Archive for the ‘Jewish Leadership’ Category


Everyday We Write the Book: Writing Our Personal Chapters of Jewish Leadership

August 17, 2009

“The writer is always the last one to arrive at the party, the last to have any fun with the act of writing…  I want to read my own production and astonish myself, to be able to read myself as if I too were a reader coming to my own text for the first time.” –  Mario Bellatin, Author

When I recently read this quote by Mario Bellatin in the New York Times I was captivated by his choice of words and the aspirations of self-discovery they expressed. It made me wonder how many of us actively seek to revisit the contours of our character in the context of our own unfolding storyline?  How many of us take time to read ourselves in a way that we find that what we have done or what we have become astonishes us?

In other words, if we were to look back at our individual experiences, would revisiting them truly astonishes us in terms of the meaning imparted by those experiences? Would we, as Heschel might ask, experience radical amazement?

While this question is not limited to the world of Jewish communal experiences, I have found it to be a particularly interesting question in the context of engaging Jewish communal leadership. As a whole, we certainly do not lack any attention to the cultivation of Jewish leaders –  perhaps no other ethnic, cultural or religious community is more attuned to this effort than the Jewish community. Nonetheless, we often miss opportunities to engage and astonish individuals with the meaningful opportunities to serve in leadership roles, and even when those opportunities exist, individuals often miss the opportunity to astonish themselves.

Take for example a recent email I received from a friend in a relatively small Jewish community. This individual has invested talent, passion and resources in several aspects of Jewish life on a local and national level. He is still part of what I refer to as emerging leadership (under 40), but no less capable of taking a significant role within his community’s organized (read as “Federation”) leadership.  Like many individuals similarly situated across the country, he was recently asked to provide leadership in his community’s Federation campaign by assuming the relatively conventional (but not unimportant) role of serving as a “card captain” for a designated giving level.

His email to me articulated what he perceived as his three choices regarding his leadership opportunity – option #1,  accept the assignment out of a sense of obligation even though it did not inspire his leadership energies; option #2 , accept the assignment but  transform it into an opportunity to be creative and innovative; or option #3, decline the invitation altogether.  Certainly his analysis of his options were no different than the options many of us face on a regular basis when we evaluate opportunities to be engaged in our community, and he was looking for some peer to peer suggestions.  After discussion, he chose option #2.

But notwithstanding my friend’s resolution of his own question, his conundrum raised a different question in my mind: how many of us choose option #1 rather than option #2? Moreover, how many people do we know that choose option #3?  Our choices tell us a lot about ourselves, but also tell us a great deal about the organizations that are creating those choices for us. However, it is too easy to blame our choices on the organizations alone when we too have a role in how we evaluation and assess our options. How many times to we not consider option #2 at all, and instead view our choices of leadership in a binary format “their way or no way?” How often do we accept an uninspiring leadership opportunity and perform it by rote without ever reimagining its opportunities?

Back to the quote by Bellatin, how many of us, when we look back at the short stories or long novels of our Jewish community leadership experiences, would want to go back and read those stories? Would we be astonished by what we read? Would these stories be comedies or tragedies, epic poems or powerfully short haikus?  If we were readers of our own experiences, would we enjoy what we read and would we recommend those texts to others? The answers to these questions tell us just as much about the stories we need to write as much as the stories we have read.

What Bellatin reminds us, and what we need to remind ourselves regularly, is that all leaders are authors in their choose-our own adventure stories. How leaders (and the organizations they lead) write those stories foretell how interested and astonished they may be when they revisit and reread them.  Choices, in life and in leadership, are plotlines that need to continue to captivate the writer and the reader, especially when they are one and the same.

So with that, let us all make smart choices about the leadership experiences we undertake, even if we need to be leaders in creating those choices. And in the coming year, in addition to being inscribed in the Book of Life, let all of us be good authors of the books of leadership we will write, individually and together.


Response to Dr. Sarna: We have a mission; communal life must be about meaning

August 9, 2009

As a Jewish community volunteer and part-time critic, I often vacillate between hopefulness and concern. From the volunteer perspective, I experience moments of enrichment that sustain my belief that Jewish differences can be made and the promise of the Jewish people can be kept. As a critic, I find myself compelled to question not the merit of our Jewish communal efforts, but the quality of our Jewish communal experiences?

But while I may question many things, never have I questioned the mission of the Jewish people. Perhaps because it is too complex a question, and I am too simple to even ponder the answer? Perhaps because the mission is so inherent in what we learn from our faith and understand from our history that our mission as a people cannot be defined, it must be experienced?

