Summer 2013: Responses
For the Introduction & Questions, click here.
The American Orthodox Jewish community exhibits extraordinary generosity, but the generosity is often driven by self-centered, individual initiatives that ignore broader community needs, vision and oversight. This trait has even infiltrated the overall communal personality. Consequently, the national community, and most local communities, fail to expend effort in surveying and assessing broader communal needs, or to study future communal needs and create a plan to address them. In addition, this communal personality has resulted in a diminishing role for national organizations. Perhaps harnessing the power of this selfish generosity may provide a way forward.
A primary responsibility of the professional and lay leadership of any Orthodox Jewish organization is to reconsider routinely the reason for the organization’s existence and to ensure that its vision remains fresh and current. The greatest organizational challenge facing American Jewry is allocating and structuring responsibilities amongst institutions in the context of an increasingly diverse Orthodox Jewish environment. It is appropriate to take a step back and explore how the national organizations might better apply themselves in the context of today’s burgeoning Orthodox Jewish community.
With no effective national or local community infrastructure, the Orthodox 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 it is approached. Additionally, there is no realistic likelihood of longer-term strategic planning and there is no one to consider the overall use and appropriation of communal assets. If we wish to bring order to the chaotic world of organizations, it is the top tier of contributors who are needed to make the difference, in consultation with wise rabbinic, lay and professional leadership.
If we were to succeed at organizing our communities into a Kehilla structure, its success would depend on developing an informed framework for problem solving and decision-making – one with a strong foundation of fact-finding and research. If American Orthodoxy has aspirations of tackling its challenges in a responsible manner and in constructing an infrastructure capable of earning respect and deference, the community must first establish and sustain a strong multidisciplinary data-gathering task force that will produce the information and data upon which proper decision-making must be based.
American Orthodox Jewry would benefit greatly from increased cooperation and coordination between and among local and national organizations. Examples include greater synergism between local and national institutions, regular meetings that include all segments of the larger Jewish community to discuss specific issues affecting the entire community, more focus on whether a national institution can help problem solve than on their relative religious or hashkafic positions, more responsibility on national organizations to keep a pulse on local community needs and increased coordination among national organizations.
There is enormous diversity of opinion regarding the proper definition of “community” in American Orthodox Judaism, with wide-ranging views regarding the appropriate degree of authority and leadership properly wielded by rabbinic and lay leaders. There is a need for increased communication among community factions, but it must be facilitated, or it will never occur. Forums need to be created for the interchange of ideas and frank discussions. Ideally, issues that face every community and upon which there is little disagreement should be addressed by the national organizations on a collective basis.
Effective leadership is built on a commitment to Shalom that does not preclude disagreement or demand uniformity but that places significant value on communal unity. Leaders are best advised to recognize and appreciate the value of partnership with others and to view change as a gradual process of building communal confidence and influencing attitudes. This posture of humility should be extended to those one is charged to lead, as imposed, authoritarian leadership rarely succeeds in the long term. Rather than breaking down existing structures, change can be brought about by introducing modest but replicable models of change.
American Orthodoxy thrives in a sociological and political environment dominated by a culture of individual autonomy, liberty and freedom and the likelihood is not high that mandated communal authority will be warmly embraced any time soon. Because of how deeply affected our community is by the unprecedented, autonomous culture in which we live, the predicate of any communal structure must be its appeal to the community, rather than expectation of obedience.
The freedom enjoyed by the America Orthodox community breeds the sort of individual self-determination that undermines coordinated leadership, whether locally or nationally. Locally, individual initiatives to meet communal needs can be enhanced by competition, which is the great incentive to provide value. But nationally, there remains an urgent need for a representative national organization to function at the highest level. Ultimately, the community depends on the gedolim, but solutions are needed to relieve them of the impossible burden that currently rests on their shoulders.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Orthodox community experienced a rapid expansion of independent non-profit organizations that assumed many of the responsibilities traditionally held within the structure of a local kehillah. Today, the majority of our community’s needs are served through these organizations, which succeed or fail based on factors unique to the modern non-profit sector and that often are not aligned with the interests of the community. The emergence of the independent non-profit organization as perhaps the leading force in serving community needs is a development that must be analyzed.
In times past, shul rabbis played a prominent if not leading role in all important community decisions. While this model still may be active in some communities, it is no longer present in most cases. Most troubling about this is the trend toward organizations becoming individual monarchies rather than community establishments. Perhaps it is time to include shul rabbis on the boards of directors in community organizations.
* Recommended Reading from Klal Perspectives, Fall 2011
Despite all the success that we enjoy, we are today a splintered group with no clarity of direction and without a strong sense of a tzibbur following gedolim. Our rapidly increasing population has led to a new set of challenges that did not exist when our numbers were smaller, and addressing them will require organizational structures that must be developed.