A pivotal inflection point in my life was deciding to attend law school rather than to pursue a career in rabbinics. I had observed that my Talmudic prowess fell short of many of my peers. In addition, I feared that sooner or later my visceral need for job stability would impel me to compromise my principles rather than put a rabbinic career in peril. But since I understood that our mission as Orthodox Jews is to meet the needs of others in addition to our own, I sought a route that could address both.
So with youthful exuberance (and naïveté), I prognosticated the future needs of American Jewry and designed a personal plan both for my personal religious development and for contributing as a lay activist. Some of my yeshivah chevra were encouraging; others saw my planning either as imperious or as childish. Most just smirked knowingly and focused on their own studies. I agreed with them all.
In the subsequent years and decades, I repeatedly revisited and modified the plan; occasionally modestly, other times substantively. Alterations were often necessary because I discovered flaws and oversights. Other times adjustments to the plan were compelled by unanticipated changes within the community or in my personal circumstances. Allow me to illustrate what I mean: A commercial product’s profitability is dependent upon both the quality of the product and the quality of the product’s distribution system. Community projects are no different; I discovered that I much preferred product development but was spending much of my time on distribution. And so I pivoted from launching projects as an entrepreneurial activist, as I had done in law school and immediately thereafter, to working with established organizations that had strong distribution systems, such as the Orthodox Union.
I will never know whether my choices were optimal, but I do know that through my journey as a communal activist, I have spent much time with truly extraordinary Jews. For example, as my wife and I traveled to speak in communities around North America, we developed treasured relationships with remarkable rabbis and rebbetzins. One rabbi who taught me more during our two-day visit than I sometimes learn in months was the recently deceased Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, zt”l, the rav of Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio, Texas, for almost fifty years. Not only did he share with me invaluable insights into the details of Judaism and communal leadership, but he and the rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim, also modeled commitment to and love of Klal Yisrael.
Our lives, however, are not static, and plans formulated at each stage of life must be revisited as we approach the next stage. Whether entering the job market or retreating from the workforce, starting a family or seeing children off into adulthood, the manner of pursuing our goals and life mission deserves reconsideration. And so, as I enter the final year of my tenure as OU president, my wife and I are once again engaged in formulating future plans, both for personal goals and for how we might contribute to the community.
Formulating a plan for communal involvement begins by determining whether our availability has expanded or diminished. Next, we must identify our appropriate role, recognizing that roles contemplated or played in the past may no longer be appropriate because of the changes in our skill set, wisdom, stamina, financial wherewithal, or even in our degree of self-confidence.
Selecting a role is also daunting
since we must choose from among countless opportunities to help individuals and the community. As a preliminary framework for discussion, these roles might be grouped into four broad categories:
– Communal advocacy
– Organizational involvement
– Hands-on acts of kindness
Below are exploratory observations that might be helpful in one’s initial consideration of each category.
My youthful plans for lay activism were predicated on accumulating the fabulous fortunes I thought necessary to fund the communal ventures I hoped to design and implement. I subsequently discovered that my aversion to financial instability not only precluded a career in rabbinics but also deterred me from taking the types of financial risk necessary to accumulate meaningful wealth. Fortunately, I learned that the financial support of others for charitable ventures is a worthy, if not superior, surrogate for personal wealth.
Hashem, in His kindness, has blessed our community with many wealthy philanthropists who are passionate and magnanimous. Philanthropists may view their monetary donations as sufficient in fulfilling their communal obligations. Is that justified?
While generosity certainly deserves recognition and appreciation, being a philanthropist is entirely different from being a communal activist or leader. After all, giving charity is the religious obligation of every Jew, and Jews across the economic spectrum are enormously generous. In fact, smaller donations from the less affluent frequently represent greater self-sacrifice than mega donations, which often have minimal if any impact on the donor’s lifestyle or balance sheet.
Perhaps giving charity should be but the preliminary step in a philanthropist’s communal role. Though many institution heads prefer that lay involvement be restricted to check writing, large donors are often uniquely qualified to fill certain communal functions that beg to be addressed. For example:
– Funders often have unique skills and expertise that could be harnessed to benefit the community institutions they support, and they also have access to additional sources of funding for these institutions.