It is that question, however, that Dr. Jonathan Sarna asked in his recent essay “Communal Life After the Recession” in London’s The Jewish Chronicle.  In his thoughtful essay, Sarna examines the state of the Jewish Diaspora in these challenging times and ask key questions about what the future looks like. In an era where the Diaspora is now concentrated, and where the protection and rescue of persecuted Jews is no longer an urgent focus of the Jewish people, Sarna asks “[w]ill the Jewish community be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about?” In response, he closes his essay asserting “the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community need to be high on our collective agenda.”

To his merit, Dr. Sarna presents both an interesting question and thought-provoking response. However, I believe both mischaracterize the nature of the challenge facing the Jewish people at this time in our history.  Quite simply, I do not believe it is about mission – it is about meaning.

In reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I am reminded of another great Jewish thinker, one of an earlier generation – Leo Baeck. In his seminal book (and testament to late German Jewish philosophy), This People Israel, Baeck wrote that “[o]nly as a people of meaning could, and can this people Israel be.” He further wrote “[t]his people’s constitution is founded in God’s commandment; it is a people to that is disposed to God, on that in all its development, its wandering, in all of the ebb and flow of history, must remain within  relationship toward the One-Who-Is.”

To Baeck’s point, we already have a timeless mission – to be a people of meaning.  It is a mission framed by and within the context of our relationship with God and is reinforced by the Jewish embodiment and experience of humanity.  The unfolding experiences that reflect our mission may change, and even the tactics and strategies that we as a people may choose to express that it may change, but the mission itself does not change.

So rather than question what our mission as a people should be, we need to question how we make that mission more meaningful and more relevant to generations of Jews to come.  Perhaps a cause can help us derive meaning, and perhaps an entrepreneurial approach can help shape relevance, but we should not mistake either for a reconfigured mission of the Jewish people; they are each tactics to bridge a timeless covenant with a timely need.  Rather, our immutable mission dictates that our priority, regardless of the era and economic environment, must be to explore and encourage new experiences that provide meaning to the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.  Our mission, which we have already chosen to accept, is to fulfill our destiny of meaning through individual experiences of meaning.  That is our priority, that must be our goal.

When reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I was reminded of one other phrase used by Howell Baum in his book The Organization of Hope.  In describing two communities in Baltimore (one of which was Jewish), Baum writes that “[c]reating a community of hope depends on building a bridge of transcendence from a community of memory.”  Those powerful words are a gentle reminder that it is not just mission and meaning that are important, but memory matters also.

So with appreciation to Dr. Sarna for raising the question of “where do we go from here,” I respond differently.  Let us not question what our mission is; let us celebrate it by encouraging ways to find meaning within it.  And moreover, let us use those experiences of meaning to build bridges of memory, communities of hopefulness and a people of Israel that can, as Baeck wrote… be.


Jewish Social Entrepreneurs and the “Right Stuff” – What Is It and Who Has It?

July 21, 2009

In marking the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, it has been hard not to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of America greatest space adventure to date, the Apollo missions and man’s first, and (so far) last steps on the moon. As we look back at that landmark of scientific and human achievement of a man walking on the moon, we cannot help but wonder when we will once again collectively experience a moment of such singular scientific and adventurous achievement. (Note: Just a thought, but maybe next time there is such a singular achievement it will be a woman rather than a man as the “first” of its kind?)

But even more than the amazing stories and visuals of those moments that we store in our collective memory, so much of what we admire about the Apollo missions relates to those who made the missions possible, particularly those astronauts that had the ability to convert promise into action and achievement. Those men that walked on the moon not only had the technical qualifications to participate in one of mankind’s greatest scientific endeavors, but they also had the dedication, stamina and courage to encounter the unencountered, and to boldly experience that which had yet to be experienced.

Those astronauts met the objective and qualifying criteria to be part of their mission, but they also had the intangibles to make their mission a success. Just like the astronauts in the Mercury missions before them, these astronauts had the “right stuff.”

Notwithstanding all of this talk about the moon though, my thoughts have still been squarely about a different group of adventurers here on earth, the cadre of social entrepreneurs that exist and are developing in the broader national and international Jewish community.  To that end, I have had numerous recent conversations with friends and colleagues involved in social entrepreneurship, and it seems that at one point or another we end up debating the “right stuff” in the context of two fundamental questions:

1.    What are the important qualities that social entrepreneurs need to possesses (or alternatively, need to have developed, supported and reinforced) in order to be successful?

2.    What are best strategies to identify and encourage social entrepreneurs who have those desired qualities to actively engage within the Jewish community (however small or large we choose to define that community)?

