A Needed Change in Jewish Leadership

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Some leaders of American Jewish Organizations have been in power for 20, 30 even 40 years. Is that good for the Jews? I don’t think so. I believe that there is a moral imperative to effectuate orderly and regular leadership transitions in the Jewish nonprofit sector. Transitions can make an organization stronger, even when the transition involves replacing a successful leader or organization founder. The failure to plan invites divisiveness, corruption and ruin.

Undefined and unlimited tenure occurs frequently in the nonprofit world. In many cases, founders have no intention to leave and charismatic leaders are urged to stay. Recent turmoil at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Zionist Organization of America illustrate that point. In such cases, the organization is unlikely to have a plan to find an adequate replacement. In the circumstance where the leadership dies or suddenly resigns, the transition may be more contentious and potentially more damaging. Board members become targets for blame in the ensuing turmoil.

I experienced firsthand the disruption of an inspiring organization with the loss of a charismatic leader. I learned that succession planning cannot be built on private conversations and good intentions. The result there was a fractured and then contracted organization.

As a responsible board member, I ask about succession planning. Sometimes my questions are met with derision and consternation. Jewish organizations pride themselves on being spiritual institutions, such that corporate modalities like succession planning may seem offensive to current leadership.

The nonprofit literature is full of advice about the importance of succession planning. Curtis Welling and John Vogel, Jr., writing in NonProfit Quarterly in 2015, pointed out that succession planning is an awkward and difficult topic that organizations tend to avoid. “Most boards simply never carve out the time to create a realistic and strategic succession plan.” If the CEO or Dean is doing a reasonably good job, it seems that no one wants to ask when he or she is planning to leave.

How, then, does the organization create the right incentives and conditions so that this complex but important discussion happens? Welling and Vogel offer straight-forward tools to institute good succession planning including annual performance reviews, a written succession plan and multi-year, fixed term contracts. As a focus of their argument, Welling and Vogel urge the use of a five year contract, common in academia, which allows for a balance between steady stewardship and transition planning.

It is also important, according to Welling and Vogel, to acknowledge that while no one is indispensable, “most successful leaders have built personal relationships that are critical to the success of their organization. They are often the prime contact with donors, board members, government officials, and community leaders. When a founder or executive director leaves, funders may wonder if there are some deeper organizational problems and issues.” These factors may create an inertia for boards and professionals alike.

There are rare individuals who can lead an organization through all the stages of growth of a healthy nonprofit organization. Most leaders have more limited skill sets appropriate to a specific stage of an organization’s existence. For the sake of the organization, employing the appropriate executives for the specific stages of an organization’s growth may mean the difference between continuing success and the road to failure.

Thought leaders and ethicists have questioned if there is a moral component to the persistence of leadership in nonprofit organizations. In response to such problems, Dr. Rafael Medoff, Prof. Susannah Heschel and other academics launched The Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership. The Committee’s website features a “Declaration on Ethics in Jewish Leadership.” This 10-point statement urges that “Jewish organizations should hold regular democratic elections for their senior leadership positions,” “Jewish organizations should adopt term limits, to combat the phenomenon of entrenched and self-perpetuating leaders,” “whistleblowers should be encouraged,” and “excusing offenders’ conduct or blaming the victims for coming forward is intolerable.” More than 300 Rabbis, Scholars and Jewish Community Professionals have signed the declaration so far.

Perhaps the evidence of ethical concerns can be found in the sullied history of long-term leaders of some nonprofit organizations. Tablet magazine recently documented numerous examples of financial misbehavior, sexual harassment and other abuse committed by Morton Klein, who has been President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) for more than twenty-five years. Only a week earlier, Morris Dees, who co-founded the venerable Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 1971, was dismissed after a compilation of unethical behaviors came to light. This is not to say that all long tenured leaders are unethical, but rather that a system without succession planning is inclined toward permitting unethical behaviors by its leadership.

The difficulty of whistle blowing in each of ZOA and SPLC was also highlighted. Calling out the foibles and failings of those in power is challenging. Yet, unethical leadership is protected by silence or complicity. Leadership assessment must be made in the context of nonprofit organizations’ missions to improve the world not corrupt it.

Long tenured leadership is not an absolute marker of unethical behavior. However, the decision of such leaders to retain power may itself be an immoral decision. in addition to the aforementioned concern, the nonprofit organization’s future will likely be imperiled by failing to engage in meaningful succession planning.

Thus, it remains for the interested public to ask of the longest tenured leaders in Jewish organizations if their term of service is best for their organization. We might ask if long tenured professionals set an appropriate example for the future operation of all organizations. And, perhaps most critically, it is valid to consider the compelling evidence that a long-term hold on power makes corruption and immoral behavior more likely to occur.

Evan Krame, is a special needs lawyer and mid-career rabbi, who founded The Jewish Studio in suburban Maryland, a creative approach to Judaism for adults only, focusing on making their Jewish experiences enjoyable and meaningful.