On Jewish Leadership in a Time of Crisis

By Yehuda Kurtzer

Our central communal organizations have been challenged for years by the transformations long under way in American Jewish life: the tendency toward decentralization in organizational life in general, the ethnic changeover of American Jews, which makes for less loyalty to older patterns of behavior, the rise of a start-up sector and a new Jewish infrastructure, changes in philanthropy from a commitment to the “community chest,” to privatized, family-led foundations, and a perception – and possibly reality – of an evolving value system in which the priorities of new generations of Jews are different from those of their predecessors.

The consequence of these changes is not that the central communal organizations are inherently or inevitably weaker, but rather that they are forced to compete differently in the marketplace of ideas and institutions than an earlier era of Jewish history, when their importance and their centrality was more taken for granted.

One way on display of late in the attempt by central convening organizations to compete and remain relevant is the growing phenomenon of speaking out quickly and firmly on public policy issues. In the past month alone, all the major rabbinic bodies in America – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox – have issued release after release on issues as disparate as the murders in Charleston, the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling, the MK David Azoulay controversy in Israel, and now – and most prominently – the P5+1 agreement with Iran. These responses range in vociferousness and clarity depending on the group and on the message, but on Iran in particular, two Jewish federations have already moved beyond the usual message of “expressing concern” to indicating outright opposition to the deal and their intent to participate in protesting via lobbying Congress.

I want to raise three concerns about this changing nature of Jewish communal leadership. This is not to take a stance on the Iran deal in one way or another, but to convey my fears about short-term shifts in communal policy with long-term ramifications. The classical Rabbis made clear that there were moments that were considered sha’at ha’dehak, demanding urgent and sometimes extra-legal interventions, but that the decisions of those moments were not meant to count as legally instructive precedent. I would like to make sure our community is similarly conscious of its precedent-setting, especially in this polarizing and vulnerable time.

First, I am concerned about the speed of response that is now thought to be standard for Jewish communal organizations to issue their definitive statement. The Miami and Boston Federations issued their statements condemning the deal and their intent to publicly oppose it even before the deal officially arrived in Congress for review. This is born of a fear of flat-footedness, and the anxiety that if you are not “out front” on an issue, then you are behind; or worse, that the failure to respond quickly – especially in this era of sound-bites – reflects a lack of relevancy in a fast-moving culture. Needless to say, in the case of the Iran deal, this is exacerbated by the (reasonable) historical memory of many Jewish organizations that stew in the legacy of failing to stand up quickly and forcefully to Jewish historical sufferings, and which feel burdened to ensure that such failings do not take place on their watch.

Still, there is something deeply disconcerting about the expectation we have created for our organizations to react this quickly, and especially relating to issues as complex as this one. I may be in a minority here, but I personally believe that a hastily reached decision on an issue with multiple sides, by organizations which mean to represent a wide swath of the community, actually undermines the very credibility of such a position as it exposes the limited resources that could have been brought to bear to reach such a stark conclusion. I see our leaders forced to shortcut the processes of building consensus slowly, because of pressures placed upon them by the positions they are in, and I wish we would work with them to cultivate the different and vastly superior value – as emphasized by the Rabbis – of being metunim ba’din, circumspect in grave matters of law. Exercising caution and responding a little more slowly is not a sign of being asleep at the job; it actually shows a greater reverence for the complexity of the work, for the gravity of the ultimate position, and for the seriousness of the role the leader is playing. We need to cultivate this ethos in our leaders by not asking them to shoot from the hip, and we need to allow them to educate us on how and when they can reach their decisions most ethically and effectively.

My second concern relates to the choices that these organizations are making in taking irrevocable political stances in this moment. Central communal organizations now can serve up to four functions, which we can characterize as convening, educating, organizing, and leading.

Convening entails the intentional and purposeful gathering of stakeholders and interested parties under one framework and establishing the institution as the site at which and through which a broader consensus is articulated.

Educating is the work of guiding members and stakeholders to deeper understandings of an issue, sometimes in order to be able to advocate for a position or change their behavior and sometimes for its own sake, for the tautological outcome of a more educated population.

Organizing involves driving the people toward highly specific and usually political outcomes involving some measure of education about the cause – but usually with an intentionally narrow focus – and mostly tactics of advocacy and campaign strategy to achieve a particular outcome.

Leadership is by far the most abstract of these functions, even if it is used most ubiquitously, and tends to involve inspiration, motivation, and the exercise of authority to achieve transformative outcomes while still maintaining – if not strengthening – a community or institution in the wake of these changes.

Simply put, part of the volatility of the Iran deal for Jewish communal politics is that the clearer the stance of the agency in responding to the deal, the less capable the agency is in holding all four of these mandates together. Taking a political stance on this inevitably partisan issue will force a choice and threatens to cast one or more of these organizational core functions against the other, thereby defining and perhaps hobbling the functionality of the agency in the future. With a politically divisive issue, it is literally impossible to be both a strong organizer toward a particular action plan and to remain a convener of the community across political difference. It is also difficult to sustain a role as an educator on the issue when you wish your audience to draw your desired conclusion.

That is not real education: that is advocacy. It is not clear to me that at this pace of response time it is fully possible for these agencies to recognize that the quest for relevancy and the response for urgency are wreaking potential long-term havoc on the very raison d’etre of these organizations and the full complement of their intended functionality.

My third and perhaps deepest concern is one of leadership, the most abstract of the functions outlined above for our communal organizations and their leaders. I am not at all convinced we need more condemnations, statements of principles, press releases, or the like. The organizations that have organizing at their core and clear political identities can and should pursue those political agendas. Not playing in this market – and yielding some terrain – to these political entities may initially threaten our big organizations by asking them to share some of what they think is their core functionality, but in the long term, I think we will be better.

Instead, the majority of central organizations – federations, rabbinic and synagogue organizations, community relations councils – should focus their work in sustaining a communal consensus and in exercising leadership in its most challenging form: in pushing people to grow by presenting a wide spectrum of ideas, and by forcing people to learn and to make their best informed choices. This should include convening serious, non-partisan (or bipartisan, or multi-partisan) non-contentious dialogues and discussions which remind us that we have to stay in the game and care about the issue, in spite of the cacophony. Apathy about this issue threatens both supporters and opponents of the Iran deal, and harsh rhetoric drives the majority of potential stakeholders out of the community. Let’s allow for a slowdown of the pace of news releases and press statements in order to be more reflective; let’s guide rabbis and local leaders with resources, instead of captaining them as if were Color War.

There are 60 days ahead of us until a congressional vote, and then days, months, and years ahead of us in navigating the uncertain realities beyond. This may represent a moment of fear for many Jews, but fear does not make for effective immediate decision-making or good and lasting communal politics. Jews will, in the end of the day, come up with clear opinions, and the advocacy organizations will be there to collect their time and dollars toward the side to which they ultimately commit. But the more our central organizations get in the way of this process, the less likely even those same Jews will return to those organizations after the campaigns are over. Patient, strong, and comprehensively oriented Jewish leadership has been the strongest mechanism through which Jews have survived crisis; in this case, as in the past, it will be its own reward when the crisis (hopefully) passes.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.