US Jewish community needs more democracy

An encouraging exception in the world of Jewish office-hunters is the World Union of Jewish Students. Its recent conference featured a genuinely democratic election

January 10, 2018 21:39
3 minute read.
US Jewish community needs more democracy

The World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) picture taken at the Leonardo Hotel in Jerusalem Credit: Dana Levinson Steiner . (photo credit: Courtesy)


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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Congress, an event resulting from the first nationwide democratic elections in the US Jewish community. Sadly, although a century has passed, genuine democracy is the exception, not the rule, among American Jewish organizations today.

More than 330,000 ballots were cast by American Jewish voters for delegates to that first congress.

The event was intended as a rejection of the era’s established Jewish leadership, which was nominated by a small group of wealthy Jewish philanthropists.

(Subsequently the congress was transformed into an ongoing organization.) By contrast, some of today’s American Jewish and Zionist organizations do not hold any elections for their leadership positions – sometimes in defiance of their own by-laws. Others stage elections in which incumbents run unopposed, or in which the race is so heavily stacked in favor of the incumbent that the opponent never has a chance. Wealth, political connections, or the trading of favors too often determine the choice of a leader.

To make matters worse, some American Jewish organizations do not have term limits for their leaders.

Benjamin Franklin warned against leaders who are motivated by “the love of power and the love of money.” Without term limits, politicians would view elected office as “a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it,” he feared. Thomas Jefferson, too, advocated term limits, to curb what he called “office-hunters.”

An encouraging exception in the world of Jewish office-hunters is the World Union of Jewish Students.

Its recent conference featured a genuinely democratic election, in which 182 delegates, voting by secret ballot, chose between two rival candidates.

The past three WUJS presidential elections likewise involved more than one candidate. Voters were given a real choice.

The winner of this year’s WUJS race, Avigayil Benstein, knows that she can serve only a maximum of two terms, of two years each. She will have to answer to the voters in 2019. And in 2021, she will be out of office, whether she likes it or not. Benstein will have to find herself another profession. Making a permanent living off the WUJS budget is not an option.

The contrast between 24-year-old Benstein and her elders in the American Jewish community is striking.

She will earn $27,850 each year, for a maximum of four years. Compare that to the salaries of the top 40 senior executives at American Jewish and Zionist non-profit organizations, recently exposed by The Forward. Their pay ranges from $308,578 to $818,148 annually. And that’s not including perks and benefits.

Eleven of these Jewish leaders have held the same positions for more than 20 years, nine of them for 25 or more. Isn’t a quarter-century long enough for someone to be heading a Jewish organization? Move over, Mahmoud Abbas and Idi Amin; apparently some American Jewish or Zionist leaders feel that they, too, have a right to be “president for life.”

Thirty-eight of the 40 top-earning Jewish leaders are men. By contrast, WUJS over the past 30 years has had women as chairs of more than half of its regional chapters around the world. In addition to its newly- elected president, many of WUJS’s largest divisions are currently headed by women, including the European Union of Jewish Students (representing 35 organizations), and the individual branches in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and South Africa.

Avigayil Benstein is a not a crusader for the reform of other Jewish organizations. She is, appropriately, focused on the needs of her constituents at the World Union of Jewish Students. When I asked her about the lack of democracy in the American Jewish community, her response was thoughtful and measured.

“If someone joins an organization whose by-laws say nothing about elections, then they know what they’re getting,” she told me. “However, if a Jewish organization claims to represent its members in a democratic way, then the members should be able to elect their leaders. And if an organization claims to represent some portion of the Jewish people, it should consider how to do that in a democratic way.”

The example that Benstein and WUJS offer – democracy, term limits, leadership roles for women – is a breath of fresh air in a community whose leaders are disproportionately male, unelected, in many cases in their 70s, and drawing extravagant salaries.

Perhaps it’s time to start paying more attention to what the younger generation is saying – and doing.

The writer, a historian and author, is a member of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership.

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