In other words: when it comes to Jewish social entrepreneurship, what is the “right stuff” and who has it?

Now I didn’t just fall off a lunar lander, and I know that there is substantial dialogue and resources in the Jewish community focused on these very issues. But notwithstanding the increasing number and volume of voices speaking on the topic, much of the organizational infrastructure and literature have not yet caught up with the rapidly changing face of Jewish (and general) social entrepreneurship. For example, we presume to know what skills are needed to successful serve on a board, but what about creating one for an emerging organization?  We presume to know what skills are needed to leverage volunteer leadership to perform conventional volunteer roles, but what about leveraging unconventional partnerships among leaders, professionals and organizations?

We think we know what the right stuff is – but do we? We might think we know who has it – but are we so sure?

Our confidence in our answers to these questions is important because we are making decisions in the Jewish community that require us to have boldness as well as confidence.  Case in point, even while facing increased needs for human services and support of educational infrastructure, the Jewish community is investing, with some risk, in the next (or “now”) generations of social entrepreneurs. This investment is aligned with, not contrary to, our collective focus on addressing broad community needs. But make no mistake, as a community we are more frequently redirecting funds from maintaining tried and true organizations to funding new and unproved entrepreneurs.  In doing so we are rightfully making small and large bets on individuals and organizations, bets that we hope will pay off in ways we can anticipate as well as in ways we can’t yet imagine.

As we make those bets we need to keep in mind a clear (although not uniform) understanding of what the right stuff is, who has it, and how we continue to cultivate it. But we shouldn’t hesitate to bet on the bold and the big ideas, even those longshot ideas that aim for the moon. Because you know what?

With the right stuff, I bet we can get there.


Memo to the (Federation) File: The New CEO’s Reading List

July 15, 2009

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” – E.P. Whipple

Notwithstanding their often harsh and withering expression of opinion, critics are often the most adoring supporters of substance, especially the written word.  E.P. Whipple, one of the 19th century’s finest literary critics knew this well;  even though he was well acquainted with numerous literary personalities, it was the books he held most dear.

I was recently reminded of Whipple and his famous quotation about books as lighthouses when a friend asked me my opinion of the news of the new CEO at UJC/Federations of North America.  I don’t know the new CEO, nor am I qualified to pass any opinion on the matter.  But I do know that the challenges he faces are great and the opportunities are even greater. And I know that he steps into his role in a time when there are many clouds and the waters are quite choppy.

In other words, no matter his skills as a captain, he could use a few good lighthouses to help guide his way.

So that got me thinking – rather than respond to my friends query with uninformed advice that would  be ephemeral and illuminate very little, I thought I might suggest a few books that could serve as lighthouses to the new CEO.  My list is as follows:

1.   Book of Joshua (Sefer Y’hoshua).  My friend Rabbi Joshua Heller recommended to me that I go back to Joshua (the book, not him) when I was experiencing my own leadership transition, and it was very sage advice. Wandering in the desert is one thing, crossing into the land is another. We are at an important moment of time in Jewish history where we are facing many of the parallels to the Book of Joshua;. a good reading of the book (and commentary) reveals those parallels and much more.

2.   The Roots of the Future by Rabbi Herbert Friedman. Everything old is new again, and this book makes the case that there is a compelling approach to our future that can be borne out of our past.  This book not only covers Herb’s amazing life, but speaks to the importance of the Federation movement and the power embodied in its ideals. Essential reading from an essential life.

3.   Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I am fond of saying that I am a big fan of H&H, but not the bagels – Herb and Heschel. This book is a perfect compliment to Herb Friedman’s book, if Herb’s is about experience and action, these essay by Heschel are about vision and audacity. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the current state of the Federation movement is we have lost some of the audacity and amazement that were hallmarks of its earlier days. Reading a bit of Heschel can make you believe in the need to bring it back; and we need to believe before we can begin anew.

4.   Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal.  We use language about reimagning organizations, but often what we really need is to reorganize our imaginations. Bolman and Deal provide an important source of knowledge on how we can enhance our organizations and ourselves. Any good leader understands that success is based on choices, and choices that are not only his/her own. The leader of a national Jewish movement needs not only that understanding, but a guide to converting that understanding into action. This book helps.

5.   Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution by Geoffrey Moore. He helped us cross the chasm, and survive inside the tornado, but Moore’s best book is the one where he helps us understand the power of engaging innovation as part of an organizational culture. This book is not the only book the new CEO should read on innovation, but it is a good start (especially Chapter 7 on renewal innovation).

