New Headwinds; Steven M. Cohen and Tisha B’Av

Random thoughts:

Over the past decade there has been a considerable amount of discussion – on both sides of the Atlantic – on the “Distancing” hypothesis which suggests a declining attachment of younger American Jews to Israel. Programs have been expanded and new programs launched, with no shortage of philanthropic and, in some cases, Israel government funding to counter these trends. Regardless of where you sit on this debate, two actions of the past week will likely significantly increase headwinds and turn the Israel Diaspora relationship into a full crisis:

First, the Knesset’s passing of the contentious nation-state bill 62-55. Hailed by the Prime Minister as “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel” the legislation was roundly criticized in the Diaspora. Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from the UK’s Board of Deputies (the main representative body of British Jewry) whose senior vice president told local Jewish media, “Among Israel’s great strengths are its democracy and diversity. Being Jewish is a wonderful thing, but this should not lead to doing down others…

“The lesson of Jewish history is that societies are stronger when minorities are affirmed, and they decay when minorities are degraded.”

The other significant news item from Israel was the arrest and interrogation of Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Masorti rabbi for the “crime” of officiating at a wedding outside the control of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate. (It should be noted Rabbi Haiyun has been officiating at non-Orthodox weddings in Israel for decades.)

Among the many organizations weighing in, USCJ sent a statement directly to the Prime Minister, saying the episode “marks a new and dangerous step in the ongoing attack on religious freedom and civil liberties in Israel.”

These two items, occuring days apart – and days prior to Tisha B’av – will further strain relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. With a Prime Minister clearly more interested in Evangelical support than Diaspora Jews, the week may become the watershed moment where multiple generations of younger Jews cement their “distancing.”

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The “outing” of Steven M. Cohen, a well-known researcher, writer and speaker on American Jewish trends, on sexual misconduct has hit the professional Jewish world with the strength of a tsunami.

A few weeks ago, Keren McGinity – an academic with professional appointments at both Brandeis and Hebrew College – asked us to republish her 1st hand account of sexual harassment by an unnamed fellow academic. Around the same time a single name was posted anonymously to a closed Facebook group identifying the individual. A few days ago, in a well-researched must-read article, The New York Jewish Week identified Steven M. Cohen, an HUC-JIR research professor and high-profile Jewish sociologist whose research is focused largely on demography, as the individual. The reaction across the professional Jewish world was immediate. Facebook walls and hallway conversations in Jewish organizations have focused on little else since the story broke. HUC has opened a Title IX investigation against Cohen.

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An important question for our readers, particularly on the funder and consultant hiring side is, “who knew what and when?” and more important, “what vetting obligation does a funder have in grant making?” For organizations engaging consultants, at a minimum, they should be vetted with the same vigorous processes recommended as best practice for senior hires.

We would hope the topic receives serious discussion and action when the Tarrytown Group, an informal group of senior Jewish foundation and Federation leaders, meets this week.

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From the Lanner scandal to allegations against Baltimore rabbi and youth leader Steven Krawatsky, The New York Jewish Week (NYJW), under Gary Rosenblatt’s strong stewardship, has a history of calling out abuse and “ill deeds” in the Jewish community. While the American Jewish media is – for the most part – woefully under-funded and constantly being asked to do too much with too little, we hope NYJW will continue to look at other high-profile and powerful professionals in their own backyard where years of sexual harassment rumors appear to have led nowhere.

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Last year, on Tisha B’Av, Andrés Spokoiny (JFN’s CEO) wrote, “Are we, as funders and communal leaders, investing in creating habits of respect – even for those who dissent from the community’s consensus? Will we have the stamina and courage to stick with those habits for as long as it takes? Will we be role models of civility and moderation, or will we be among the demonizers and excluders?”

An appropriate question, still today. And no better time than Tisha B’Av to reflect.

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Suggested reading:

Keren McGinity’s original post: http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/american-jewrys-metoo-problem-a-first-person-encounter/

Hannah Dreyfus’s (NYJW) expose on Steven M. Cohen: https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/harassment-allegations-mount-against-leading-jewish-sociologist/

Esther Kustanowitz on the role of “touch” in a professional environment: http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/esther-d-kustanowitz/236202/a-touching-moment/

Dan Brown is the founder of eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

The opinions expressed above should not be regarded as statements of the views of other eJewish Philanthropy contributors, its advisors or funders.