Tragedy in Istanbul and an Israeli Leadership Model

By Dr. Ernest Stock

I see a connection between the tragic events in Istanbul last Monday and the article by Beth Steinberg on summer camp shlichim.

To be more specific:

In a direct broadcast on army radio from Ataturk airport Tuesday morning, an Israeli eyewitness recalled the scene: while utter chaos and panic raged all around them, a group of some twenty tourists waiting to check in for their flight to Tel Aviv, children among them, sat quietly on the floor, listening to one of their number calm them down and prepare them for the long hours of waiting and sharing of scarce food until they could board a flight home.

The travelers, it soon became clear, had coalesced into an ad-hoc community, while a leadership figure from among them emerged and took over.

Beth Steinberg’s article helped me understand and formulate explicitly what I had long sensed instinctively, having experienced Jewish life on three continents for well-nigh nine decades (b. 1924)*

*My sojourn in the U.S., 1940-61, comprised early employment, army service in WW II, graduation from evening high school, university education and staff positions in the Jewish community (CJF and JAFI Inc.) until my aliyah in 1961.*

My new insight is this: only by growing up from the earliest stage in a sovereign community (Israel) can a cohort like the one Beth Steinberg describes come into being: capable of acting as as individuals or a group in ways that range from teaching sports in diaspora camps to risking their lives in battle. Similar scenes are enacted, though in less dramatic circumstances, by a myriad other groups up and down the land, in youth movements, high school classrooms, and every platoon in the army, where leaders emerge and are recognized, without being designated or proclaimed as such. Certainly, wealth or social background do not play a part.

The critical role of the army in the process I was able to observe myself as a reservist (in an artillery unit). Not only are there no officer types or military class, but often a comradely bond develops between “Enlisted Men” and their superiors, sometimes lasting a lifetime.

There is thus an essential difference in the sphere of leadership between Israel and Jewish communities elsewhere. The categories of lay and professional, so widespread in the diaspora, are not current in Israel. In their stead, we have political and volunteer leadership. In the major amutot (nonprofits), professionals function more as paid employees than as leaders. (An exception are the founders of certain amutot who continue to fulfill both functions). In the diaspora, as is known, lay leadership is too often based on wealth, is unlimited timewise and unconnected to any democratic process.

The concept of spiritual leadership is foreign to the secular population, who reach adulthood without guidance of a rabbi. Even Bar and Bat Mitzvas are celebrated without their religious significance; many boys and girls never even set foot in a synagogue. Only at weddings does an orthodox rabbi conduct the ceremony under the chupah, his presence indispensable to make it legal.

There is, however, a growing amount of Jewish content, mainly Bible and History, in the curricula prepared for countrywide use by the Ministry of Education. Bagrut exams in Jewish subjects are increasingly popular among the seventh and eighth graders taking them, but discussions about Jewish identity are entirely absent in this group (my source is a teenage grandson).

Among the dati (religious) public, rabbis still exert considerable influence, mostly as interpreters of halakhah. Certain charismatic figures have a devoted following among the young, sometimes in the direction of extremist nationalism, with the dire results that are known.

Tri-Contintal Jew-flyer July 2015