6.   Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Bedside reading for negotiators, this could be one of the handiest books on the list for the new CEO. There will be negotiations aplenty, with donors, local Federations, partners, and governance, and the answer always need to get to “yes.” Negotiations can be adversarial, but if properly constructed they can be incredibly empowering and enriching for both parties –  and we need more enrichment in our local and national discussions. Special attention should be paid to Chapter 4 “Invent Options for Mutual Gain.”

7.    Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson.  Contemporary Jewish America is complex – rooted in Jewish heritage but colored by streaks of frustrating ambivalence. We paint pictures on tapestries of our own design, often using our own colors in painting images found elsewhere in society. In many ways we are like we are a community of talented and challenging artists. So in order to get a better sense of our collective inner Jewish artistry, I suggest reading about Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists in history. He is an artist that embodies our times, and Wilson’s book is a wonderful place to start.

8.   Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life by Shifra Broznick.  I previously wrote that the next CEO of UJC/Federations of North America should be an outsider and should be a woman. So, although one out of two isn’t bad, we should make no mistake – we still need more women leadership in the senior professional ranks of our movement, and this should be a priority of the new CEO. This book is an important resource, but not nearly as important as the resource we would all have if we had more women CEOs in Jewish communal life.

9.   Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.  The new CEO doesn’t need to Tweet or blog, but he needs to understand those that do. It is a different world than it was a few years ago, and it is constantly changing – our movement’s leadership needs to not only adapt to that change, but to anticipate it as well. Part Two of this book is essential reading for anyone facing and embracing the groundswell.

10.   Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End by Dr. Daniel Gordis. In North America we hold a deep passion for Israel but often struggle to find the right voice to express that passion. Fortunately we have Danny Gordis to help us, and he shares that voice in a serious book for serious times. Our Federation movement needs to continue to reinvorgate American passion for supporting Israel, and its leadership needs to be a bold voice in this effort. On page 216 of the book, Danny writes “the purpose of Israel is to transform the Jews.” I suggest that a primary purpose of the Federation movement is to help in that transformation, and this book is an important resource to aid in that effort.

11.    And one bedtime story…  The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band by Betty Stuchner (a PJ Library Selection for 5 year olds). Between reading books for my own pleasure, I read books we get from PJ Library to my children. This is one of my (and my daughter’s) favorites. Not only does it teach history, but it teaches the power of music and the poetry that is created when many instruments join together in harmony. After reading the stack of books suggested above, a short nighttime story for the CEO would be in order, and this is a perfect choice. Joy, music, song… they are not just the stuff of children’s books, or at least they shouldn’t be. This book is a simple reminder of the music we can all make together in our families and in our communities when we play, and work, together.

So that’s it – ten books and one bedtime story that I have on my (initial) suggested reading list for the new CEO.  I welcome others to join in  (in the comments) with their suggestions – not only for the CEO’s reading list, but our collective education as well.

Few things are more ambitious (or exhausting) than a good, long reading list; and while I hope the CEO spends more time listening and leading, there is no substitute for some good reading.  But lighthouses can only help so much, especially in rocky and choppy waters – so safe reading one and all.


Shelved: How A Borders Bookstore Linked the Economic Crisis with the “Israel Lobby” (and why I won’t shop there anymore)

July 4, 2009

UPDATED 7/15/09:   As an update to the post below, I understand that the management of the local Borders has altered the  offending display after determining that an employee acting on his/her own accord placed the Mearsheimer and Walt book in “recommended books” display.  I also understand from individuals familiar with the matter that the display was not, as previously suggested to me by store management and  customer service, intended to include the Mearsheimer/Walt book.  While I am appreciative of the fact that this display was not by the design of Borders’ corporate headquarters,  I am nevertheless troubled that this incident occurred and could occur in the future. Borders has a responsibility to regulate its own employee’s behavior, especially when that individual is acting as an agent of the store in stocking and displaying books. I urge Borders to confirm is employee policies in regard to this type of occurrence so it can be limited from happening again.

I spend hundreds of dollars annually at my local Borders bookstore, purchasing books and periodicals that I consume at a pace (and to my wife’s chagrin, cost and volume) that makes it one of my largest discretionary expenses.  I love books, and despite the cost (and space in my home) I refuse to give in to the digitized/Kindle-ized future that I know is forthcoming.

But now I will refuse to do something different – I will refuse to shop at Borders bookstores. Here’s why – in its merchandising design and choice of book recommendation it made a choice that I find deeply irresponsible and equally offensive, both as a consumer and as a Jewish American.

