Rabbi Kenneth Auman
Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure
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The Making of Many Organizations is without Limit…
The Luxury of Abundance
WHILE AMERICAN JEWRY is indeed fortunate to live in an age of unprecedented abundance, this blessing is not without its drawbacks. Abundance breeds waste; plenty begets lack of appreciation. One cannot but be struck by the significant change in attitudes toward material possessions over the past few generations. While our grandparents’ generation would avoid waste by routinely peeling unused stamps from unsent letters, our generation discards expensive appliances in need of repair without blinking an eye. The darning needle of yore is the collector’s item of today.
I intend not to wax nostalgic over the “good old days,” or to lament our current wastefulness, but rather to suggest that our casual embrace of personal material bounty has similarly affected our attitude toward abundance in organizational life. If King Solomon could proclaim that “the making of many books is without limit,” we might declare as well that there is no limit to the proliferation of organizations. Indeed, there seems to be no end to books or organizations that currently serve the Jewish people.
Did we always have so many organizations? Probably not. So why do we have them now? The short answer is that our unparalleled material abundance and financial wealth have afforded us this unprecedented luxury. But there is a more sophisticated reason, as well.
Current Absence of Communal Infrastructure
Beginning with the emancipation of European Jewry under Napoleon about two hundred years ago, and accelerated upon the arrival of Jewry to the New World, significant Jewish communal structures or Kehilla type arrangements have gradually disappeared. While this trend has particularly affected American Jewry, the balance of Diaspora World Jewry has also not been immune. While it is true that European communities often have official governing bodies, their scope is limited to matters of kashruth and personal status, which, while of great importance, do not provide strategic guidance with regard to the myriad other important issues. And the Rabbanut in Israel, both nationally and locally (which together with the local Moatza Datit might be considered a Kehilla structure), has authority that is limited to specific religious functions – e.g. kashruth, marriage and divorce, and burial. American Jewry, however, does not even begin to have any such communal structure, whether on a national or local level.
The primary implications of the absence of a community infrastructure lie most consequentially in two spheres: First, its absence eliminates any realistic likelihood of longer-term strategic planning. Second, in the context of current communal concerns, the absence of an overall community infrastructure means there is no one to consider the overall use and appropriation of communal assets.
Contrast to Past Eras
Contrast this present reality with the regulation of Jewish communities of years gone by. Often, virtually every aspect of Jewish life was under the iron-fisted control of the Kehilla – for better or worse. For example, in 18th century Altona, no less a person than Rav Yaakov Emden was only able to hold a private minyan in his home because he received special permission from the community! And the saintly Rav Natan Adler in Frankfurt was placed under a cherem (excommunication) for holding his own minyan and deviating from accepted custom.
In the context of these examples of a powerful Kehilla structure, it would have been inconceivable for an individual to initiate an independent organization to address a perceived communal need. Rather, any such perception would have been brought to the attention of the community heads, who would have considered the merits of the issue. If they would conclude that the suggested issue warranted an allocation of communal resources, the Kehilla itself would determine the manner and degree to which the issue would be addressed.
When Kehilla leaders are sincere individuals, and the welfare of the tzibbur (community) is their priority, this type of system functions admirably. If, on the other hand, the leaders are less than exemplary, not only would the true needs of their constituents be compromised, but others who would have the community’s interests in mind would be stymied from addressing critical communal issues. One can only speculate as to the number of instances in which vital issues were ignored or worse.
In contemporary American Orthodoxy, where there is neither a global infrastructure nor any leadership control mechanisms, any individual with the requisite energy and passion for a given cause can attempt to address a particular communal need, either by forming an organization or through some other strategy. Consequently, the community is besieged by mosdot of all types, with little consideration of the priority of the particular issue being addressed, or the manner by which the program is styled or the approach selected. But in light of the downsides of a highly controlled Kehilla noted above, is this surfeit good for the Jews, or the contrary?
Benefits and Burdens of Communal Free Enterprise
There is much that is positive in the current entrepreneurial environment in communal programming, and the resulting abundance of mosdot. The frequent initiation by individuals of programs addressing communal needs not only reflects the profound devotion to chessed inherent in our communal culture, but also creates an environment in which creativity is encouraged and ingenuity celebrated and supported. No doubt, the opportunity for personal initiation, without the burden of passing through layers of approval by those representing the “establishment,” has allowed the community to confront challenges that, in the past, were either buried or viewed as irremediable. In the olden days, when people were not free to act in this manner, there were inevitably many individuals who had much to offer, but who were never able to realize their potential, thereby denying the community the benefit of their potentially significant contributions.