– While it is inappropriate and overreaching for philanthropists to leverage their generosity to dictate organizations’ programmatic practices and ideological policies, funders could effectively use their economic clout to monitor and ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the programs they support.
– Funders can use their role and their leverage to protect the community against the duplication of charitable institutions, and to prevent the perpetuation of resource-consuming institutions and programs that are no longer essential.
– Funders can condition their contributions on recipients’ vigorous adherence to laws, regulations and ethical practices.
– Aside from their interactions with institutions and programs, funders can, and are perhaps even obligated to use their stature and prominence to serve as communal role models in matters such as business ethics, standards of religious observance and manners of lifestyle and consumption (see Rashi, V’al shehayah sipaik b’yadam [Sukkah 29b]).
Another communal role that I entertained as a youngster was that of communal advocate or “shtadlan.” The shtadlan serves to represent the community’s interests to outside authorities and power brokers, presenting communal requests for government funding or tax relief, and addressing thorny issues such as criminal allegations or onerous decrees or regulations, particularly those perceived as anti-Semitic.
When I began to engage in these types of efforts as lay chairman of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs (now the OU Advocacy Center), I found myself neither attracted to the role nor all that qualified. The shtadlan role is frequently played by a paid advocate or by a particularly gifted communal professional, such as a rabbi or an educator. Admittedly, lay community members may also assume the role, but they are typically individuals who enjoy access and influence by virtue of their personal stature and achievements. Areas of personal achievement include commerce, as exemplified by Moe Feuerstein, z”l, and Zev Wolfson, z”l, and the arts or sciences, as in the case of Elie Wiesel, z”l. Occasionally an Orthodox Jew will become an effective communal advocate by virtue of his other non-communal, personal government roles or appointments, such as Dr. Marvin Schick, z”l, and the Honorable Herbert Tenzer, z”l.
Though shtadlanus did not work for me and has traditionally been the domain of the community’s senior establishment, it is becoming an increasingly accessible role.
– Technology and social media, commonly mastered by a younger generation, have introduced contemporary methods of communal advocacy.
– Online advocacy and blogs are potent platforms for activism, and those who can exploit them effectively will likely emerge as significant communal players.
– Grassroots advocacy has assumed increased influence on government policies and societal expectations. This trend introduces opportunities for new forms of collective communal advocacy. The broad Jewish community’s pivotal role in affecting the freedom of Jews in the Former Soviet Union is a powerful example.
Over the years my primary communal role has been initiating programs and strengthening institutions. Organizational involvement is challenging and frustrating, but it is essential that we leverage the size and expertise of institutions to address the burgeoning needs of our increasingly large and complex community. Consequently, I encourage volunteers to roll up their sleeves and engage in any of the myriad wonderful institutions that service our community.
When launching your organizational involvement, you must first assess what cause or communal need you are most comfortable advancing. Secondly, you must determine whether you actually have the time and capacity for such involvement beyond attending a sporadic board meeting or providing occasional advice.
Even within a particular cause, there are distinct strategies to effect change. For many, personality dictates their chosen approach. Others, such as myself, could comfortably choose either of the alternatives described below, and thus select the approach that is likely to be most impactful. The following is an abbreviated sampling of choices I considered when constructing my initial personal plan.
1. Entrepreneurship or corporate Klal Yisrael Just as MBA graduates may pursue their fortune by joining corporate America, an Orthodox activist may seek to make an impact by joining “corporate Klal Yisrael.” “Corporate Klal Yisrael” is our extensive network of communal institutions, from large to small, spanning all aspects of religious, social and other needs. As a young person, I assumed that the old guard of every institution possessively defends its turf by thwarting volunteer interlopers. I quickly discovered, however, that they most often eagerly welcome volunteers who are prepared to do substantive, high-quality work without expecting credit or recognition.
The alternative, however, if you are an MBA graduate or aspiring community activist, is to create and implement programs on your own. Entrepreneurship has the advantages of independence, the eluding of endless meetings and bureaucracy, and the joy of calling something one’s own. The downside, of course, is a lack of support and infrastructure, as well as the inability to build upon preexisting accomplishments.