In the front of my local store in Atlanta, Borders has a display that groups books together as a form of suggestive advertising (“Like these?  “Try these…”).  On this particular shelf, Borders suggests that if you like The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein, you should try:

•    Between the Lines:  A View Inside American Politics, People and Culture by Jonathan Alter

•    Reckless: How Debt, Deregulation and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America (And How we Can Fix It!) by Byron Dorgan

•    Now or Never:  Getting Down to the Business of Saving Our American Dream by Jack Cafferty

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

Photo of Bookshelf  (Like These? Try These...)

Photo of Bookshelf (Like These? Try These...)

Read that list and look at that picture closely. See something wrong with it?  I sure do – and it is why I won’t shop a Borders anymore.  Chaos, American politics, dark money, saving the American dream and… the Israel Lobby.  On one shelf, Borders visually (and not so subtlety) links commentary on the “disaster capitalism”  and the global economic crisis with reckless assertions (and conspiratorial theories) about the power and influence of advocates for a strong U.S./Israel relationship. On one shelf, Borders reinforces the perception oldest of anti-Semitic canards (that distressed economic environments are linked with the power and influence of Jews) while reinforcing the dangerously modern trend of delitigimization of Israel and its supporters in subtle and not so subtle ways.

With the stocking of one shelf, Borders reminded me of the subtle danger in every economic crisis – the danger that it will be used to question the Jewish role in economic and political spheres of influence.

Now to be clear, I am not asserting that Borders should not stock and sell Mearsheimer and Walt’s book, nor am I suggesting that Borders not display the book towards the front of the store. Borders is a commercial enterprise that has the right to market and sell all sorts of books in the manner it desires, and I don’t question that right or prerogative. I am also not suggesting that we revisit the substance and the merits of the Mearsheimer/Walt book. While I think it is a deeply flawed and strongly biased work that diminishes rather than enhances the debate about the basis and nature of the U.S. foreign policy relationship with Israel, there have been far more experienced critics that have taken Mearsheimer and Walt to task on the substance of their research and argument, and I will not rehash those arguments.   Although I would not encourage anyone to read its faulty reasoning and distorted analysis (other than to see it for what it really is), Mearsheimer/Walt’s book should not be censored.

Nor should it be suggested reading – especially by a national bookstore. And even more so, it should not be suggested reading to readers with an interest in the arguments about the current economic crisis.

That is what concerns me the most – how subtle the suggestion is, and how the association of contemporary American challenges and the “Israel Lobby” is not only displayed, but suggestively reinforced. When I first noticed the shelf I struggled to reconcile the display with common sense. Perhaps all the books were on “contemporary topics of political interest,” as I am sure Borders might suggest. But that argument doesn’t hold. The other books  focus on economic and domestic issues and the causes/challenges of our current economic environment  (even the Klein book, which makes some one-sided and dubious charges against Israel, is largely a book on the nature of global capitalism) – so what is the link with U.S. foreign policy, especially US/Israel foreign policy?  If a book on international affairs was to be included on that shelf, why not include a book about U.S./China economic relationship or a book about the influence of bank lobbyists (topics that are much more likely to relate to the current U.S. recession than U.S. foreign policy towards Israel)?  Why direct readers to this particular book when they have a particular interest in unrelated economic circumstances?

I hated to ask why, because I hated to contemplate the answer.

However, I did question store management and then, via phone, Borders customer service. Specifically, I asked who makes the decision how to stock shelves the particular “suggestion” shelves. Both representatives told me the decision to group books in that format, and the particular groupings, are determined by individuals at corporate headquarters. They didn’t know what the factors were in choosing the books, or who approved the selections. Regardless, those books ended up stocked on a shelf in one of Borders busiest in the Atlanta metro region (and presumably elsewhere) – directing curious readers about contemporary issues to a book of questionable academic veracity and one that openly questions the motivations of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian Americans that actively support Israel.

We need to call this what it is – a bookseller of national influence’s deeply irresponsible decision that propagates a dangerous myth of an associated relationship between the current economic crises and the Jews.  It is offensive, and it is outrageous. And while we must be vigilant in not over-exercising the assertion that such decisions are in and of themselves driven by anti-Semitic biases, we must recognize that these types of decisions further establish an environment where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes do not garner the outrage they deserve.

Chaos, American politics, dark money, the need to save the American dream and… the Israel Lobby. On one shelf Borders connects dots that have no basis to be connected. And it does so in a way that even discerning shoppers may not realize. Borders may not have an obligation to advance public discussion and intellectual curiosity, but when it undertakes to do so it has a responsibility to do so in a conscientious, rather than in a biased and provocative manner.

