously misguided; he and I simply have drastically different views of the Jewish world.

    Shabbat Shalom

    (PS – given that Sheldon Adleson has made it very public that he is bankrolling Republican candidates in this election cycle it is pretty off-base to refer to him as an apolitical philanthropist)


    Eitan · August 17th, 2012 at 12:17 pm
  2. Jewish ‘leadership’ has always been comprised of Shloshei Ketarim. The are Kehuna, Torah and Malkhaya. They roughly and loosely translate to the realms of Spirituality, Law and Kingship. They exist in tension with one another. For an overview, read Elazar’s take on Pirke Avot as Rabbinic Political Theory.

    Rarely in Jewish history have the lines been neatly observed, since rarely have all three existed together since the fall of the first Temple. They have been reconstructed, reconstituted and taken on new forms, but whenever these three are out of balance and one dominates or assumes the role of another, the Jewish leaders serve the people less well.

    Before the 20th Century, Diasporic Jewry witnessed Malkuyot in the form of the Parnas, but the role of wealth in supporting spiritual and civic life (the shul on one hand and gemilut chasadim in the other) has often been the default political leadership as well. This has not just been within the Jewish community, but how gentiles view it as well, notably in the paying of special taxes or rescuing hostages in the middle ages.

    Today, Keter Torah attempts to assume the political leadership mantle, with the Kehuna remaining relatively limp (witness lack of funding for Jewish education, culture, arts, meaning making). Malkhuyot and the role of wealth and influence, be it in state models or semi-civic defense organizations or the Federation successors to the European Vaad, is the overwhelming model of leadership we know today in Jewish life.

    Its not a judgement, but an assessment, and its worth quoting the Golden Rule: He (and its most often a he) who holds the gold makes the rules.


    Adam · August 17th, 2012 at 3:54 pm
  3. If Leibler is wrong about Jewish leadership, its not that he ignored the vanishingly small ‘Occupy Judaism’ (BTW how’s Zuccotti Park this summer?). Its that he overlooks the ultra-O’s who can bring tens of thousands to a ballpark seemingly any time they want.


    Dave Boxthorn · August 19th, 2012 at 11:02 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik