Rabbi Kenneth Brander
Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure
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The Sacred Synergy between Local and National Organizations
The Impact of the Culture of Individuality
WITHIN THE AMERICAN COMMUNITY, there has always been a struggle between personal autonomy, the autonomy of the local synagogue or shtiebel and the dynamics of the national Jewish community. Perhaps inspired by the Vaad Arba Arazot (mid-16th century – 1764), the efforts in the early 1900’s in New York to create a kehilah movement, and the establishment of the Young Israel Movementand the Orthodox Union, ]are just a few examples of the Jewish community’s desire to establish national Jewish organizations. National organizations often represent local communities to external groups, such as Congress or the White House, and can play an invaluable role, such as assisting in the navigation and leveraging of vast resources to address the community’s greater challenges and opportunities. In addition, national organizations can introduce and encourage uniform standards, thereby empowering local communities in their efforts to address various religious and social issues. The local community, however, is uniquely capable of providing a personal touch when dealing with its constituents’ needs. While the resources of a particular community may be limited, only the local community can truly understand its members’ particular spiritual, fiscal, and social challenges, which may differ significantly from those of other communities.
In the era of Post-Modernism, the meta-narratives of community have been deconstructed. The contemporary social-philosophical trend is focused on the ideal that every individual has a right to celebrate personal narratives defined by his or her cultural norms. This emphasis on the individual over the community poses challenges for both local and national organizations. An example of a challenge that this trend poses for national organizations involves the establishment of various boutique foundations. Over the past 25 years, new funding and programming organizations have emerged, each focusing on its narrow, albeit important, agenda. A generation ago, many of these foundations functioned under a large national communal tent. This new phenomenon may have created greater success in addressing particular needs, but in the process, many national organizations have become poorer, both in fiscal resources and in wisdom.
These boutique organizations also affect local organizations as they serve the community in ways the synagogue used to, such as setting up shiva homes, providing food for the local poor and establishing youth centers or loan funds for the indigent. Though they surely provide invaluable services, by privatizing responsibilities traditionally entrusted by the community to local synagogues, they inhibit the perpetuation of a central address of chesed in the local Orthodox community. The causes for these changes are beyond the scope of this article. Clearly, the alienation from local and national communal structures, as well as the veneration of the individual and the need for him/her to create a unique mark on society, has helped to foster the creation of these boutique institutions.
The Respective Roles of National and Local Organizations
Should the conduit of communal service be through national or local organizations? I believe that the American Jewish community at large, and the Orthodox community in particular, cannot be serviced through a single paradigm. Our success is predicated on the hard work of local community institutions, synagogues, communal professionals and lay leaders. Collectively, they work to create a haven and heaven for local constituents. However, the effectiveness and impact of local leadership and local institutions are significantly enhanced when they receive and accept guidance and support from national organizations.
Without the assistance provided by national organizations, our local communities would be much weaker. Local community professionals and lay leaders often lack the financial and organizational muscle to institute the social and spiritual changes necessary to empower their communities. Yet, while national organizations can provide such muscle, they must not act as power brokers who demand that all initiatives or local advancements be approved or developed through them. Such demands mute the creativity and energy of the local community. It is the local knowledge of the community and its constituents that enables the coordination of effective and fiscally responsible initiatives that empower and inspire the local population. National organizations must welcome local communities’ insight in their design and development of national initiatives. A cacophony of dissonant voices weakens us; a symphony between national organizations, local community and creative individuals is the surest way to serve the Jewish community.
To illustrate the value of integrating the national and the local, consider the distinction between the role of the rabbinate in Israel and that of the rabbinate in North America. In America, the local rabbi seeks to personalize every life cycle experience. Upon having children, couples typically interact personally with their rabbis, who know them and guide them in celebrating this milestone. A rabbi who is asked to be a mesadar kidushin (officiate at a wedding) typically knows the bride or the groom if not both, and is aware of any familial challenges they might be experiencing. He is able to perform the wedding ceremony with appropriate sensitivity. When the community loses one of its members, the rabbi conducting the funeral usually knows the deceased and often even the extended family. He can speak about the deceased with real knowledge and deal with the family’s needs in a manner that shows proper kavod hamet (honor to the deceased).
