Jewish leadership is in a state of crisis, warns Dr. Erica Brown in her new
book, In the Narrow Places, a collection of essays scheduled to hit the book
stands on June 1.
The Jewish intellectual and author, who has won the praise of
journalists David Brooks of The New York Times and Jeffrey Goldberg of The
Atlantic, believes that the people who gave you Moses, Theodor Herzl and David
Ben-Gurion just don’t make them the way they used to.
Ahead of her
lecture on Jewish leadership at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem next Thursday,
the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, DC,
explained to The Jerusalem Post
over the phone this week what went
“We have gotten so used to a poor moral level of leadership and of
competency in leadership, and leadership which is almost visionless, that we
actually don’t know what it’s like to be led well,” she said. “When you look at
both sides of the pond you’re not seeing a radically different
You’re seeing that people who are falling into leadership
roles right now just aren’t top-tier spiritually or people who many people feel
comfortable with as role models.”
Brown refrained from naming names, but
several examples of subpar Israeli leaders might easily come to mind.
Ex-president Moshe Katsav was recently found guilty of rape, and former finance
minister Avraham Hirchson is in prison for stealing public money.
most of our politicians apparently aren’t involved in criminal activities, a
large number can be tried and convicted for mediocrity and instilling boredom,
although it wasn’t always like this, Brown said.
“With many of our early
Zionist leaders there was a certain sense of vision of what we wanted the
country to be,” she explained.
“We had Jewish organizations around the US
where people were giving the kind of leadership which created institutions that
were successful and broad-thinking, and we’ve gotten a little bit stuck,” she
said. “So many of the institutions are really designed for communities that are
more than 100 years old. We’ve moved on and there are immense changes in things
like technology, but the institutions have stayed the same.”
So can we
bring the antiquated Jewish establishment into the 21st century, or is it beyond
repair? Yes, we can, Brown said, but don’t expect any easy fixes.
would have to be offered institution by institution.” she explained. “There’s no
one-size-fits-all institution. It depends on our capacity or willingness to
reinvent institutions and interest people outside institutions.
We have a
large number of leaders who are trying to do things on their own and are
harnessing social media.”
And, she said, there’s another issue that needs
to be tackled if the Jewish establishment is to be successfully reformed: the
emphasis on money.
“Many institutions today are very focused on raising
money, and not necessarily on contributing meaning to people and creating
relevancy,” she noted. “If you’re an institution which cares predominantly about
raising money, then you want your leadership to have fundraising as a skill, as
opposed to saying it’s important our leaders inspire people and be
Things are very different when you’re moving beyond how much
money can be raised.”
Indeed, Jewish leaders in North America make
hundreds of thousands of dollars a year working for so-called non-profit
organizations, but there’s another side to that argument as well.
salaries were not competitive, the best and the brightest might not go into
public service, and Brown admits there’s a fine line.
“I think it’s very
difficult being a Jewish leader today because people have unrealistic
expectations of what can be accomplished,” she said. “People tend to be quite
entitled and quite demanding. The only way to compensate for that is to say, ‘We
shall financially remunerate you, will pay you to put up with the difficulties.’
But there are terrible reverberations.”
Brown doesn’t let the rest of us
off the hook either.
We can be spoiled, entitled and too demanding.
Nowadays anyone with a connection to the Internet can launch a scathing attack
on public officials, even without justification. She cited the mess in the
much-maligned Jewish school system in the US, which, she said, is partially our
“If you take day schools in America, the leaders of day
schools are very well compensated and because people are paying a great deal in
tuition they often feel it gives them permission to lay into the people running
schools, and use a certain kind of language that is unthoughtful, uncivil and
not productive to further their needs,” she explains.
“Once you descend
into that kind of language – ‘I’m paying a lot of money; if you don’t do this
then I’m taking my money out’ – if everything comes down to a financial
transaction, then it’s very hard to succeed and you’re bending over backwards
because you don’t want to lose a donation and you’re spending your whole time
putting out fires, as opposed to creating a vision and trying to do something
Therefore a new balance, which has civility and respect as its
pillars, needs to be struck.
“You can’t have great leadership if you
don’t have great followship,” she said.
After the interview, and after
some of the issues discussed sank in, Brown’s well-articulated arguments made
perfect sense. But suddenly I wondered whether the past had not been put on a
pedestal. After all, Ben- Gurion had an authoritarian streak, the revered
Israeli general Moshe Dayan was a philanderer and tomb raider, and even the
patriarch Abraham once tried to prostitute his wife to an Egyptian pharaoh. So I
fired an e-mail to Brown asking her if we had not let nostalgia gloss over past
“You’re talking about immorality in leaders in their
private lives versus competence in their public, professional lives,” she wrote
in response. “Today, media gives us more access to the private lives of leaders,
which makes leadership much harder because none of us would probably do well
under a microscope. But there are leaders in the past – be it Lincoln or
Churchill or Ben-Gurion – who placed a premium on articulating a vision and
using elegant language to give people a way to think about
Today, we’re all about sound bites, tag lines and spin
doctoring – none of it feels sincere or genuinely inspiring.”