Alas, the negative effects of the current system cannot be ignored. The current entrepreneurial communal structure provides no context for the review and evaluation of individual organizations, with no mechanism to address entities that are underperforming or that have outlived their usefulness, yet survive on the common practice of many donors to simply contribute to the same charities each year. This absence of review leads to horrible inefficiency, diverting charitable dollars from the needs that currently deserve attention. Furthermore, the current system lends itself to inevitable duplication of efforts. Not only do individuals often have an incentivize to launch duplicate (though allegedly superior) organizations using judgment inevitably skewed by the needs of their livelihood, even volunteers – with overworking egos, or relatively minor differences of opinion – may compel duplication due to an unwillingness to work collaboratively with existing efforts. And perhaps most importantly, the financial support flowing to any given organization often follows not the importance of the cause or the effectiveness of the institution, but the relative forcefulness or charisma of the leadership involved.
As a hypothetical example, imagine an organization, “Hachnasat Kallah Deluxe,” whose mission is to provide very needy kallot with the most up-to-date kitchen appliances and luxurious linens. Also imagine a second program called “Tinokot Shel Bait Rabban,” which subsidizes day school tuition for immigrant children who would otherwise not attend a yeshiva. Hachnasat Kallah Deluxe was founded by a leading, high profile communal philanthropist, who hires a crackerjack executive director successful at raising significant funds. Moreover, the board is filled with friends of the founder – many very well connected individuals who utilize their extensive connections for the benefit of the organization. Tinokot Shel Bait Rabban, by contrast, was founded by a group of extremely idealistic and well-meaning individuals who enjoy few business or social connections among the wealthier segments of the community. They can ill-afford a top-tier fundraiser, and can attract virtually no prominent board members. Though Tinokot Shel Bait Rabban may be the far more “important” cause and should enjoy priority in collecting charitable donations, there is little question that Hachnasat Kallah Deluxe will emerge as the more prominent organization.
On one hand, the success of the American economy can be attributed to its free market culture, and the laissez- faire philosophy of Adam Smith. This same dynamic should operate equally in the charitable sphere. Alas, the American economic free enterprise system works because the consumer can discern the relative value of available consumer products and services. And in instances in which the consumer is either ill-equipped to make the assessment, or can be easily fooled, the government steps in with regulation and oversight. Federal agencies such as the FDA, the FCC, the FAA and the EPA all serve as de facto drags on a true and pure free market system by monitoring the products and production to ensure the reliability of the product and the safety of their production. While the Orthodox community’s current organizational free enterprise system has many advantages, it enjoys no oversight, no regulation and no assurance that the consumer, whether donor or beneficiary of the services offered, understands the true quality and reliability of the product being acquired.
Thus, competition and free market culture, which serve the economy so well, become liabilities rather than assets when dealing with non profit organizations. Organizations must compete with each other for the limited pool of charitable dollars available and the most worthy institutions do not necessarily come out ahead. In fact, competition often encourages donors to give for the wrong reasons. Name recognition, social giving and honorees at dinners are all examples of how the free market culture negatively affects what ought to be tzdekah giving based solely on the worthiness of the cause.
Equally true, however, is that a well-controlled and narrowly-supervised central authority offers enormous benefits, but faces equally imposing obstacles. The central planning system employed by Soviet Russia, while perhaps eminently rational and compelling, was evidenced to be a colossal failure. Power often corrupts even the saintly, and those not vulnerable to actual corruption are certainly prone to an increasingly narrow perspective on issues of concern, particularly with the passage of years in positions of authority.
Is a Limited Central Authority Viable?
Is it at all realistic to aspire to create a single group of distinguished lay leaders and Rabbanim who could both set communal priorities and compel a reliable system by which institutions and individual programs are assessed periodically for relevance and effectiveness? Imagine the avoidance of waste and duplication that could be achieved! The best of both worlds would be preserved. The regulation afforded by the Kehillot of old would be reintroduced, but sans the stifling of individual creativity. Individuals would still be able to exercise their initiatives, but priorities could be set and guidelines provided.
Unfortunately, this type of system is not likely attainable in the foreseeable future. The traditional model of the Jewish community that lent itself to control, whether in Ashkenazic or Sephardic locales, was defined by its geographic cohesion. A Kehilla was constituted by a group of Jews in a given geographic area – generally a city, or occasionally a group of towns in close proximity to one another. All Jews, regardless of their outlooks or their level of religiosity, were included in the community and subject to its authority. Thus, the Kehilla was not only a controlling force in the lives of its members, but a unifying factor as well.
In the late 18th century, the geographic nature of the Kehilla began to change. The nascent Hassidic movement was accused by the Mitnagdim of “fragmenting the tzibbur” by creating their own sub-communities within a town. In certain towns, two fully distinct communities actually emerged – a Hassidic community and non-Hassidic one. In Prague, for example, the great Rav Yechezkel Landau bemoaned the establishment of unauthorized minyanim that resulted, challenging the traditional concept of the Jewish community. From that time on, community tended to be conceived as a group of Jews bound together by ideology or sociology, rather than by location, and ceased to serve as a unifying force in Jewish life.
