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Rabbi Yehiel Kalish

Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure

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Defining Organizational Mission

A PRIMARY FUNCTION OF THE governing board of a nonprofit organization is to define, and periodically reevaluate, its purpose and its goals. Without such continuing supervision, though a board could perhaps promote the organization’s “founding mission” generally, it cannot enunciate and implement that mission in a manner that is responsible and relevant to the community’s current needs.

An Orthodox Jewish mosad (institution) is no different. A primary responsibility of its professional and lay leadership is to routinely reconsider the reason for the organization’s existence and to ensure that its vision remains fresh and current. With its purpose and goals well defined, the organization can be confident in developing criteria for success, strategies for achieving that success, and a protocol for evaluating its achievements.

In past eras, the purpose of each Jewish organization was self-evident. In the 1890’s, in response to the increased persecution of Jews in Poland and Russia, Jewish immigration to the United States began in earnest, launching a new era in Jewish community life. In 1898, Reverend Dr. Henry Pereia Mendes founded the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations – the OU – to address the religious needs of the newly arriving Jews. The OU’s mandate was to introduce programs for Jewish education, Shabbos observance, kashrus, divorce, conversion and opposing Christian proselytizing.

By 1915, Jews represented 85 percent of the Free City College student body in New York City, 20 percent of New York University’s student body and 16 percent of those studying at Columbia University. Jewish immigration was so strong that in 1924 the Federal Government enacted the Johnson-Reed Act, specifically designed to slow the pace of Jewish immigration.

As the Jewish population in America increased, Jewish social service organizations were founded to assist in the acculturation and protection of the newly arrived Jewish immigrants. For example, in 1906, the American Jewish Committee was established, with a first agenda item to fight immigration quotas. Today, Orthodox Jewish organizations exist for every facet of religious and non-religious life. A family facing fertility challenges can call A-Time, when there is a need for assistance with the government the Agudah is there, a broken down car and Chaveirim is the way to go and, chalilah, if someone passes away, Misaskim is there to help with shiva.

The Integral Need for Effective National Organizations

The purpose of this discussion is to take a step back and suggest an appropriate role for the larger, national organizations, as well as a challenge or two that they each might overcome. I do not, of course, question the importance or necessity of any of the community’s most significant institutions, but rather hope to explore how the national organizations might better apply themselves in the context of today’s burgeoning American Orthodox Jewish community.

The 2010 Jewish population study estimates that there are 6.2 million Jews in the United States, 15% of whom identify as Orthodox. With a population of almost one million, the Orthodox community can ill afford to neglect its internal communal infrastructure and levels of efficiency. The need for some basic guidelines should be self evident for the community’s national organizations.

For example, each must have a central national office located in a major Orthodox population center. The central location should likely focus on “big picture” issues, as well as fundraising and goal setting. In addition, the organization cannot afford to be disconnected from the frum communities outside the Eastern United States, and should thus have regional offices or affiliates, charged with implementing the national plan, as well as interfacing with the local community on a daily basis. Lay boards of national organizations must be engaged and committed, and must meet in person at least semi-annually, to ensure that the organization’s mission and activities remain relevant and responsible.

Woodrow Wilson served as President of Princeton University before becoming Governor of New Jersey in 1910 and ascending to the Presidency of the United States in 1912. While at Princeton, Mr. Wilson authored “The Study of Administration,” from which communal leaders can learn an important lesson. In concluding his book, Wilson states, “(the local) duty is to supply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within systems; to make town, city, county, state and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness, keeping each unquestionably its own master and yet making all interdependent with mutual helpfulness.”

Wilson, the organizational expert, lays out for us the theory of a strong national organization and smaller local organizations which are “equally assured” and interdependent with mutual helpfulness.”

Effective Collectivism through Allocation of Responsibilities

The greatest organizational challenge facing American Jewry is allocating and structuring responsibilities amongst institutions in the context of an increasingly diverse Orthodox Jewish community. In 1851, upon assuming the rabbinical leadership of Frankfurt, Rav Hirsch served as the catalyst for the founding of the IRG (Israelitische Religions-Gesellschaft), arguably the most effective local communal infrastructure to oversee an Orthodox community during the last two hundred years. Yet perhaps, Rav Hirsch’s success was significantly buttressed by the fact that he was addressing a single, geographically centered community, of like-minded members. The Jews of Rav Hirsch’s community shared a central objective — to strengthen Torah and each member’s individual connection to Torah. By successfully enhancing the Torah life of his congregants and his local community, Rav Hirsch elevated the spiritual level of the entire world.

