American scholar to lecture on lack of Jewish vision

Washington DC scholar-in-residence discusses the decline of Jewish leadership ahead of Great Synagogue lecture.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
May 22, 2011 03:42
Erica Brown

erica brown 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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.

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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 wrong.

“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 situation.

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.

While 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.

“That 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 issuedriven.

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.

If 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 own fault.

“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 better.”

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 imperfections.

“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 challenges.

Today, we’re all about sound bites, tag lines and spin doctoring – none of it feels sincere or genuinely inspiring.”

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