Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Money Talks

Image result for if i were a rich manThis nicely written essay appeared in The Forward as an opinion piece by Jay Ruderman, head of his family's charitable foundation.  As a young physician more than thirty years ago, new to town and to synagogue, word got out that a new couple of young professionals with obvious dedication to Jewish life and with traditional observance had latched on to the Conservative shul. Invitations to join the Federation's Young Leadership program followed shortly.  It did not take too many sessions of attendance to realize that the local leaders who addressed us valued our potential future income a lot more than they valued the intellect and dedication that had gotten us to our entry point with them.  Attrition from the program was high, respect for leadership of that type a lot less than it could have been, and ability to withstand strains that inevitably arise over decades, basically non-existent.  They went for the money over the people and got what they sought but at an enormous and likely irreversible consequence. 

Jay Ruderman in The Forward.  Me  

 I don’t presume to know all the positive attributes that define true leadership in our age, but I can confidently tell you what does not, by itself, constitute a good Jewish leader: money.

Reb Tevye on Broadway challenged this "If I were a Rich Man" lyrics when he observed, "if you're rich they thing you really know."

Financial capacity to donate to an organization or a cause is not the same as leadership — and yet, all too frequently, Jewish organizations treat their funders as leaders. As a result, they end up with a lack of authentic visionaries.

It’s not hard to see why such a “leadership” culture has emerged in the Jewish community. Every organization is looking to expand funding in a fickle marketplace. In order to raise dollars, organizations identify the wealthiest people in the community, recruit them and cultivate their giving over time.

Not content just to give money to a good cause, many donors demand an outsized role in decision making, and organizations that want to keep them happy comply, fawningly.

They cultivate more than their giving.  In effect, they are often made proportionate share holders much like a corporation would, with elements of authority that go with it.  For self-made wealth, experience with assembling professional teams to carry out articulated missions may be part of what these people already do successfully.  For inherited wealth it is probably not.

Even when donors do not initially demand a leadership role, organizations often seek to empower them because they know they are more likely to clinch the donors’ gifts, turn them into loyal supporters and raise more funds from their friends. In effect, Jewish organizations have developed a wealthy cheerleader system that is optimally designed for raising money but not necessarily for accomplishing their mission.

But accomplishing the mission goes more easily when the funds are secure.

It’s understandable that wealthy people have a voice — even a disproportionate voice — in organizational life. The problem arises when that voice drowns out everyone else’s, completely obscuring the democratic ethos of Jewish civic life.

I'm not sure Jewish civic life was traditionally democratic.  Tanach is replete with hierarchy, mostly merit based until you get to Kings when the inherited nature of the position makes worthiness more hit and miss.  While Moshe was sensitive to the kvetch's of the rank and file, later on others would sell vulnerable people down the river for a pair of shoes.  In more modern times it would not be the Rabbi's son selected from the community to serve in the Czar's Army but an orphan who was deemed expendable.  The idea of everybody being a contributor, one man-one vote, is a very Western one that had infused itself into American life in all its facets, including Judaism.  Thus the great outcry in my former congregation when three machers got together, pooled their ample funds and took it upon themselves to overcompensate the Rabbi with a deal he could not refuse so that the rest of us would not have the opportunity to engage in a divisive discussion over contract renewal.  This is very real, and for those who are not nurtured into the organization, it invites attrition Pew Research style.

This dynamic undoubtedly exists in secular philanthropic circles as well, but it is decidedly more pronounced in the Jewish community. My experience is that in secular philanthropy there is often a much brighter line between giving and leadership. There is frequently an active group of donors who finance the organization’s work, and a set of leaders who provide vision, direction and insight. Sometimes there is overlap and sometimes there isn’t.

Much depends on the organization.  If you have a university, symphony or humanitarian organization, nothing would happen without relatively scarce talent being offered a chance to perform.  I could probably say the same about JTS or the Joint Distribution Community in the Jewish world where use of the funds is defined and Rabbis or humanitarian professionals need the freedom to implement what the organization does.  Not so for Federations whose purpose is to raise money or even synagogues, or churches for that matter, where the professional talent is not as scarce and does not need to be quite in the upper tier.

So the conflation of leadership with fundraising is not inevitable. What’s more, this perverse concept of leadership hurts the Jewish community in several ways.

First, it hands the keys to people who may have little leadership ability or insight, at least in the sphere of Jewish organizational life. Being a good businessperson does not necessarily make you an effective lay leader.