Yet, as a collective body, the American Orthodox rabbinate lacks national structure in many regards, resulting in a variety of challenges, particularly in the arena of national standards. For example, American Orthodox Jewry lacks standards that ensure proper funeral practice, and proper national standards are equally lacking for conversion and marriage. This lack of national standards creates a chasm in our community structure. If proper marriage and divorce protocols are inconsistent, issues of personal status and eligibility to marry within certain communities may, God forbid, be called into question.
By contrast, the Israeli national rabbinate enjoys great influence in ensuring proper national standards for conversion and wedding ceremonies, and in maintaining consistency in the laws addressing the preparation of the deceased and burial practices. However, the rabbinate’s interaction with its constituents is frequently very impersonal. Often, the mesader kiddushin only recognizes the bride because of the dress she is wearing and finds out information about the chatan only moments before the chupah. The potential for conducting a personal ceremony is minimal.
Going to the mikvah for the first time can be a transformative experience that enables reflection about the role of spirituality in relationships. When this experience becomes part of a bureaucracy, it seems to lose its spirituality and can become a turnoff. What is gained in the institution of national standards is lost in lack of personalization. When treated with personal dignity and respect, life cycle events can be transformational and can empower participants to become engaged members of the Jewish community. Often, a national rabbinical structure will remain detached from the community, especially when the rabbi responsible for community standards lives elsewhere.
Parenthetically, national rabbinic organizations in North America recognize these shortcomings and are trying to close the gap between the Israeli and American rabbinates’ approaches. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Beth Din of America (BDA) have introduced standards for conversion and have created a national network of conversion courts. They are working to assure a consistency throughout North America and ensure that conversions in North America will be recognized by the Rabbinate in Israel and by courts across the Jewish world. Similarly, Israeli organizations like Tzohar are trying to close this gap by establishing a community-based rabbinate that performs marriages at no cost and whose rabbis meet with the engaged couple prior to their wedding. I believe that the RCA and the BDA are successfully swinging the pendulum in North America from a totally community based rabbinate to one that has national standards, and that Tzohar, under the leadership of Rav Stav, is creating a spiritual energy in Israel that has triggered conversations about moving the Israeli rabbinate away from a purely national and hierarchal paradigm toward one that is community-based as well.
Suggested Synergies Among Local and National Efforts
Allow me to share some brief ideas that speak to the need for a sacred synergy between national organizations and local institutions. I have cited familiar examples relating to the need for interaction between local Orthodox communities and national Orthodox institutions. Of course, there is also a need for synergy between all national Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC, JFNA, AJC, ADL, and local Jewish communities. Halakha demands that the Orthodox community recognize the need to engage with the larger Jewish community and to realize that we are citizens of a larger society required to work for the betterment of its social fabric.
Many of the areas in which local and national Orthodox institutions can synergistically interact include the following:
Kashrut: Upon arriving in Boca Raton in 1991 to serve as the community rabbi, I found no reliable kosher establishments at all. Even the local supermarket carried few kosher products. When the now very successful Kashrut organization was launched, we relied on the guidance of national kashrut organizations –particularly the Orthodox Union. The OU assisted with determining kashrut standards, as well as in hiring and training the proper mashgichim (supervisors), thereby ensuring the highest kashrut standards. Kashrut would never have come to Boca, however, had the operations been delegated to a national organization. Not only was their fee structure prohibitive, their rules and guidelines were inflexible – appropriate for national companies but too challenging for the various local establishments that were being encouraged to become kosher.
Moreover, the initiative’s success was facilitated by the South Palm Beach Federation, at the time a 28-acre campus that later grew to 100 acres. For political and policy reasons, the South Palm Beach Federation would never have agreed to supervision by a national Orthodox organization. The Federation legitimately felt that turning to a national agency would be insensitive to local rabbinic leadership. Yet, despite the need to create a local kashrut agency, the guidance received from the OU in determining kashrut standards, as well as in hiring and training the proper mashgichim, ensured the highest kashrut standards. It was a true partnership between local and national communal resources and resulted in enormous benefits to the community.
Shidduchim & Relationship Building: In my view, the commonly referenced “shidduch crisis” has less to do with people getting married and much more to do with how young people date and pursue relationships. Factors behind the so called “shidduch crisis” include: the lack of available venues for singles to meet, the odyssey years (or emerging adulthood), the plethora of educational and professional endeavors singles feel they should pursue before getting married, the forensic research conducted and trivial details considered before an initial date, lack of understanding as to the meaning of commitment and the emphasis on factors unrelated to a healthy marriage. The complexity of the interplay between some of these challenges cannot be managed by either local communities or national organizations alone.