Contemporary American Orthodoxy is a far cry from the uniformity of vision Rav Hirsch encountered amongst his congregants. American Orthodoxy may share a general goal of Torah observance, but the varying manners in which this goal is pursued, and the varying emphases in education and observance which are adopted in different segments of the community, seems as disparate as ever. For the contemporary American mosad to emulate Rav Hirsch’s success, while also following Wilson’s suggested form of local/national structure, they must acknowledge that today’s frum community is comprised of multiple mini-communities, with a plethora of conflicting sensitivities, approaches and priorities. No doubt the threshold step is a mutually respectful environment in which these disparate approaches and priorities are represented in the process of ongoing organizational development. And the most obvious manner by which to forge cooperation among the differing approaches and opinions is through broad, mandated community involvement and active board member participation.

Steven Covey identifies seven habits that elevate an individual’s effectiveness. His listed habit two is to “begin with the end in mind.” Covey explains that this habit is premised upon the effective use of imagination—the ability to envision in one’s mind what cannot currently be seen with one’s eyes. Just as the successful individual begins an effort with his ultimate goal clearly defined, even the most complex communal endeavors must strive to do the same. As Covey explains it, all things are created twice – first in one’s mind’s eye, and only thereafter in a physical, actual creation. The tangible creation follows the conceptual creation, just as construction follows a blueprint.

If American Orthodoxy is to forge a collective national effort out of the myriad differing voices within, it is critical that we collectively conceptualize the common characteristics and values that reflect the uniqueness of our kehilla as a whole. We can then define the goals we all hold in common, leaving our differences at the door. This suggestion is not meant to minimize the importance or the implications of the very significant and consequential distinctions that exist within our community in hashkafa and, at times, halacha. In fact, such distinctions should be viewed as “local” considerations in contrast to the broader national community. Such an approach can empower a national agenda that can be more widely supported, while providing a well-defined framework for addressing issues unique to individual communities, whether they are local, per se, or shared by some fraction of the national community

The Chicago Model

Lest one believe that this distinction between collective and distinct agenda issues cannot be navigated, one need only study the Chicago Orthodox community. That community has very successfully segregated communal concerns that unite the entire community and can be jointly pursued from those that may be viewed and approached differently by different segments of the community.

On matters in which a single approach befits the entire community, clear definitions provide for how leadership will be appointed on behalf the community, with representatives from each constituency sitting together on boards. For example, the local Agudah handles governmental advocacy and the Va’ad HaTzedakos (supervision of charities), the CrC handles kashrus and dayanus (legal proceedings), the Associated Talmud Torahs handles chinuch (education), and so on. This has been the communal approach since 2004, and it has worked well. Clearly, this success is born of the open and respectful relationship between Rabbi Gedaliah Dov Schwartz of the RCA and the Telzer Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin.

President James Madison advised that clear and strong leadership is especially necessary when so many different opinions will be present; “…a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure from the mischief of faction… hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention…” Madison concludes that only with a strong executive will such a government succeed. The same is true with our communal organizations. Only with strong executive, or rabbinic leadership, will our communal organizations succeed in bringing together the different factions who need to be at the same table.

Imagine a world in which the OU had Chareidim on the Board of Directors and not just “in the kitchen”? Conceptualize an Agudath Israel Board of Trustees meeting where some participants had a kippah serugah on their head. Is such a world impossible to imagine? These goals are fully achievable and would facilitate an enormous advance in addressing the important collective needs of our growing community. The key is identifying the areas of collective agreement.

The ability to win broad participation by limiting an organizational agenda to widely accepted values is already evidenced in the success of AIPAC in the broader American Jewish community. AIPAC is the premier American institution for advancing the interests of a close Israel/U.S. relationship. Notwithstanding the many, many differing views on political and philosophical spectrum of supporters of Israel, AIPAC’s single, unifying focus results in a clear agenda on the ideas that unite all supporters of Israel. And, likely as a consequence of its very narrow and specific focus, AIPAC hosted 13,000 people at its most recent national conference.

