Monday, May 09, 2011

When Good People Do Mediocre Things

In early 1973, Philip M. Klutznick, described in Encyclopedia Judaica as “one of the foremost figures in postwar American Jewish life,” came to New York’s City Hall to invite Mayor John V. Lindsay to participate in the forthcoming celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of Israel. As I was to be at the meeting and the Mayor was a bit delayed, Mr. Klutznick and I waited in an anteroom and talked about the state of American Jewry. Our assessment was that the situation wasn’t good, that our community was bereft of vision and ideas and mired in an ever-expanding bureaucratic network of organizations. He said that he was setting up a Washington-based think tank that hopefully would shake things up, a project that did come to fruition, produced some interesting papers and then disappeared from the scene. What was arid then in our communal life has become much worse.

We are in the grip of the great American Jewish mediocracy. It hovers over our community, providing rewards to bureaucracy, gratuitous activities and tired ideas. This is, in a way, surprising because American Jewry does not lack for brainpower or skillful persons who also are dedicated. We have loads of successful entrepreneurs and professionals who in business or professional life have demonstrated their creativity and who are in one fashion or another strongly concerned about Jewish wellbeing. These are people who take risks, who do more than clone what others have done. We have writers and academics who traffic in the world of ideas. We have persons who have made their mark in public service and others who have made notable contributions in the arts and other cultural fields. Why are we wallowing in mediocrity in our communal life?

To add to the puzzlement, our organizations are led by lay people and professionals who in the aggregate are intelligent and certainly sincere. Yet, while their lives are entwined in Jewish communal service, they leave few if any fingerprints that are worth retaining.

Israel may provide a partial explanation for this sterility. Although Israel obviously commands much of our attention and resources, communal and also for many individuals, what is wanted or needed of us is not our ideas or opinions – and we certainly do not make policy – but our financial support, visits and advocacy. We are, whatever our titles and whatever our feelings of self-importance, no more than foot-soldiers on Israel’s behalf and so shall we remain. It has been said - and this is to the point – that the establishment of Israel was the death of Zionism.

Israel alone cannot account for our lamentable mediocrity. Much of what we do as a community and as Jews concerns what happens on these shores, in places where we can affect what happens in Jewish life. We have far more organizations than any other ethnic or religious group and it seems at times that we have more organizations than all other groups combined. We have a huge philanthropic network encompassing Federations and an expanding number of private philanthropies. There are books galore about Jewish life, Jewish newspapers and other publications, chairs in Jewish study, Jewish museums, research projects and an endless array of conferences and conventions that is the sound of music for the lodging, airplane and catering industries. Again, why the mediocrity in our organizational and institutional life?

Admittedly, our formidable communal infrastructure and our being all over the place evoke admiration in many quarters, as we are looked at as charitable, intelligent, hardworking and determined to advocate for what we believe in. Among some who believe that we control the world, our organizational life is looked at as a sinister Jewish conspiracy. Of course, there is a measure of efficacy to our over-organization and the multitude of activities because they provide, to an extent, countless connecting points for Jewish identity and commitment among persons who are not involved through synagogues or other traditional activity.

The problem is that our great mass of organizations and activities leaves us muscle-bound. We are trapped inside of what we have concocted and this is sad because it is sad to see thousands of devoted and talented people, lay and professional, devote their talents to a mind-boggling schedule of meetings and conferences and then at the end of the day achieve little that is worth achieving. It is sad that these activities are accepted as surrogates for meaningful communal work. It is sad to see the huge Federation network that survives largely because of inertial forces being unable to adjust to new realities. It is sadder yet to see the newer foundation world playing copycat, going the way of other Jewish communal flesh as it invests in too much meaningless research, commissions papers that are dead on arrival, hires experts whose expertise is largely self-promotion. This is a world that inadvertently is making a contribution to the new Jewish mediocracy.

As with generalizations generally, there are exceptions, sparks of creativity that yield meaningful benefits. The best I know of is Birthright Israel which has the novel feature of departing from the norm, as the American Jewish leaders whose brainchild it was induced the Israeli government to go along. Birthright was essentially crafted by Michael Steinhardt, for whom iconoclasm is a religion, and Charles Bronfman. Of note, about the time that Birthright came into being, Messrs. Steinhardt and Bronfman spoke out separately in criticism of the stultifying consequences of our huge bureaucracy.

The lesson may be that the best bet for change away from the iron law of mediocracy that holds us in its grip is for the super-rich who have strong credentials of commitment to organized Jewish life to speak out against our slavish adherence to organizational and institutional arrangements that result in good people doing mediocre things.