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Dr. Irving Lebovics

Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure

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A Realistic, Aspirational Communal Structure

RABBONIM AND COMMUNITY ASKONIM have always pined for structured Jewish self -government. In my early days of communal involvement, I would often ponder different models in my mind – an American Chief Rabbi with local rabbinic offices in each major city, perhaps a national system of Batei Din, and maybe an elected communal lay board. I even entertained the idea of an American “Raish Galusa” (Exilarch).

Perhaps these fantasies derived from my observations of the Federation structure and its apparent advantages. Or, maybe I was influenced by a nostalgic reference to the Vaad Arba Aratzos, which operated in Poland during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. I imagined that a communal structure, in whatever form, could advance efforts to address communal concerns and challenges. Once adopted, a communal structure could facilitate the introduction of meaningful national standards for American Orthodoxy, thereby uniting us all, and eliminating the needless and often destructive “denominational bickering” within the Orthodox community. 

Futility of Aspiring for a Broad Communal Infrastructure

After years of activism within the Orthodox community, it now appears to me that increased communal structure within the American Orthodox community may be totally unrealistic, and any effort to introduce the idea may be counter-productive. In past eras, the infrastructures imposed upon, and accepted by, the Jewish community was consistent with the broader culture and political environment in which the community lived. Authoritarian regimes were the prevalent governmental structures, and rigid and disciplined authority was part of the fabric of society. In such environments, the Jewish community’s acceptance of internal authority and communal infrastructure was consistent with other dimensions of the community’s cultural and sociological experience. The embrace of such authority was likely reflective of the ancient propensity to “asima alai melech kchol hagoyim asher sevivosai” (Let me appoint a king upon myself as in all the surrounding nations – Devarim 17-14).

By contrast, American Orthodoxy thrives in a sociological and political environment dominated by a culture of Individual autonomy, liberty and freedom. The questioning and challenging of authority is fundamental to the American experience, reflected in the constant demeaning of authoritative figures and institutions by the media and in popular culture. Moreover, the ubiquitous cycle of political campaigning creates an environment of transient power and authority.

In this environment, the concept of mandated communal authority is not likely to be warmly embraced by the frum community. Even within Orthodox communities that profess deep commitment to daas Torah, actual deference to Torah leadership is often wanting, and there is little communal appetite to cede authority to others, whether to make important communal decisions, enact rabbinic takonos or enforce judgments issued by Batai Din.

This challenge even creeps into our ability to truly appreciate our intended relationship with HKB”H. Mired by these contemporary influences, what does the American Jew envision when encountering the model of Hashem as King, or of our being slaves to a Master? Can the attribute of Hashem as “King” possibly evoke within us the awe and fear of such Kingship experienced by those well-familiar with the power of authority while living under the dominion of the Russian Tsar? How does one relate to being a servant to Hashem when one’s sole connection to the concept of servitude is through history books or portrayals in popular culture?

Current Communal Structure

The current American Klal structure is dominated by mini-Kehillas, each with little authority beyond that which is generated through peer pressure. Those communities that have been relatively successful in insulating themselves from the prevalent culture of autonomy and independence in American society (such as certain of the larger Chasidic groups) occasionally suffer from a tendency to disrespect the rules and regulations of that society, sometimes resulting in friction with the American legal system.

This absence of communal authority, however, does not translate into an absence of services and institutions addressing communal needs. These needs are being addressed primarily by wholly independent (and often single-issue) social and religious service groups that are beholden either to no one, or perhaps nominally to chosen rabbinic figures. The same is true for almost all yeshivas and seminaries, and in most large Jewish communities, even chadarim and day schools.

Functions that were traditionally part of the communal structure now often operate as private businesses (e.g., kashrus, Bais Din, chevra kadisha, etc.). Not only are such mosdos no longer under the control of the community, many are not under rabbinic control either, as shuls and schools increasingly operate under the auspices and control of a single lay individual (baal habayis).

The trend towards institutional control by self-appointed lay individuals has even infiltrated the spectrum of the community’s few national organizations, which are increasingly controlled by wealthy lay people with no communal mandate, and, at times, little historical or “religious“ expertise. In these national organizations, rabbinic leadership and accountability are often unclear and inconsistent, and in other cases merely nominal. Rather than reflecting unique missions designated by the community, distinctions between institutions often become blurred, resulting in duplication of efforts and unnecessary denominational (as well as general) competition.

The absence of community-based efforts extends beyond organizational governance to fund sourcing, as well. With few exceptions, traditional Kehilla funding models simply do not exist. Consequently, most communal projects and institutions are substantially dependent on wealthy donors, who thereby acquire undue influence and often come to dictate the communal agenda.

