May 25, 2012

Jewish organizations face transition anxiety

The New York Jewish Week has a timely article about the untimely lack of succession planning in American Jewish organizations. Sure, Communist China has more organized and frequent turnover at the top than do most of our communal institutions over here. But to be fair, when success is measured by market shares and fundraising numbers, keeping a charismatic leader in place becomes imperative. And why rock the boat, since status quo is a close second to charisma as a guiding consideration. 

[Full disclosure here: I still have latent aspirations of my own...] 

It would be nice if success were primarily measured by transparent results against a clear mission ("ROI" evangelism notwithstanding). But our community is based on voluntary participation and support, so using familiar and brand-tested personalities can be very important to keeping the Jewish public engaged. 

Reportedly, some major organizations also prefer to wait on lining up a successor until after the chief executive announces retirement, so the search process can become an opportunity to reassess the organization's mission and structure. So, in many cases, the only opportunity for a top-down review and realignment is when the chief executive (or a Higher authority) chooses his own departure date, possibly three decades out? This seems a bit antiquated, and wouldn't meet the standards of the business leaders who fund the organizations or the taxpayers who subsidize their tax-deductible donations. 

If one individual is so popular and effective that only he (still very few she's at the top) can make the organization work, then he has not done such a great job building an institution. Despite all the consultants and Planning Professionals employed by Jewish nonprofits, it's not succession planning we're missing -- it's succession and planning. 

It is what it is. (It's certainly not changing anytime soon.)

May 22, 2012

Fear, Internet, and the Jewish future

I recently attended the funeral of a major rabbi and educator from the Haredi, "black hat" sector of our community. The street was closed to traffic due to the impressive turnout, and a diverse succession of leading rabbis delivered emotional eulogy after eulogy.

Eulogy after eulogy repeated the same two memes. First, this was a man completely devoted to ensuring the transmission of Torah Judaism. Second, he was even more remarkable in his unwavering determination to oppose any change, hewing rather to the rigid traditions of previous generations. This can be a true strength, and we will always need teachers and guides who do not waver, but we also need leaders who can empower us to engage the world and repair it, and assimilate it -- not to assimilate INTO it.

"Assimilation" can refer to what we as Jews glean from the outside world -- language and literary meter, reasoning, science, manners, history. The dangerous side of assimilation has been the hemorrhaging of Jews and the dilution of Jewish identity. Our mission in this world is to assimilate, in the BEST meaning of the word: To integrate the richness of all knowledge into our dynamic and constantly evolving sense of identity and choices, as we face the ever-changing and constant challenges of life and the universe; and to get our questions and conclusions out to the widest possible audience, Jewish and otherwise, in order to make a positive impact on humanity. 

The destructive form of assimilation is very real, but it should not eclipse what has always been one of our strengths -- engaging the world in a constructive way, running the risks of diminution in order to remain relevant in the cause of expanding holiness where it would otherwise be lacking or undiscovered.

Every society and culture needs an ivory tower, and there are sectors of yeshiva life that should focus on what is immutable and unchanging. But an equally real test and mission of Judaism, as I see it, is to walk humbly with the Lord -- to walk, not just to sit. 

There will always be a facile case for demonizing and even banning interaction with the world beyond our own four cubits -- how can I get hit by a car if I stay in bed all day? The reaction to Internet is only the latest example. But effectively shutting off the Internet is also a control mechanism. And discouraging proper enforcement against sex-abusers can "protect" the community only in some perverse way, an example of how rigid control can harm the community and its members. 

May 6, 2012

On day school advocacy, follow the money.

I was intrigued to learn that my colleagues at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are holding a panel discussion on vouchers, tax credits and other forms of government aid to non-public (i.e., private) schools. The panel is scheduled for this week's annual JCPA Plenum, where community activists from around the country gather to coordinate national and local approaches to pressing issues.

As was pointed out in the latest New York Jewish Week, this is a big deal for a national umbrella that's typically left-of-center when it comes to social policy and domestic politics. Part of JCPA's strength has been its affinity with labor unions and liberal church groups, which has come in handy over the years especially in protecting Israel from would-be boycotts. Some years back, JCPA ran afoul of some of the more monied interests in the Jewish community by opposing the Bush-era tax cuts.

Could this be a sea change? Government assistance to private schools -- even yeshivas -- is usually perceived by teachers' unions as undercutting their bottom line on the public school side. Many liberal Jews have lingering concerns over separation of church and state -- even for financing of secular aspects of Jewish day school education.

According to The Jewish Week, the three panelists for the session will be two academics -- including the leading historian of American Jewry -- and the head of a major teachers' union. It's a nice "get" to have a major skeptic of government funding, and two thoughtful scholars... but no sea change yet. Hopefully, sometime soon, JCPA will be in a position to give a platform to those in the community who are actively engaging in political advocacy for this cause, at the national, state and city levels;  a constitutional law expert; and possibly, one of the many community leaders who are also on board.

For now, it may be up to the Jewish Federations to lead the way, since that's where the donors are. Who better to appreciate what it costs to fund Jewish continuity?