Four years ago, Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future initiated “YU Connects” to enhance this necessary interplay between national initiatives and local communities. The methods employed by YU Connects include: convening the resources of both YU’s University and Yeshiva to conduct academic research and prepare educational materials that focus on relationships, conducting exciting social events for singles, working with trained volunteer connectors, which at the present number more than ninety dedicated men and women, and helping create matches through a state-of-the-art online matchmaking site powered by Saw You At Sinai.
Though YU Connects successfully interacts with students on the YU campus and others in the Tri-state area, the enterprise’s success rests largely upon the hard work and talents of local shadchanim (called “connectors”) and concerned local Rabbanim. Local educators and rabbis are beginning to discuss relationships in their classrooms and in their Shabbat sermons. Concerned local congregants have become trained YU Connectors, participating as part of a national consortium, but primarily focused on the needs of their respective communities.
YU Connects has also produced research-based educational material as a resource for local efforts. This year alone, two pamphlets were compiled with important research in the area of relationships, together with articles by Roshei Yeshiva and experts in the field of relationships. At the request of local communities, over 40,000 copies of each volume were printed. However, this material is effectively made accessible only through the efforts of local rabbonim, who ensure that the materials are promulgated in their communities. YU Connects is another example of the necessary interplay between the resources that only a national institution can realistically create, but only local leadership can disseminate and make valuable.
Yet there is so much more to do. YU Connects has not been successful in achieving one of its goals: ensuring that issues concerning dating and relationships are discussed in every Yeshiva and seminary in Israel and that a curriculum is developed and used by both Charedi and more modern Orthodox Yeshivot, Bais Yaakovs and day schools. Time will tell if YU Connects will fully succeed in effectively partnering with local communities to achieve this important goal.
Youth: National organizations such as OU/NCSY, Bnei Akiva and Pirchei/Bnos have developed wonderful structures for youth programming, especially for junior high school and high school students. Even in the FFB (“frum from birth”) world, summer camps, both for-profit and non-profit, have become important outlets for Jewish continuity. They all greatly benefit our community. The latitude and longitude of their programming are simply amazing. Yet there is still work to be done in coordinating our national and local efforts. While so much is being done on the national level that clearly benefits our local communities, we must ask ourselves: Are we engaging synergistically? What are we doing to train our local youth directors and give guidance to our local youth committees? Have we brought together community rabbis to train them in how to use informal education methodologies in their engagement with youth and adults?
Though many young adults attend creative and effective summer camps and youth programming such as NCSY, Bnei Akiva and Pirchei/Bnos, it is critically important that local institutions, such as youth departments, day schools and yeshivot, be given the opportunity to professionalize their experiential and informal education skills. Without empowering the local community and asking for their guidance in the structures we create nationally, we risk missing opportunities to effectively deal with all youth – those enthusiastically engaged and those not yet engaged. If we are to effectively empower and motivate the next generation, we must do it through collaboration. This is the most effective way to guarantee the immortality of our people.
Collaboration of Lay Leaders: Every community has its own distinct opportunities and challenges. Lay leaders, those sitting on the Executive Boards and Boards of local shuls, schools, federations, should create, whether formally or informally, a SWOT analysis of their community’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Even large communities would benefit from a collaborative discussion among representatives of the various community boards and their senior professionals to chart out communal priorities. Such collaboration could enhance communal focus, reduce redundancy and facilitate greater efficiency.
Some local communities have, in fact, begun to create SWOT analyses on at least certain aspects of their community’s needs, and national guidance has played an important role. Under the leadership of philanthropist David Magerman, founder of the Kohelet foundation, and their director Holly Cohen, schools and yeshivot of all denominations in the Greater Philadelphia area jointly created a Jewish Day School Collaborative. These schools include: Abrams Hebrew Academy, Kohelet Yeshiva High School, Politz Cherry Hill, Politz Hebrew Academy, Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy, Torah Academy, Kosloff Torah Academy, Perelman Jewish day School and Kellman-Brown Academy. The Jewish schools in Greater Philadelphia are, thereby, working collectively to maximize the impact of both current and future resources. The coalition currently focuses on four primary areas: educational programming, financial efficiency, professional development and specialist services.
