Thursday, January 10, 2002

Thou Shalt Not Kill a Jewish Organization

Am I the only Jew in American who believes that it would be a mitzvah to bump off Jewish organizations? Not a handful or just dozens, but at least several hundred. We have thousands of them in the U.S. and those that are done away with are certain to be quickly replaced. After all, American Jewry has been on an organization binge for more than a century and there are no signs that it is abating.

After forty years of preaching against our mountain of waste, I know that I am a lonely voice in the wilderness. Nor is it much comfort that one day things will change, that our mania for organizations will be recognized for the folly that it is. We live and act in the present and right now I feel quite lonely. This is a puzzlement because it can’t be maintained that we need all of these groups to protect us against our enemies, defend Israel or provide for Jewish continuity. There is, in fact, an inverse correlation between the number of groups and the number of Jews. The only continuity is the survival of an arrangement that is dysfunctional.

This survival is testimony to the power of inertia. Despite their lack of useful things to do, irrelevance, overlap, inability to be creative, many of our organizations exist because that’s the way things have been for so long. We are comfortable with what doesn’t work because it is familiar.

It is recognized nearly everywhere in Jewish life, including within their agencies, that the Federation system is in extremis. Things are so bad that the worried machers within the Federation network have borrowed the religious practice of changing the name of the gravely ill in the hope that the Angel of Death will stay away. So we now have the United Jewish Communities. Alas, the patient’s condition continues to worsen. Since our organizations have not completed their living wills, no one has been authorized to pull the plug.

It is not fair to say that our thousands of organizations serve no useful purposes. They keep the unemployment rate down, bolster the travel and lodging industries, help a great number of small businesses and provide ego gratification for an army of machers.

For all of the role of inertia in maintaining that which should be discarded, it remains that overwhelmingly our organizations are Jews by choice. They exist because people want them to exist, because somehow they can come up with money to pay the rent and staff and do what is needed to keep open. This is especially true of the newly-minted nonprofits, many of them the brainchild of the fabulously wealthy philanthropists who have become a dominant force in our communal life. They are, in the main, people with brains, accomplishments and independence and they are not wed to the tired status quo, yet from the look of things they have been co-opted into arrangements that none of them would tolerate in their own business affairs.

American life is awash in downsizing, in powerful corporations becoming smaller or being taken over, companies and organizations going out of business and in the recognition that because things change, what once existed need not exist any longer. What makes the Jewish situation more bizarre still is the role played by our supermachers, men like Michael Steinhardt and the Bronfmans. They have spoken out against retention of the dysfunctional status quo and they have backed alternate arrangements that to an extent side-step our tired bureaucracy, yet they increasingly appear to be involved in a system that they have criticized.

“Entangled” may better describe the fix that they and we are in. The elephantine size, geographic diversity and complexity of our organizational infrastructure make it largely invulnerable to attack or even reform. There is no single entry point to serve as the linchpin for change. Rather, we have the dazzling and dizzying, albeit also decrepit, pattern of intertwined umbrella agencies. The madness of all of this is self-perpetuating.

Isn’t it madness that after having lost half of American Jewry we manage to have perhaps twice the number of organizations that we once had and that we continue to add to the number almost daily? This is a fundamental question that isn’t even raised. For all I know, there may be more adults employed by Jewish organizations and institutions than there are practicing religious Jewish adults in the U.S.

The mountain of waste will start to crumble one day, but given the willingness of too many who give life support to organizations that are barely alive, it is not likely that this will occur any time soon. The more probable short-term scenario is that as more Jews disaffect, we will continue to add new groups to our already bloated infrastructure.

One day, though, we will come to see that we do not need fifty or more allegedly major American Jewish organizations, that spending a couple of hundred million dollars a year on defense organizations does not provide for Jewish security, that our many umbrella organizations are leaking badly and ought to be discarded, that the annual General Assembly is a pathetic exercise in communal irrelevance and folly, that the Federation network is an anachronistic and awfully expensive arrangement, that our public relations are mainly self-deceptions, that to spend more on our bureaucratic infrastructure than on Jewish education is indecent, that smaller may be bigger and more effective, that the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply is not a command to establish more organizations.