Everyone has a right to shop how and where they choose, and stores have the right to attract and serve those shoppers in any way they see fit. Personally, I will not support booksellers who specifically recommend to buys a book that misrepresents Jewish political involvement as a nefarious activity, and especially when that book is suggested to readers who found unrelated books of interest. Accordingly, my support of Borders has been shelved, and I suggest readers consider shelving their support as well until Borders explains its rationale and utilizes policies that prevent theses types of irresponsible decisions from occurring again.

If we all don’t stand up now to these types of subtle messages that reinforce ancient biases and faulty reasoning, then there may be new chapters in the long history book of how times of economic distress have fomented anti-Jewish bias. And that is an updated history book I don’t want in my collection – no matter how much I love books.


Jewish Communal CEO Salaries: Did the Forward’s Coverage Take a Step Backwards?

June 23, 2009

During these days when we are seeing how social media is fueling a Persian revolution in the Middle East, we can quickly forget that not too long ago Jews used the original form of social media, the newspaper press, to help revolutionize the quality of life of trade workers in the lower east side of New York.  The Jewish Daily Forward, originally a Yiddish only newspaper and the ‘conscience of the ghetto’ was (and still is) an important voice of Jewish America. It has maintained a vigorously independent and socially responsible voice of the Jewish press for over one hundred years. It’s reporting has constantly and consistently challenged its readers to look back at a reflection of the Jewish challenges of the time, while encouraging a forward-looking approach to solving those challenges.

Which is why the Forwards recent reporting on the compensation of executives of major Jewish organizations is so dismaying. Its coverage raises numerous questions regarding the balance of the its reporting on the issue, and by raising those questions may actually have resulting in an unintended step backwards rather than its typical forward progress.

For those who have not read the article and editorial, in summary it was a report focusing on how several executives of major Jewish organizations did not take a pay cut or pay freeze notwithstanding the layoffs of numerous employees in their respective organizations.   Accompanying the news article, the Forward editorial board wrote “[t]his is not the time to withhold support out of anger or disgust; the needs today are too urgent. Instead, it’s the time to demand accountability from Jewish organizations and their governing boards.”

Now to be clear, I too believe that there is a need for shared sacrifice, and I think that the questions about executive compensation at Jewish organizations merit serious questions and conversations about accountability. I also believe that these questions cannot be ignored.  However, the reporting of news (as opposed to editorializing) about compensation practices at charitable organizations needs to be thoughtful regarding the context of the facts reported.  Each of the Jewish organizations mentioned in the Forward article are large sophisticated organizations with substantially sophisticated professional and volunteer leadership and it is hard to imagine that each of those organizations didn’t consider the issue of executive compensation thoughtfully.  We may not all like the answers, but we should not (as the Forward article seems to) assume some of the questions were not asked. We may demenad accountability, but does the Forward survey really demonstrate a lack of accountability?  Or did it identify a lack of sensitivity? There is a difference, and thoughtful journalism should distinguish between the two – even when editorializing.

However, even if one takes issue with the Forward’s line of reasoning, there is no question that a role of an independent press is to ask the questions the Forward asked, as well as opine as to its own independent analysis on the answers to those questions.  But in my mind, this recent reporting also raises some important questions to be asked of the Forward, and questions it should be asking itself.

1.    Was the story fully reported in a manner that gave complete context to its subject? The Forward focused on only select data (number of employees, total compensation, and personal compensation reduction).  Are there other factors that should have been included in the sampled data that would have given a more complete picture of the fact patter the Forward was reporting?  For example, are those individual executives subject to performance for pay evaluations?  What impact does the decrease in staff have on the increase in executive responsibility? What was the fundraising performance of the respective organizations and what percentages of contributions of those respective organizations are solicited specifically by the chief executive/executive director?  I’m not sure exactly what all of the relative data points are, but it seems like the Forward picked the smallest data set to make the most inflammatory statement.

2.    Was the news report sufficiently neutral when compared to the subjective comments in the editorial analysis? Rereading the article, one is struck by the first paragraph with its tragic/poetic description of waves of crimson lapping below the suites of chief executives. Far from a basic factual framing of the context of the article, that language  establishes the critical tone of the entire reporting effort.  While the reporting does provide a balance of perspectives, one can’t help but find the rhythm and the layout of the story to have a prejudicial orientation. I am not a journalism expert, but it did raise the question in my mind of whether what should have been an objective price of reporting tilted more towards a purposeful lead-in to a subjective editorial.