Another example is the Northern New Jersey Jewish Education for Generations (JEFG), which was established in 2009 in Northern New Jersey, under the leadership of Sam Moed.Recognizing the Jewish identity challenges in their region imposed by day school tuition, JEFG operates as a local day school network, working in tandem with local rabbinic leadership and federations. The initiative has already created some transformational change in the area of day school tuition costs. JEFG acknowledges that its success is predicated, in part, on the expertise provided by national organizations. As reported by JEFG, Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership has been involved in benchmarking efforts to help each school identify cost savings and enhance their individual development efforts, with the goal of reducing tuition. Similarly, JEFG has been working closely with the OU to gain access to untapped government funding. Furthermore, many of JEFG’s initiatives have been supported by the Avi Chai Foundation.
These are wonderful examples of partnership that can be created when the expertise and financial support of national organizations is combined with the drive and energy of concerned community residents.
Rabbinic Education and Leadership: Today’s pulpit rabbis are called upon to address extremely complex questions, and deal with family and social issues that have never before plagued our community. Simultaneously, rabbis are expected to serve as both spiritual guides and CEO’s of their synagogues. Continuing rabbinic education is essential for rabbis, as well as for rebbitzens, whose role is often critical. As part of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) that has trained hundreds of pulpit rabbis, Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future has established a robust continuing education program for practicing rabbis. The program focuses on Torah study, as well as on the continued development of pastoral and administrative skills. Programs are offered through multiple forums. These include mentor opportunities for rabbis and rebbetzins in need of help with specific community challenges, three annual spiritual retreats for different groups of 30 to 50 rabbis each, an annual conference for 100 rebbetzins, online courses in areas of halakha, pastoral counseling and administrative skills. Additionally, a password-protected website, rabbanan.org has been created. This is an online resource available exclusively to rabbis, providing specially prepared teaching guides, shared sermon starters, “drasha nuggets,” and insights and references on contemporary issues. Over one thousand community rabbis across North America and throughout the world have mobile access to the ever-growing trove of materials and to the staff and resources of Yeshiva University, who are committed to their growth and success. This professional and spiritual development, coordinated by a national institution, empowers rabbis, and consequently strengthens the communities they serve. Moreover, the rabbinic feedback culled at these programs allows RIETS to reorient its rabbinical student professional training program, thereby ensuring that the preparation of future generations of rabbis is in sync with the Jewish community’s evolving challenges.
Local rabbinic efforts are similarly advanced by other national initiatives. For example, the work of Rabbi Mordechai Willig with the Beth Din of America and with ORA in creating, developing and promoting a standard prenuptial agreement has made it much easier for rabbis to require every engaged couple to sign one. As the now-popular ORA adage goes: “Friends don’t let friends get married without a halakhic prenup.” By introducing this practice as a national standard, rabbis can simply explain that this is a national requirement articulated in protocols established by the RCA and supported by Gedolei Yisroel, including a letter signed by some of the Roshei Yeshiva of RIETS.Perhaps through further healthy engagement between national organizations and the local rabbinate, the challenges of agunah, a spiritual blight on our community’s tapestry, can ultimately be obviated.
These few examples highlight the need for partnership between our creative leaders in local communities and those guiding our national organizations.
Key Lessons Learned
- American Orthodox Jewry would benefit greatly from increased cooperation and coordination. The community would be greatly enhanced if all segments, whether Chasidish, right wing, Modern Orthodox or part of the larger Jewish community, would meet to discuss specific issues affecting the entire community. Remedies to important challenges would enjoy a greater likelihood of being identified if project teams would be created comprised of the best people of each segment of the community. Furthermore, such collaboration would create a mindset that would affect so many other aspects of the community agenda.
- Imagine if we were willing to reach out to national institutions solely based on their capacity to help problem solve and not based on religious or hashkafic lines. Not only would this be a broadening experience for our local community’s hearts and minds, it would also facilitate effective change more readily.
- National organizations must be encouraged to keep a pulse on local community needs. Frequently, goals of national organizations are established without strategic planning that includes input from local communities.