In summary, today’s American Orthodox community operates through a loose patchwork of autonomous groups and individuals, often altruistic but sometimes self-serving. In any event, communal institutions, whether in the fields of social services, economic assistance, education or halachic observance, are subject to little or no oversight, and often little professional or religious guidance. It is a time of  אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו יַעֲשֶׂה – There is no king in Israel, each does what is right in his own eyes (see Shoftim 17:6, 21:25).


A Realistic, Aspirational Communal Structure

So how should our Kehilla look? Do the influences that preclude the re-introduction of a tightly controlled communal structure dictate that no structural enhancements should be attempted, at all? I suggest that there are substantive and significant improvements that ought to be introduced, which may potentially become accepted. The caveat to any such efforts, however, is to recognize that because our community is deeply affected by the unprecedented, autonomous culture in which we live, the predicate of any communal structure must be its appeal to the community, rather than its expectation of obedience.

We must create a situation in which people will voluntarily choose to belong, finding the community structure compelling and worthy of their allegiance. It is vital that leadership come across as welcoming and inclusive rather than demanding and exclusive. The approach of simply announcing edicts and takonos from above is not only unenforceable (and widely ignored), it severely compromises the respect and deference to leadership that could otherwise be generated. Imposing leadership will not work today. The trick will be to get everyone to want to join rather than to have to.

None of this precludes the study of and adherence to “mussar,” nor does it imply that there should be no admonition to correct the wrong. It does not negate such laudatory efforts as seeking to curb wedding expenses or to monitor internet use. We simply require a form of mussar that can speak to our generation in a language that we understand.

It is also important to note that a koach harabbonim and a koach hatzibur still do exist, even in our autonomous world. Leaders can have influence and the tzibur can and does change; therefore, we should feel obligated to determine how to make those positive changes happen even in our unique times. Each Rav, each organization and each individual should feel a sense of achrayus (responsibility) for Klal Yisroel, each playing their unique role in this process. 

Practical Suggestions

So let’s get specific. The suggestions below are by no means comprehensive, but are intended to represent a first step in the right direction.

Professionalize Our Mosdos: The current unstructured networks of both local and national communal organizations are here to stay, but their current lack of accountability can surely be changed. The koach harabbonim and the koach hatzibur are currently under-utilized as obvious vehicles for accountability and efficiency. For example, an entity that has inadequate rabbinic involvement and oversight should not enjoy the support and association of rabbonim.

The lay community also carries enough influence to improve accountability of communal institutions – but once again, collective efforts and intent is required. For example, philanthropists and communal supporters should refrain from supporting and associating with entities that fail to operate transparently and in full compliance with applicable laws. In fact, an effort in this regard is already in place. A new initiative supported by many gedolai Torah and askonim is underway called ”Vehiyisem Nekiyim,” which intends to formalize appropriate operational guidelines for our communal organizations. Vehiyisem Nekiyim will seek voluntary compliance with a Code of internal controls for shuls , yeshivos , and other community organizations. The goal, of course, is to introduce a set of organizational standards for fiscal responsibility, and transparent governance. The Code includes many “best management practices,” such as maintaining proper books and records, operating under the guidance of an active finance committee, double signing of checks, not remitting payment of expenditures with cash, adhering to proper payroll procedures and having a semi-annual review of all finances conducted by an outside accountant. This initiative will provide the community with an opportunity to influence the manner by which communal mosdos operate, but it will only be effective to the extent that they are willing to expect compliance.

Eliminate Unnecessary Duplication: In the 1980’s the Jewish community was involved in addressing the needs of a large number of Iranian Jews trying to escape a new, fundamentalist Islamic regime. After a meeting at the State Department on this issue, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, of Agudas Yisroel, observed that the meeting was attended by fifteen representatives – one each from Catholic, Protestant and Lutheran organizations – and twelve representatives from twelve independent Jewish organizations. The community simply cannot afford this type of unnecessary duplication of communal resources.

Organizational efficiency also mandates appreciating when and when not to become independently involved in a given issue. For example, there are no ideological differences within Orthodox Jewry on the issue of School Choice so there should be no need for every Orthodox organization, Chasidus and ethnic group to have their own competing School Choice initiatives.. On the other hand, the lead organization, whose mission it may be to deal with government, should certainly involve all other interested Orthodox Jewish constituencies in their deliberations and public activities. Again, the koach harabbonim and koach hatzibur can help in this area.

Include Lay Contributors of Time and Expertise in Communal Decisions: In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye famously opined; “If I were a rich man…They would ask me to advise them… and it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you are rich they think you really know.”