Second, it blinds organizations to highly talented people in our community who may possess tremendous leadership qualities but not deep pockets. With the need to raise more money, many organizations fill all the seats with big donors and overlook genuinely capable leaders.
Third, it makes us look like an elitist community catering to the few, and pushes away younger Jews who don’t find a donor-dominated establishment the least bit appealing.

And it affects how the upper tier views the others.  An anecdote serves well.  As a young physician in a congregation that did not have that many congregants with serious bimah skills, the one where three guys driving their Jew Canoe took it upon themselves to dispatch the Rabbi, I would read Torah on one of the Yomim Noraim days each year.  Since I could do any day, and did over the course of about a dozen years there, a who's who of the shul's law firm partners, retail moguls and the like would pay a handsome some for their reserved Aliyah each year, virtually all men slightly my senior, though the congregation had been egalitarian for some time.  As the  Olim came and went, they greeted each other with a generous handshake or hug but there were rather few handshakes to me as the Reader or the Gabbaim.  My yasher koach came as I returned to my seat from people who knew that these readings took some effort.  While I did my portion as a service to the shul with no expectation of a reward, the identification of not being one of THEM has remained long after my exit from that shul.  I am the reader again at my current shul, less of an annual Aliyah Recycling Center for big donors, and am greeted very differently by the Olim.  It is notice in ways big and small.

This confusion about leadership can produce abysmal results. Time and again, ideologically driven funders demand that their organizations shun left-of-center voices on Israel that criticize Israeli government policy. Numerous synagogues have invited and then disinvited speakers, such as Peter Beinart, simply because a small group or even a single donor has threatened to cut off financial support. These funders do a disservice to the organizations they support, which end up alienating younger Jews and appearing closed-minded and weak. In the end, the funders unwittingly strengthen the very groups and voices they try to weaken.  

This phenomenon is not necessarily money driven, but sometimes a reflection of authority as in the case of an Orthodox Rabbi who evicted a congregant on shabbat for following the Torah reading in his personal Etz Chaim Chumash.  We have some of that in our congregation where some of our congregants will openly disparage some regional college students at a Board Meeting for taking a lenient position on Middle Eastern affairs.  The irony is that these same guys would probably give their right gonad to have those highly educated, young Jews with good future financial prospects show any interest whatever in becoming part of our congregation as paying members, or even non-paying new courtesy members, especially men with bimah skills.

While it may not be easy, it is possible to say no to these donors. The leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, for example, publicly declared that they would not give in to the pressure of outside agitators demanding that the federation defund a local Jewish community center for showing a controversial play about Israel. In an open letter to the community, federation leaders stated, “It is our job to live up to the ideals of Abraham, to create an open tent for all Jews, to demonstrate our love of Israel and the Jewish people everywhere.” That’s rare, but true, leadership.

At other moments, I’ve been struck at how weak-kneed Jewish philanthropists have been in the face of serious challenges. When Israel’s religious affairs minister, David Azoulay, declared that he “cannot allow” himself to say that a Reform Jew is a Jew, there was hardly a peep from anyone but the leaders of the denominations. Where were all the voices of courage, I wondered, to challenge this obvious affront to the interests of the American Jewish community, not to mention Israeli society?

Would it be too much to expect Orthodox Jewish philanthropists or organizational leaders who otherwise dedicate themselves to advancing bilateral ties to speak out against the attack on Reform Judaism?

Sometimes silence says a lot.  I'm sure that organizational leaders promote pluralism within their organizations.  In my relatively small community, interdependence of the denominations is essential though in larger communities the denominations are often more secure and insular.

The sad fact is that our donor-leader class often remains silent when it shouldn’t, and speaks out when it shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, except in blatant situations, it is not always obvious which situations merit the most vigorous response, nor is it possible to assess consequences of silence or in your face comments accurately.  Again, this is a leadership challenge, hardly unique to large donors.

By handing power to people with money irrespective of their leadership capacity or insight, we are cheating our community of what we all deserve. We can do better.

I'm not convinced it is being handed to them as much as they are assessing their own entitlement and taking the authority that they assess their generosity offers them.  

Lest we think this is unique to Jewish organizations, it is now well ingrained in other aspects of our lives including who we elect to represent us politically with parallel underperformance of public institutions.

My thanks to Mr. Ruderman, who I assume is a member of the donor class, for enabling some feedback from the peasant class.

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