Here We Are

By Michael Feuer

[This is an edited version of my Keynote address at the Avodah DC Service Corps 2018-2019 siyyum (completion) celebration in Washington, DC, July 28, 2019.]

This is a wonderful honor for me, to be in the presence of greatness. The word “great” has been hijacked by some of our so-called leaders, so I use it carefully. You are exemplars of what has made, and must continue to make, our country great: your commitment to the public good, to the ideals of justice and charity, to the preference for community over personal gain, to the embrace of “the other,” to the proposition that even local interventions can have wide and deep influence. And you do all this with humility, so scarce in today’s Washington.

As a wise person once said of the Jews, “we are a small people with a big agenda.” So, too, is Avodah, not exactly a behemoth in the ecology of nonprofits, but one that confronts society’s most vexing and complicated problems. I’d like to offer some historical context for your work.

Our nation was founded on eloquent revolutionary ideals – and dreams – about inalienable rights and other self-evident truths. But we know from history that words are not enough. Brilliant rhetoric about rights and truths notwithstanding – and it really was extraordinary, unique, and timeless – for a long time our politics and practices perpetuated racial persecution, economic disparity, and stifling of opportunity. (I shudder to think how much worse things would be if we didn’t even have the rhetoric enshrined in our founding documents, a north star for our deepest-held hopes…)

Consider public education, a microcosm of the American paradox. We never wanted centralized national authority for schools and schooling, but chose rather to design something we charitably call a “system” but which was and is, in the words of a former Harvard president, more like a “chaos…” Schools are run by 15,000 independent districts in 50+ states and resources are allocated based largely on real estate values. Like it or not, more affluent neighborhoods tend to have the nicest-looking schools, attract the better teachers, and buy the most interesting formal and informal curricula. Our “pluribus” has always swamped our dreams of “unum,” not entirely a bad thing. Reliance on local initiative – in a splendidly diverse and sprawling Nation – enabled resilience and innovation through changing times, demographics, and economic demands. But on the downside, inequality, against which the founding documents of the republic were essentially crafted, became etched into the DNA of our political and economic system. States’ rights led to many states’ wrongs. As Amos Oz eloquently pointed out in another context, how much sweeter are dreams than reality…

Our history has been a see-saw: there were times when forces of goodness and justice ascended and other times when greed and bigotry prevailed. Our track record on immigration, for example, includes the most stunning integration of hordes of people from all over the world, many of them grand- and great-grandparents of people sitting here today. But of course many of them endured the bigotry and meanness of those who thought that since they got here first they had natural advantages. (Does this sound familiar?)

Still, through much of the 20th century things were getting better. By the mid-1950s the percentage of our teens enrolled in high school was 5x greater than in Europe, the numbers of our youth going on to postsecondary education and training were growing, and according to the most reliable data we have, the quality of life for much of our population improved. When we focused on equity, sure enough, we passed civil rights laws, we funded compensatory education, achievement gaps narrowed, enrollment and completion for all groups went up, and family wealth for black and Hispanic Americans rose. We fought in schools, in the streets, in the courts, and in Congress to fulfill the promise of our founding ideals – to get that see-saw tilting toward justice – and the result was renewed hope with real results. In all of this, the role of our amazing nonprofit sector was profound.

So what’s the point? Why do we need Avodah today if things are moving in the right direction? That’s the problem with see-saws. They go up and down, and today, my friends – and here’s some technical language – our tuchuses are hitting the ground hard. Schools in major cities are resegregating, child poverty is among the highest in the world, social mobility for minority youth has stalled, the homeless are in our streets, the poor are getting poorer. In Washington, DC, life expectancy for residents in Southeast is about 20 years less than in Northwest.

One of the last books by the preeminent scholar of the Arab world, Bernard Lewis, was called What Went Wrong? His focus was on the conflict between Islam and modernity, not our topic for today. But I would ask the same question: what went wrong? Among the many explanations for our failure to sustain trends to expand social and economic opportunity, one I find compelling is that we got suckered into believing that the only thing that matters is self-interest: if we just let everyone do their thing then, by golly, our whole society will be uplifted. That shift, a seismic disruption in traditions of the “public good,” began roughly in the early 1980s. It was fueled by leaders who offered a seductive image of America as a “shining city upon a hill” – and who then conned us into believing that as the rich got richer the magic of markets would “lift all our boats.” Too many of us chugged down that Kool-Aid. And the effects have been clear: “me-first’ism” erodes the democratic and civic infrastructure and builds an artificial barrier against the virtuous instincts of most people to work together toward the common good.

And so here we are. A nation built by immigrants is enabling vile and uninformed leaders to separate families of newcomers by border police; violence, bullying, hate crimes, racism, and antisemitism are on the rise; and, most amazingly, we take mountains of evidence about our progress and potential, about the spectacular beauty of our diversity, about the possibilities of progress through collective action, and about the grandeur of science as source of knowledge, and throw it all into the dumpster of deceit and denial. The roots of our current crisis didn’t start spreading in November 2016, by the way; but they have been getting much irrigation since then.

Please, no pressure … but your agenda is to fix all that. There’s an old rabbinic folk tale: the difference between the optimist and the pessimist is that the pessimist just has more data. Well, here’s some data that should bolster optimism.

First, we Americans and Jews are a resilient and generous bunch. According to international rankings, the US typically comes in at #4 in “generosity.” Charitable giving topped $400 billion in 2017; more than 2,700 “B” companies are using business as a force for good; a growing number of the super-rich have pledged to donate large portions of their wealth; Jewish families and philanthropies are known for their community spirit and financial largesse; and across America, the power of community is overcoming dislocation and division. Most Americans know that to lift those famous boats you need people rowing together.

Second, about generosity. Many of us learned about Tzedakah from Rambam, who set out his principles almost 1000 years ago. Modern science has caught up: we now have experimental evidence showing that not only are recipients of charity made better off, so too are those who give. Published studies show that we are rewarded with better health for acting on our generous instincts; adults who volunteer report greater quality of life; frequent helpers report more vitality and self-esteem; generosity makes givers feel happier. Isn’t it wonderful to think that biblical and Talmudic teaching gets the endorsement of modern science?!

Two more quick bits of encouragement. First, if you worry that you’re not having enough impact, think of the Mishnaic teaching of about 17 centuries ago, that “whoever saves a single life is considered … to have saved the whole world…” By my count, you together have already saved many worlds. Yes, it’s good to think about how to “scale-up” local efforts; but remember and celebrate that every bit helps.

Second, don’t fall for tricks about how progressivism and Judaism (and Zionism, for that matter) are somehow incompatible. That formulation, sometimes hidden in the new jargon of “intersectionality,” is an ugly invention of people who are borderline (if not certifiable) antisemites, who know nothing about the history of our people in the struggle for universal human rights and social justice. Your work provides compelling counterfactual evidence.

You’re too young to remember the great slapstick comedians, Laurel and Hardy. In one of their memorable scenes, Oliver looked at the chaos of their clumsiness, turned to Stan, and said, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” My generation has indeed made a fine mess, even in our attempts to fix the one our elders left us. It’s your turn now.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend… but then get back to work. We’ve got a big agenda.

Michael Feuer is Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, co-chair of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education, and immediate past-president of the National Academy of Education. The opinions expressed here are his own, drawn from his recent commencement address at GW and remarks at the 2019 commencement of Avodah, and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.