Time for a Change: How our Major Jewish Organizations can better represent the Diversity of our American Jewish Community

By Jay Ruderman

As we collectively celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday and recognize the Jewish state as the greatest example of Jewish democracy in history, it’s time we take a hard look at how unrepresentative Jewish organizations have become in today’s America.

When it comes to major American Jewish organizations, everyone follows the Golden Rule: Whoever has the most gold, rules.

There’s no law that says that you’ve got to be a wealthy white male to run or influence a major Jewish organization.

But it sure couldn’t hurt.

The leaders of legacy Jewish organizations – the ones constantly headed to the White House or to meet with Israel’s prime minister somehow to speak for all American Jews – pretty much all fit that stereotype.

These “leaders” have often served in their positions for decades, unaccountable to the broad Jewish community, never facing challenges to their dominance.

You could call it checkbook Judaism – a leadership class based on wealth, maintained by millionaires and billionaires, and hardly representative of today’s diverse American Jewish community.

When you look at the people who run those entities, you’ve got to ask, where are the women? Where are the young people? Where are the Israeli-Americans, the Russian-Americans, the Sefardim, or people with disabilities?

Anywhere but the top.

And yet, these organizations claim to represent Jewish America, while highly influenced by the opinions of billionaires.

I fully recognize that these comments might sound strange, since I myself run a Jewish foundation. On the other hand, I don’t claim to be representative of the Jewish community as a whole. In fact, my foundation represents exactly one Jewish family.

Nor would I ever disparage philanthropy. If it were not for the generosity of wealthy Jews, the major Jewish service organizations in the United States would have long ceased to exist.

At the same time, though, the donor class is hardly representative of rank and file Jews. So why don’t regular folks have more of a voice in community affairs? In other words, why is our organized Jewish community essentially ruled by checkbook?

It is the best interest of our American Jewish community for major Jewish organizations to embrace transparency, diversity, and the distinction between true leadership and money. Organizations should find a way to have open, free and fair elections to choose leaders.

Of course this is going to ruffle the feathers of the individuals who have been running those organizations for decades. But we should not maintain a plutocracy at the expense of the rest of the Jewish community, which has practically no voice in its own affairs.

Let’s have candidates who are young, who are female, who come from Israel, Russia, who represent broad swathes of our diverse community. Let the best individual win.

If there are free and fair elections instead of the Golden Rule I mentioned earlier, these organizations will be more responsive to the Jewish communities they serve and may engage many members who are turning away from our Jewish community.

And when their leaders show up at the White House, the Prime Minister’s Office or anywhere else in the world, they can legitimately claim they represent the American Jewish community.

It’s time for a change. Let’s have Jewish organizations that truly represent the Jewish community… starting at the top.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.