3.    Did the Forward live up to its own expectations of open disclosure? While highlighting the lack of responsiveness from some executives, it is hard not to wonder if the Forward’s own self-disclosure was sufficient.  A close read of its self- disclosure reads that its executives took a 10% paycut of compensation in excess of $80,000. If the publisher took that cut, based on the Forward’s information, it means the publisher took a approximately a $13,000 pay cut against an approximate $211,000 salary, a little over a 6% paycut.  That 6% is less than the 10% cuts taken by several community executives identified in the article.  My point is not to judge the pay cut, but rather to query whether even the Forward, by making readers do the math, was as forthcoming as it expected its respondents to be. In an article regarding accountability, transparency and leadership, did the Forward sufficiently walk its own talk?

4.   In responding to the factual reporting, did the Forward’s editorial outweigh its criticism over constructive suggestions about CEO compensation practices? The editorial commentary made some valid observations about the need for key executives of non-profits to be responsible regarding compensation in challenging times.  But rather than propose measures to help reinforce that responsibility, the editorial board missed an opportunity to be constructive, as opposed to just being critical. Interestingly, it punctuated its editorial with a reminder of its offer to create a public conversation between community members and community leaders – an important offer indeed. But while wondering why more leaders haven’t taken it up on the offer, did it consider whether it has adequately created an appearance that the conversation would be balanced and unbiased? And did this editorial help or hinder that appearance?

5.    Lastly, how did the Forward balance its Jewish responsibilities regarding the use of speech in the public forum with its reporting on an issue of community tzedakah? Again, I am not a journalism expert, nor an expert on Lashon Hara.  However, it strikes me that when the Forward makes statements that it knows may result in consequences that are damaging (to individuals, to organizations and to communities of need) then it is fair to ask the question of how the Forward balanced its Jewish responsibilities regarding proper speech.  The editorial is quick to argue that the CEO compensation is not enough of a reason for individuals to withhold their support of otherwise worthy charities, but a review of the reader comments suggests that some felt otherwise after reading the story and editorial. What is the Forward’s responsibility in this regard? Is its editorializing of the topic possibly Rechilut, in that it may incite ill feelings regarding otherwise noble charitable causes? These are questions that I would hope the Forward considered, especially given that the financial impact of its use of language may be very real.

To be clear, the Forward (and other Jewish news outlets, including even blogs) serve an important role, and shine an important light on community affairs, even when what we see in that light makes us uncomfortable. But that role is a powerful one that comes with great responsibility. As readers, we too have a responsibility – to ask the questions that challenge our news sources to serve their role in a fair and excellent manner.

Indeed, when we all ask the hard questions, even about those charged with the responsibility of asking hard questions, then we only move in one direction –



Itta Dozntmatter about Federation 2.0: A Response

May 31, 2009

“As an essayist I don’t believe in the fiction of an anonymous observer. Rather than the sham of objectivity, I think you should put your perspective up front. That’s only fair to the reader.” – Ralph Wiley

One of the most fascinating aspects of writing a blog is the nature of the comments that one receives after a post.  Generally after I post a new essay I receive several comments, some of which are publicly posted to the blog and some of which are emailed to me directly. Oftentimes the comments via email are done in such a manner because the commentator for one reason or another would prefer a direct conversation (or observation) as opposed to a more public contribution to a discussion I am proposing. In each of those cases I have kept (and will always keep) those email conversations confidential. I also have not (and will not) share feedback I receive without permission.  My feeling is that I am not a reporter with anonymous sources, nor is this blog a conduit for me to refract or reframe the comments of others in a manner of my choosing.  This blog reflects my own thoughts;  those who choose to join a conversation can do so publicly via the comment function or with me directly.

However, just as I respect the desires of those who wish to remain confidential when they contact me, I do not provide a forum on my blog for “anonymous” comments. When I receive comments that come from a source that is identifiable, I post them regardless of content and without edit.  When the comment comes from an anonymous email address or a disguised one, I do not post it publicly.  However, since I have not made this practice clear, I have posted the one recent anonymous comment I have received (since it was intended to be public), but going forward I will not post anonymous comments.

The first (and last) anonymous post on my blog is from a commentator named “Itta Dozntmatter” who wrote from an anonymous email address.  Itta (for lack of another name) posted an anonymous comment to my recent Federation 2.0 post and the comment (in its entirety) is as follows:

“Seth –

Are you working with anyone to accomplish this or are you just sitting back spewing ideas and waiting for someone to ask you to actually get your hands dirty? Stop writing, stop pontificating and actually produce a product and put your words into action. You are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf!”

