Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Grooming Leaders

Jewish leadership of my generation has left me underwhelmed.  Institutions already existed for worship, camaraderie, support of communal educational and social needs, burial.  They came from somewhere by people who often created something from nothing, people of vision and energy who got some measure of deserved kavod as their reward but the work had value without the public honors that came their way.  Like any successful entrepreneurial venture, these institutions reach maturity after which maintaining takes priority over innovation.  Thus we have my generation now holding the senior synagogue and communal positions, groomed as clones of the people who groomed them, no longer receptive to the challenges, analyses and clashes that brought about the original success, or at least trying to keep an arms length from disruption and marginalize the people who may bring that disruption about.  It has not been a good outcome, or maybe it has depending on what you like to measure.  Head count has certainly declined over my adult lifetime.  There is more alienation and considerable cynicism from some of the best potential contributors around.  Those that keep in the loop have more resources to commit, which they do.  Whether the kingmakers' empires are really bigger or smaller can be rationalized both ways.

What seems beyond argument, though, is that Jewish leadership grooming has become less of a meritocracy than it was a generation ago, with more accusations of self-promotion or exclusion of the best and brightest in favor of the most loyal or obedient to the agenda.

We see this in a rather public way with recent reports of a central conclave of USY leadership.  For readers unfamiliar with the background, USY has been a successful USCJ arm designed to keep teenage members of Conservative Judaism attached as they head off to college and beyond.  I was a nominal member, participating primarily in weekly bowling league and basketball where my team was invariably The Skins.  Some of my friends from there are my FB Friends today.  No religious requirements were imposed upon me and none were pursued.  The one or two times I went to a meeting, there were officers, though I was never notified of an election or invited to be a participant in anything.  We had a kosher home, attended shul on shabbat though I would attend school events on shabbos and practice on Saturday morning a few times a year with our All County Orchestra.  Nobody ever asked me which girls I found the cutest so they could apply a shiksa test, something first starting to emerge in the mid 1960's just a few years after the publication of  "The Vanishing American Jew" in Look Magazine, z"l,  the year of my Bar Mitzvah and treated by the congregational rabbis much more harshly than now.  I do not recall ever seeing the USY officers in shul with me on shabbos.  This organization served as both an effective recruiter and effective deterrent to seeking out college Hillel once parents could no longer insist that you go to meetings or services on shabbos morning.

With maturity came formality and litmus tests.  Shabbos was the big one, so that participants in the high school athletic, dramatic, and music extracurriculars that conflicted with shabbos forfeited their eligibility to be officers, irrespective of the talent or dedication they bring to the organization.  And so compliance gets you on the A-team and self-fulfillment gets you on the B-team.  You can still be a member and your basketball team might be designated The Shirts but you still wore that invisible yellow star with six points that had JOCK inscribed in the middle.  That same form of thinking never quite changed.  Woody Allen once observed that 80% of life is showing up.  Show up on shabbos morning and your chances of being a USY officer then or a congregational officer now were pretty good.  And as intermarriage became more common and more difficult to apply shunning effectively to offenders, another set of litmus tests arose, one that depleted the interest of some very fine talent in a way that really cannot be recovered, though we could argue whether the honchos now sitting on the organizational dais really want to recover it.

So where did the talent that was gradually depleted over my generation and continues to be alienated from the central institutions in my children's generation end up instead?  Some of us stand outside the tent and pee in.  Some write a perfunctory check on request though for a smaller amount than they might have if they had more personal commitment.  Some nominally stay with the organization but nurture a small cadre of associates with only minimal regard for where the larger organization tries to position itself.  Others go the way of the writers of the Jewish Megatrends anthology and reassemble to embark on new ventures.  But by and large, this just does not really look like the kind of circumstance that generates G'Dolim B'Dor.

Most institutions will have a time of formation, growth, maturity and senescence.  The Federations will plod along as mature organizations that no longer have a concept of disruptive innovation as something beneficial. Many synagogues, mine among them, have become organizational zekainim, though without the wisdom that should accrue with years.  Yet is seems like we put a lot of effort into perpetuating what perhaps we would be better off disrupting.

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