Unfortunately for Reb Tevye, it does make a difference. Wealthy people deserve a place of honor and their views should be solicited. After all, their tremendous chesed underwrites a good deal of our Jewish life. However, philanthropists are not the only ones who should hold positions of lay influence. Many people commit great amounts of time and expertise on behalf of the tzibur, and these contributions must be recognized as also being vital. The involvement of these community members in making decisions is not only appropriate, it is also the wiser approach to elevating the effectiveness of our mosdos. Our community enjoys members with a vast array of skill sets and knowledge bases. It would be foolish and wasteful to preclude the utilization of these potential contributions simply because they do not belong to those who have deep pockets. Their voices are simply critical if we “want to get it right.” For example, membership on a Yeshiva Board might be reserved for large contributors to the Yeshiva. When a financial problem hits, such a Board might decide to raise tuition without considering sufficiently how this will affect the majority of the parents. A more inclusive Board might be more sensitive to the impact of a tuition raise on the average parent, and may look for better solutions to the problem, such as revamping the institutional organization, restructuring some of the finances to save money, or encourage parental involvement.

Be Cognizant of Your Role. As mentioned above, a significant obstacle to an effective communal infrastructure is the recent trend of individuals to over-step the bounds of their appropriate roles, such as when baalai batim assume the function of rabbonim, or rabbonim play the role of a knowledgeable businessman. Too often, those in power assume that their leadership role implies that they are appropriate to every function. Too often, individuals claim expertise in areas in which they have limited background or training.

As a dentist, I am often asked halachic questions relating to the treatment that I am rendering. Despite having learned the relevant halachos in great detail, my standard response is, “I have an arrangement with the Rabbonim. They don’t write prescriptions and I don’t pasken shailos.” Similarly, communal board members should not dictate chinuch issues in a yeshiva; indeed, there is something amiss when a shul is referred to as Mr. So and So’s shul instead of Rabbi So and So’s Shul. An organization’s lay board members and its professional staff have distinct roles. The Board has to step back and allow the staff to do its work and the staff has to accept the oversight of the Board.

Here is another example: The Rabbinic Council of California (RCC) is a rabbinic organization that provides kashrus certification, Bais Din services for monetary disputes, geirus, eruv certification and various programs for the local rabbonim. The RCC also has a lay board, which is responsible for assuring the financial viability of the organization and advising the rabbonim on secular legal issues that apply to their work, among other activities. While the lay board may assist in drafting the standard arbitration agreement for the Bais Din, it would clearly be inappropriate for any board member to be involved with the Dayanim on a specific Din Torah. Again, the only way to achieve this will be when the Rabbonim and the tzibur demand it.

Recognize that there are No More Secrets. Every day, there is a news story about some well-known or iconic individual who was found to have committed some indiscretion that has come to light through a revealed e-mail or other document made public, destroying their reputation and career. In the last number of months, a revered football coach and a Catholic Cardinal have seen their lives ruined by such disclosures. A prominent Rosh Yeshiva once asked me to speak to an Orthodox film producer about a documentary he had made. The film had excerpts from a drasha given by a well-known Rav that the Rosh Yeshiva felt were used out of context. The Rav, who had given that drasha to a women’s group in Brooklyn on Tisha B’av, never dreamed that his words would be part of a TV documentary in a way that he would have never intended. The saying,” the walls have ears” has never been truer.

Another Rosh Yeshiva told me of a question he had been asked about a hashkofo issue as he was leaving the Bais Medrash, and that by the time he reached the door, hundreds of people had, electronically, gotten word of his answer! Rabbonim and askonim must be aware that anything they say, do, or write, whether public or private, is exposed, often in a short period of time. As Chazal have taught us, “motsa sefasecha tishmor” means “guard what passes your lips” as well as “fulfill what passes your lips” (i.e., commitments).

One final point: Our Rabbonim and askonim should hold themselves to the highest possible standard of behavior. It would be valuable to reread some Torah sources that relate to leadership in the Jewish community. The Raisher Rav, in his sefer, Hadrash Veha’iyun, discusses the characteristics of a “Nasi.” Commenting on the posuk in Parshas Shlach with the words, “kol nasi bahem,” Rav Levin, zt”l, posits that a leader in Klal Yisroel must be “kol nasi,” a “whole leader” – not a partial one. He must be a leader from head to toe, constantly dedicated to his service. His actions must be impeccable, both in public and in private, as even private indiscretion will affect his outlook on his responsibility. The Alter MiNavardok wrote a chapter in his sefer, Madraigas Ha’adam called Mezakeh Harabbim, which should be required reading for every askan. In it, Rav Horowitz, zt”l, lays out the prerequisite character traits of one who does Klal work. He, too, emphasizes the need for dedication to the task, adding that one must be pure in his avodas hatzibur l’shaim Shomayim, without an eye for personal gain or aggrandizement.

I add these words of our Gedolai Torah because they serve as a yardstick for those who seek positions of leadership in our Kehillos, and more importantly, so that the rest of us will know how to determine whom to follow.

Dr. Irving Lebovics is a dentist living in Los Angeles. He serves as the Chairman of the Presidium of Agudath Israel of California.

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