- Coordination among national organizations is critical. Collectively, these organizations must agree upon which organizations are best positioned to tackle specific community issues. Duplication of services would be reduced and our limited community funds would be leveraged for the greater good.
By identifying our respective roles and our unique abilities and talents and by recognizing that we don’t need to do it all alone, national and local leadership can become more effective in guaranteeing the immortality of our people and the eternality of our Torah way of life.
One Final Observation
The pressures of supporting an Orthodox lifestyle, and the fact that most families require income from both spouses, compels contemporary lay leaders to engage in a juggling act between professional, familial and communal responsibilities. This challenging routine limits the pool of talented people capable or willing to become part of the leadership cadre of our community. Due to this and other factors, the role that a lay leader expects to play, whether on a local or national level, is different than it was a generation ago. In the past, the community’s professional leaders were more or less trusted by lay leaders and philanthropists to shape the visions of the organizations they believed in. Lay leaders were “consumers” who believed in, and were attracted to, an organization’s vision and were therefore willing to provide time and financial support.
Today’s generation of lay leaders and philanthropists seek to help shape the vision and be active stakeholders in the process. They don’t want to sit through board meetings where the leaders’ rhetoric is simply regurgitated. Rather, they expect board meetings to serve as incubators for dialogue and visioning. These new cohorts of leaders wish to participate as producers and help actively shape organizations’ mandates. Yet, they are still consumers in that they seek to benefit from the energy and spiritual product that our organizations’ visions and activities create. They want to be prosumers, stakeholders in our community enterprises that are producers and consumers simultaneously. Let’s take an honest, hard look at our boards. Aren’t they getting greyer? On both a national and local level, organizations that have the courage and the conviction to be guided by this new leadership paradigm are likely to be the ones that succeed in establishing creative environments for Jewish Life. The key to success in the Jewish community is no longer about a charismatic blinding personality, but rather about inspiring others to lead, based upon a spirit of collaboration.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander is the inaugural David Mitzner Dean of Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future (www.yu.edu/cjf), Rabbi Emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founding dean of the Weinbaum Yeshiva High School of Broward and Palm Beach Counties.
The author wishes to thank Mr. Anosh Zaghi, a Yeshiva University Presidential Fellow for his help with this article.
1 For further elaboration on the Kehillah experiment see Gore, Arthur A. (1970). New York Jews and the Quest for Community. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
2 For further elaboration on the development of the Young Israel movement to help establish a national organization to help local communities see: Warshaw, D. (1974). A History Of The Young Israel Movement 1912 – 1931 (unpublished masters dissertation). Yeshiva University Bernard Revel Graduate School, New York. Berger, S. (1982). The Early History of The Young Israel Movement (unpublished work). Yeshiva University Bernard Revel Graduate School, New York.
3 For further elaboration see Markovitz, E. (1965). Henry Pereira Mendes: Architect of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. American Jewish Historical Quarterly, 55, 364.
5 See http://www.tzohar.org.il
6 Gittin 61a; Rambam: Hilkhot Melachim 10:12, Hilkhot Matnat Aniyim 7:7, and his Responsa 449; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 251:1; Soloveitchik. Rabbi Joseph B, “Confrontation,” Tradition, vol. 6(2), p. 26-27; Lichtenstein. Rabbi Dr. Aharon, “The Duties of the Heart and the Response to Suffering,” in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living, (Jersey City: Ktav 2004); Berger. David, “Jews, Gentiles, and the Modern Egalitarian Ethos: Some Tentative Thoughts,” in Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age, ed. Marc D. Stern (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2000); Jacob J. Schacter, “Tikkun Olam: Defining the Jewish Obligation,” in Rav Chesed: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein, ed. Rafael Medoff (Jersey City: Ktav, 2009), vol. 2, pp. 183-204.
7 See yu.edu/cjf/yuconnects/
8 For further elaboration on Kohelet’s pioneering work in this area see http://www.koheletfoundation.org/programs.html#jdsc
9 Mr. Moed’s vision was well articulated in a speech he delivered on “Day School Sustainability: A Potential Blueprint” at Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future Championsgate Leadership
Conference. His comments can be found: http://www.ou.org/tuition/resources/day_school_sustainability_a_potential_blueprint/#.UZ7WGUCccrU.
10 See http://www.nnjkids.org/
12 For further elaboration on this idea watch a 12 minute talk I gave on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-R70GeullA