Itta – as I do with everyone who contacts me about the blog, I want to thank you. First for reading the blog (I still marvel that people take the time to do so), and second for taking the time to comment. But moreover, you raise a good question, an interesting suggestion and a much-appreciated observation. I will address all three via the blog (since I don’t have your email to contact you directly).

1.    “Are you working with anyone to accomplish this or are you just sitting back spewing ideas and waiting for someone to ask you to actually get your hands dirty?” Itta – the answer to your question is yes to the first part and no to the second part.  As my peers here in Atlanta know (and as a cursory review of my bio would suggest) I am actively engaged inside the “established” Jewish community advancing many of the ideas that I suggest on this blog. I am always careful to note that the ideas in this blog are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of any particular organization. But make no misstate, as while serving as Vice Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and as an engaged member of the Atlanta Jewish community, I actively speak about and advocate many of the ideas I discuss here.  I think there are numerous change agents in my own community (and elsewhere) that also share many of my same views, and as they contact me we begin to develop even more coordinated discussions about some of the actions I propose. So yes, I am working with others, but not nearly as many as I need. There is a reason I openly post my email – I welcome others to contact me to join a very important discussion in process.

As to the second part of your question, no I am not waiting for someone to ask me to get my hands dirty, I am asking others to get their hands dirty with me.  Contact me and be willing to be part of a group in Atlanta that helps create Federation 2.0 in our community (because I believe the Federation professionals are willing to create that vision hand in hand with local change agents).  But for those not in Atlanta, also contact me and be willing to be part of a national working group of change agents that work in support of a renewed Federation movement (as oppose to working to only eulogize it). And Itta, I would be delighted to have an open conversation about what “getting our hands dirty” means – even if we have different views, I am certain we would agree that the more hands getting dirty the better.

2.    “Stop writing, stop pontificating and actually produce a product and put your words into action.” So I am not certain that stopping writing is the best suggestion, and I very much try not to pontificate. But the idea of producing a product is one that I very much agree with, which is why I wrote and published Federation 2.0: Reimagining the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.  It has plenty of observations, but plenty of actionable steps too. I continue to use that document as a blueprint for many of the actions I believe we need to take locally and nationally, and Itta – I welcome you and others to take that paper, find a piece of it that resonates with you, and lets’ get to work. A committee of one is not very productive, and a voice with no chorus is not very loud. As I now work to develop the local and national working groups that I propose, I am hoping that many of my words and ideas do get converted into actions. But as I am fond of saying, in this kitchen we need more chefs, not less.  Yes, I would like to see the changes I am proposing, but not to the exclusion of change others are seeking. Federation 2.0 isn’t intended to be only my vision, it is intended to be a model in which my vision, your vision and other individuals’ visions of the Federation movement are all shared, evaluated and implemented.  But before we implement tactics, we need to develop a strategy, and before we develop the strategy we need to identify some common principles of what our renewed movement will look like and feel like. The development of those principles comes from a discussion.  And a discussion is the very first action we need to take, but it needs to be an expeditious and inclusive action.  Sometimes I feel like I am having a one way conversation, I would be delighted if you joined me in this first action step, and then each of the action steps that follows.

3.    “You are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf!” Itta – thank you, that is good feedback. One of the hardest parts about writing a blog is the development and refinement of voice. To who am I writing and why am I writing at all? These questions vex me often when I sit down to write. Equally challenging is knowing how my voice is heard and interpreted – am I seen as a thoughtful critic that believes in the Federation movement but concerned that it has been transformed into a “system”?  I hope so. Am I a person who likes combining my experiences (good and bad) with ideas in my head in a thoughtful way then transforming those thoughts into action?  I am.   Do I always get the balance right?  Probably not. In the words of Whitman, I contain multitudes, and this blog reflects many (but not all) of them. You are telling me I am beginning to sound shrill, and that is important to know. Even if that opinion is not universally shared, I am certain it is shared by others. And it is a good reminder to me that I need to continue to develop my voice, and balance my thinking with doing.  But one disagreement – unlike the story about the boy that cries wolf, I am not lying – there really is a wolf. It is called apathy and it is already scattering much of the flock.

Lastly, I am fascinated by the anonymous name you chose for yourself.  As it is written, the name we make for ourselves says a great deal about who we are, what we do and how people perceive us. I write this blog under my name because I am hopeful of change I propose and I believe that my thoughts and words matter in helping create change, as will my actions.

I don’t know what your name is – you say Itta Dozntmatter.

My name is Seth Cohen – and I say it does.