2. Problem solver or agitator Efforts to improve the community can be pursued from one of two vantage points: either from within the establishment or from outside the establishment. The former requires involvement within communal institutions and developing relationships with communal leaders. By playing a purposeful and productive role within the establishment, opportunities to advance improvements will inevitably arise. This approach requires a willingness to play the long game.
The latter approach involves attaining credibility as an effective activist by generating benefits for the community from outside the established organizations and leadership. If you are successful in attracting the respect of the community through these projects, your compelling and well-articulated critiques of the status quo, while inevitably rejected, will potentially prompt changes. This approach requires a willingness to be confrontational and to tolerate criticism and, sometimes, ostracization.
Both strategies can succeed wildly or fail miserably, and thus in every situation careful strategic analysis is required to assess which approach is more likely to be effective. For many people, however, the choice is necessarily dictated exclusively by their personality and comfort zone (or by whether they have children to marry off).
3. Narrow mastery or breadth of perspective Many Torah scholars are masters of particular disciplines, such as pilpul, halachah, Tanach or kabbalah. Others are generalists who lack the mastery of the specialists but enjoy in its stead a breadth of knowledge essential to analysis and assessment.
Communal activists are similarly distinguished. Most focus on one or two areas of communal need, such as chinuch, kiruv or social services. A few, however, pivot every few years from one area of interest to another, seeking to acquire a broad perspective regarding the needs of our community. The community relies heavily on activists who have become experts in their area of philanthropic interest, but it is essential to have at least some activists with less proficiency in specific areas but a broader communal perspective.
Having focused for decades on programs and organizations, I feel deficient for not being more involved in hands-on chesed. There are limitless ways of providing assistance directly to individuals, such as visiting the ill, calling on the lonely, mentoring start-up entrepreneurs, studying Torah with beginners over the phone, volunteering as a shul gabbai or guiding singles through the dating process. And the list goes on.
What are the advantages of doing hands-on chesed? It provides the most immediate and perceivable impact, which sometimes may be life-altering and other times may just put a smile on a lonely face. In addition, one often experiences an emotional high when helping others directly, and the sense of holiness, when engaged in such chesed, is frequently palpable.
But is engaging in direct acts of kindness the ideal choice for everyone? I have encountered two schools of Torah thought regarding how to prioritize when choosing one’s personal role in enhancing the lives of others. One view focuses on the actual function performed; the other emphasizes the impact.
The first view encourages the pursuit of activities that directly provide the benefit. One should choose to be the individual who personally feeds the hungry, teaches the Torah, heals the sick or helps with the shul bulletin—even if greater aggregate good would result were one to facilitate the efforts of many others. Perhaps this approach emerges from the recognition that it is Hashem’s will, not our efforts, that actually determines the degree of benefits available to others. If we decline to perform chesed, the recipients will receive the same benefits, though perhaps in a different manner or from a different source. Since the outcome is not really in our hands, it follows that our focus should be on the holiness of our activities, not their degree of impact.
The alternate view encourages choosing a role that will have the greatest impact, particularly if the function will otherwise not be filled by someone of equal capability. Therefore, one should choose to organize, facilitate or recruit in place of performing the direct chesed himself if the net resulting benefit will be greater. Those advancing this view agree that Hashem determines the amount of benefit generated, but perhaps their understanding is that He considers the degree of effort expended when determining the outcome. Or perhaps those embracing this view believe that an activity designed to have the greatest impact is actually the holiest action, even if the act of kindness is performed by others.
Of course, no rule applies to all cases. Those who lack the skills or will to organize, facilitate or recruit should obviously pursue hands-on chesed. This also pertains to those blessed with such exceptional qualifications that their own hands-on efforts actually produce a greater impact than the collective efforts of many others.
And finally, we should consider whether our performance of hands-on acts of kindness will inspire others to do the same. When others perform chesed that we have modeled, perhaps yet another group may be inspired to do so as well, and so on. We may discover that the most effective way we can maximize the number of people having an impact is simply by doing chesed ourselves.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.