Creating Relationships 

Our community is dependent on the emergence of leaders who are capable of making such a dream come true, and winning the support of the community’s rabbis and lay leaders. For this to happen, we must begin to see a desire on the part of the community to move in this direction. The “best minds,” as Wilson puts it, would then be drawn to working for and participating in organizations that represent the collective of American Orthodoxy, on singularly focused, clear agendas.

The composition of the members of the rabbinic and lay boards of directors of the various Orthodox Jewish national organizations should be expanded to include participants from all segments of American Orthodoxy, both hashkafically and geographically. Leave the differences at the door and sit together to develop strategies that will help the entire community, just as Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders sit on the boards of AIPAC to create a stronger US-Israel relationship – a relationship that saves Jewish lives.

The first practical step in pursuing this aspiration is opening discussions and commencing relationships. Rabbis and educators from varying segments of American Jewry must begin to meet regularly. Such interaction will allow all to become familiarized with the agendas and approaches pursued within the various segments of the community. While different approaches will often reflect different hashkafos, other times they will simply reflect the widely disparate types of members within the various segments of the community, such as in their educational background, cultural sensitivities and economic positions. And perhaps it is even possible that the respective groups can actually learn from the approaches of the others.

Every segment of American Orthodox Jewry has rabbinic and lay leaders respected by other segments of the community. As evidenced by Chicago’s success in this regard, this aspiration is achievable – if there is a collective will.

Change is Slow; But Change is in the Air

I do not fancy a shift in communal culture that will suddenly produce the collective will that I describe. I fully recognize that communal cultures and large organizations require a slow, shifting evolution. In fact, the older and better established an organization is, the more challenging it is to facilitate change. With the passing of years upon years of “tradition,” institutions assume the character of a massive aircraft carrier, that requires significant time even to make a slight turn, let alone change course entirely.

Yet, structurally, change is in the air. Larger organizations like Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union/NCSY and Torah U’Mesorah have started to establish a strong local presence in communities like Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. With this expansion, if performed as described by Wilson’s “systems within systems,” and if board membership becomes inclusive rather than exclusive, the mission and goals of even the largest of institutions will evolve into the most relevant and applicable formulations for the needs of today’s American Orthodoxy.

Change in leadership is already occurring in several major organizations. For the first time, a lay leader from the West Coast recently ascended to the Presidency of the OU, redefining their mission as “Kashrut. Kiruv. Kiddush Hashem.” Similarly, there is a new Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America, who has expanded his board to include individuals who reside outside of New York. This expansion will lead to the redefinition of that organization’s holy and timeless mission. When recognized leaders make bold changes, Klal Yisroel can appreciate that these organizations care about the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community

Cooperation and Coordination among Community Organizations

Even if a global change of communal infrastructure is slow to occur, it is certainly possible, and incredibly important, for local and national rabbinic and lay leadership of these organizations to meet regularly for one major purpose: to prioritize the use of communal resources. Such coordination is both practical and realistic, and can have a powerful effect on the entire gamut of Jewish organizational life.

In November 1913, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, embarked on a very difficult trip. At 65 years old, he was frail and had not been away from home overnight in many years. Yet reports of chillul Shabbos amongst those in the New Yishuv led him to spend months on the road visiting yishuvim in Northern Israel, attempting to teach them to love and embrace the Shabbos. Rav Sonnenfeld was not alone on this trip. In the face of very public criticism, he undertook this trip together with Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Hakohen Kook, zt”l. These Torah giants had many disagreements in hashkafa as well as halacha, including a major public dispute that was then raging about whether supporting the Chief Rabbinate of the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization was an appropriate way to do reach out to the non-Orthodox community, or whether such support would ultimately contribute to the secularization of the Jewish people. Yet their intense disagreement did not detract from their shared love of Hashem and His people. Consequently, when Rav Sonnenfeld embarked on this mission, he did not hesitate to choose Rav Kook as the most effective partner to join him.

Now is the time, during the incredible yet deeply challenging period of growth we are experiencing today, to overcome our differences and to confront together the issues of paramount importance to us all. We must not forget this vital lesson taught to us by the Gedolei HaDor of Eretz Yisroel in our recent history. When we need each other, nothing should stand in our way.

Rabbi Yehiel Kalish is the National Director of Government Affairs for Agudath Israel.

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