In the mid-nineteenth century, this trend was actually embraced and promoted by a rather unexpected source – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rav Hirsch spearheaded the development of Austritt, secession by the Orthodox from the general community in Frankfurt A/M. Rav Hirsch’s example was then followed by Orthodox groups in other German cities, as well. The defining factor of a community thereby increasingly became ideology, rather than proximity.
While this approach to Kehilla may have been new on European soil, it was not without its halachic precedent. The Talmud speaks of “shnei batei dinim be’ir achat,” two rabbinic authorities within one city. To the extent that any sort of communal structure exists in the United States, it is generally a function of “shnei batei dinim…” in most major Orthodox population centers. American Orthodoxy is hardly a single community, nor is it even a collection of geographically-defined communities. Ours are communities of the like minded, on both the local and national level. On the local level, community synagogues, which are the only vestiges of Kehilla, tend to be composed of like-minded families (in the large population centers). Similarly, our national synagogue and rabbinic bodies are also organized along ideological fault lines. It must be so, for the religious freedom and the personal autonomy that make this country great disallow any type of coercive religious community. Our religious groupings can exist only at the pleasure of their members.
While educational institutions and synagogues are formed along ideological lines, most other types of charitable groups are agenda driven rather than ideologically motivated. They typically seek to address particular communal needs which often transcend hashkafic categories. While the initial organizers of a particular group may well all subscribe to like philosophies, the beneficiaries of the services typically transcend these divisions. Two current, real-life examples, from very different places in the spectrum of Orthodoxy, illustrate this point.
ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, is primarily organized by Yeshiva University graduates. ORA, which provides assistance to agunot, is fully utilized by families of all stripes, with little concern for the social and ideological distinctions of ORA staff and supporters. Similarly, Satmar Bikur Cholim, as its name indicates, is founded and serviced by Satmar women, but they eagerly provide services to any and all Jewish patients in hospitals in wide-ranging locations.
ORA will look to Yeshiva University Roshei Yeshiva for guidance. Satmar Bikkur Cholim is run under the aegis of the Satmar community. Neither organization would submit to the governance of a different group. While Yeshiva University might be able to exert control upon the organizations within its orbit, and Satmar will effectively govern those in its realm, there is no group able to govern both. Thus, no one will be able to definitively decide priorities for the whole of American Jewry.
Are we therefore doomed to further continue along the path of organizational chaos? Perhaps so. The freedom that democracy affords us and the personal autonomy that our society so cherishes leave great sacrifices in their wakes.
But what is it that could possibly change to remedy the current state of affairs? Though the Kehilla of old is not re-emerging, perhaps control could be introduced from another direction, a direction that is American to its core – economic clout.
Let us analyze and learn from a noble, albeit unsuccessful attempt to change communal norms. A number of years ago, concerned by the high cost of weddings that resulted from pressure to conform and “keep up with the Cohens,” a number of Roshei Yeshiva promulgated a series of takkanot in an attempt to lower the costs connected with weddings. The takkanot limited the number of guests, the menu, and the size of the band, among other items. It drew on the precedent of European Kehillot that had enacted these types of takkanot centuries earlier. However this modern day incarnation failed to achieve the success of its predecessors.
The primary reason for its failure was the lack of any type of enforcement mechanism. Had those who signed on to the takkanot refused to attend weddings that were in violation, the takkanot would have been widely observed by the adherents of the promulgators. However, these Roshei Yeshiva, who are after all responsible for the financial well being of their various yeshivot, felt that they could not afford to offend actual or potential donors by refusing to attend the smachot of their affluent constituents.
But placing the blame at the feet of these Roshei Yeshiva is not fair. They were merely being realists – mindful of the fact that their institutions depend upon the good will of donors to survive. The ultimate responsibility really falls with the wealthy donors themselves who did not feel the need to heed the call of the Roshei Yeshiva. Had they been persuaded to buy in to these ordinances, people of lesser economic means would have gladly followed suit.
If we wish to bring order to the chaotic world of organizations, we can learn from the failure of these takkanot. It is the top tier of contributors who are needed to make the difference. They could set their priorities together. While clearly they would not all be of a single mind, they could create some sort of method for ranking various causes and judging the effectiveness of the organizations themselves. This would have to be done in consultation with wise rabbinic, lay and professional leadership.
Motivating this top tier of contributors to take this responsibility would not be a simple task. Contributors have their own personal and communal agendas, some of which have been noted above. To convince them to think as a group rather than as individuals, and to strategize globally with the welfare of the entire community in mind is daunting indeed, but it is not impossible. A team of high caliber rabbinic and lay leadership – people possessed of eloquence, intellectual depth, yirat shamayim, conviction, and dazzling powers of persuasion – working in tandem with the influential contributors of the community might very well be able to effect the kind of change that could lead to organization and efficiency in the Jewish communal world.
Rabbi Kenneth Auman is the Rabbi of Young Israel of Flatbush and a Past President of the Rabbinical Council of America.