Disputation is the Source of Creativity: Reconsidering the Response to Critical Analysis of Community Issues

We have lost sight of the role disputation plays in the Jewish community.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Last week’s firing of a federation staff member for her blog post on eJewishPhilanthropy.com – which questioned the Jewish community’s priority on serving young adults – shocked and dismayed me as much as it did so many others. It should be a wake-up call for all of us involved in Jewish communal service. We must begin to reconsider the meaning of disputation in the Jewish community and whether writing about a controversial issue is tantamount to disloyalty to the organizations with which we affiliate as volunteer or professional leaders.

Michal Kohane, who for three years had been director of the Israel Center at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, wrote a blog for this website titled “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” She argued that the overwhelming focus on serving young Jews was misplaced and that more priority should be given to serving those middle-aged and older. She wrote generally about what she considered to be the Jewish community’s incorrect focus and never once mentioned the San Francisco federation.

Yet the very day of its publication, Jennifer Gorowitz, CEO of the San Francisco federation, fired Ms. Kohane. In Ms. Gorowitz’s statement, released a few days later, she writes, “Public communications from within the organization require review and approval prior to publication…. The post published recently in eJewish Philanthropy, however, does not represent the views of the Federation.”

Ms. Kohane’s firing raises the question of any professional’s freedom of speech to comment on issues that may or may not be germane to the organization to which he or she is affiliated. Also forgotten in the fray over her termination is her take on the issue of how Jewish communal organizations serve those under 40 years of age as compared to the way they deal with older individuals. After all, she wrote the blog post to share her opinion and thereby to initiate a dialogue, discussion, and thoughtful process in which the community would explore its policies and practices with different age groups.

We have lost sight of the role disputation plays in the Jewish community. Historically the Jewish people were committed to the statement of disparate opinions and the subsequent response by informed and knowledgeable colleagues. Tradition has taught us the importance of disputation, and our system of Judaic law, Halakha, is based on the discussion of varied perspectives on the same issue.

Ms. Kohane’s posting began an exchange of ideas. Initially it evoked a few responses on the website, but after her termination was announced, both the number and the content of responses changed. The number of responses increased dramatically, and their focus switched from the content of her blog – age-based programming – to the right of a federation employee to express an opinion. The responses raised these questions: Why was the dialogue ended prematurely with the firing of the professional who expressed her professional assessment of the way we develop community programs? What are the organizations afraid of? Are they concerned that their thoughtful and committed professional leadership will say or write something that will put the Jewish community in a vulnerable position? Are they afraid their dirty laundry will be viewed in public? Are they afraid donors will cease supporting the community and its institutions because professionals are articulating that the policies and programs are less than perfect?

A wonderful opportunity was lost by this change of focus. There was no more discussion on whether the Jewish community’s focus on young people is misplaced, a discussion that might have capitalized on the creativity of the professional and volunteer leaders in the Jewish community. We should not be afraid of articulating different perspectives and ideas that question accepted practices or seem to fly in the face of Jewish tradition. The richness of our Jewish laws and traditions has developed precisely because of the ability of our sages to question each other and to speak freely and openly as long as the process did not embarrass anyone. In this situation Ms. Kohane was not embarrassing the federation or placing it in a compromising situation.

Perhaps I identify strongly with her because I was placed in a similar position many years ago. I had drafted a paper for the Journal of Jewish Communal Service on the North American Jewish Federations’ relationship to Israel. The paper was critical of the nature of the connection between the federation system and Israel, suggesting ways it could be changed. I submitted it to the director of marketing and communication for the organization with whom I was then working and received a very disturbing response. Although the paper was written well, I was told that only the CEO of the organization spoke publicly about the federations and Israel.

Needless to say, I was frustrated and distraught. What message was being communicated to me about freedom of thought and expression, put forth for the purpose of initiating a discussion of ideas and points of view? Perhaps this is why I feel so uncomfortable and at odds with the San Francisco federation’s response to a thoughtful professional who is committed to the Jewish community and strengthening the connection that Jewish people of all ages have with the community.

I encourage professionals to continue to think creatively, to feel free to express themselves within their organizations, and to become more comfortable writing so they can share their ideas with others. At the same time I encourage our volunteer officers and board members and our CEOs to be more supportive of the process of open discourse and the exchange of thoughts and opinions. As we learn to encourage our professionals to think critically and to communicate with others, we will discover new ways to strengthen the Jewish community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

For further reading:

Michal Kohane’s 40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement;

Dan Brown’s The Cost of Criticism

and Jennifer Gorowitz’s complete statement.

We also call your attention to the comment sections on both posts.