Friday, January 01, 1999

1998 General Assembly

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in October 1998)

I will be in Indianapolis in mid-November as a scholar-in-residence at a local congregation. This visit comes exactly a year after the Council of Jewish Federations came to town for its 1997 General Assembly. This year’s GA is in Jerusalem, appropriately to celebrate Israel’s fiftieth year and conveniently distant from urgent issues in American Jewish life, including the by now old questions of why we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to maintain a bloated, ineffective and ultimately unneeded organizational infrastructure.

At last years General Assembly, there was the unscheduled demand for greater support for day schools, thanks mainly to the effort of George Hanus of Chicago who in an excess of sincerity and naivete apparently believed that grass roots pressure could induce Federations to provide substantially enhanced assistance to our most vital educational institutions. Mr. Hanus’ advocacy was easily parried by one of the most reliable devices in the repertoire of our communal undertakers. They readily opted for the establishment of a task force to examine the matter. Now, there is scarcely a word about day schools and their financial needs.

The beauty of the task force arrangement, from an organizational but not Jewish or moral perspective, is that it allows people who do not want to do something to appear to be taking action even as they bury that which is being proposed.

The day school task force has been a dud, even by the extremely low level of expectation that surrounded its creation. Its members are nearly all from the establishment, people whose calendars are already crowded with meetings and other instrumentalities of gratuitous busy-ness that is the life of almost all of our machers. These are people who can be relied on not to rock any boat. They also have few discernable credentials in the field about which they are supposed to make recommendations. There have been two or three meetings and I have been told by several persons who attended that they have been real sleepers, not in the sense of providing the unexpected but in the sense of allowing participants to catnap without missing a beat.

The task force’s staff work has been delegated to Jewish Education Services in North America or JESNA, an agency which apart from other serious infirmities has been at the heart of the wrongs committed for so long against meaningful religious Jewish education. This staff has produced a handful of briefing papers which the chairman of the body has described in a burst of hyperbolic extravagance as being of “great value.” He has also written that these papers can “serve as component documents for the final report of the Task Force to guide communal decision-making and policy formulation.” The nail is already in the coffin.

The instinct to proclaim that which is mediocre as valuable is one of the charming characteristics of organized Jewish life. For a half-century, we have been told that the emperor is well-clothed, even as much of our communal is in tatters. We have lost the commitment, even the most minimum involvement, of at least half of all of American Jews – three million or more people – and we continue to be fed the same diet of organizational junk food, an endless expensive smorgasbord of conferences and conventions, task forces and reports, meetings and trips. It would be remarkable if anything but suffocating mediocrity emerged from the dysfunctional arrangements that we have tolerated, fed and celebrated for far too long.

Twenty-five years ago, as Mayor John V. Lindsay was nearing the end of his term and I my service as his administrative assistant, Philip Klutznick – one of the paramount leaders of American Jewry – came by on a courtesy call. As we waited for the Mayor, Klutznick and I talked about Jewish communal life. I asked what he thought about the establishment in which he was a key player and he said that it was awful and that he would never accept such mediocrity in his own business affairs.

Long before, in the 1950’s, one of the world’s eminent social scientists, Robert McIver, examined our organizational life and in a much-publicized report sharply criticized the duplication and waste that was rife in American Jewish life. Our response was to take an organizational edifice that already was too large and doing harm and build further on it, organization by organization and conference by conference, so that at the end of a century that has seen staggering losses in American Jewish identity we now have more “major” organizations than the American Irish, Italians, Blacks, Hispanics and who knows who else combined. It’s true that we have made it in America. We have taken a people whose hallmark was spiritual beauty and intellectual greatness and forged us into a clutter of organizations whose hallmark is fundraising and public relations.

We are so embedded in a morass of mediocrity that no one has a clue how to extract us from the fix we are in. There was a time, not long ago, when people who commanded communal respect called for a reversal of our misguided proclivity to waste so much of our resources on organizations. These voices are now largely muted, perhaps because the recognition has come that it is fruitless to tilt against a gigantic windmill. Instead, there has been a proliferation of private Jewish philanthropies which bypass much of the establishment.

There are times when I wonder whether my own quixotic quest should be abandoned, whether the time and energy that I have left should be directed elsewhere. Apart from the relevant consideration that the lion’s share of my time is devoted to day schools and to other communal activities and not to rhetoric and advocacy, I am not certain whether it would be right to stop championing a cause that has so few champions and that is critical to the wellbeing of American Jewry.

Day schools and yeshivas have always been in this country the neglected stepchildren of our philanthropy. This continues to be the case, even in the expanding private philanthropic sector. With maybe two exceptions, the new initiatives are paltry and misdirected and they are infused with a bias against the religious educational institutions that have been the most effective guarantors of Jewish continuity.

I have no illusions about the effectiveness of my advocacy. The time for daydreaming ended along time ago. But there is a reality that still must be faced and which I believe obligates those of us who care about the future of American Jewry to stay the course, irrespective of how unpopular our positions may be.