The Time is Ripe for a National Conversation

By Mark (Moishe) Bane

It is time for American Orthodox leaders to begin a national discussion regarding communal priorities and resource allocation. Our community has evolved from the fledgling start-up of earlier days into a robust, growing and increasingly complex society. Marvin Schick, in his Avi Chai day school surveys, reports that Orthodox day school enrollment has increased by more than 38 percent in the past fifteen years, and the number of Orthodox Jewish children enrolled in special needs programs has increased by 204 percent in the same period. The pages of this magazine have reported on the rising divorce rate within the Orthodox community, as well as the increasing prevalence of both alcohol and drug abuse. Homes for battered Orthodox women have been established, and organizations for LGBT individuals seeking to remain within the Orthodox community have sprung up, often to much controversy.

These developments, some terrifying and others wonderful, introduce new responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is the duty of leadership, on a national level, to review the numerous opportunities and challenges facing the community and assess the relative priority, weight and attention that each issue deserves. This type of global review is compelled by the limited resources that are available to address communal needs collectively. Currently, both communal and personal resources tend to be distributed to those who scream the loudest or campaign for support with the most charisma. Often, needs that may be more fundamental to communal survival are neglected in favor of needs that, although legitimate, have a far lesser consequence on a community-wide basis. Moreover, little attention is paid to the duplication of efforts within the community, the respective effectiveness of alternative projects addressing identical or overlapping issues, and the need to assess which communal concerns are more effectively addressed by smaller institutions and which would be handled more efficiently through a larger collective effort.

Currently, each cause has its own advocates, and each approach its own adherents. Only an objective analysis, performed by the most trustworthy and respected communal leaders, can reliably identify redundancy and duplication, and prioritize the allocation of resources based upon an assessment of the impact that each issue may have on the growth of the community—both physically and religiously. This assessment, which may well include different views, should be distributed, and thereby serve to guide the allocation of the community’s valuable resources, whether financial, intellectual or human capital.

No single body or institution can undertake such an endeavor alone. We at the Orthodox Union are certainly proud of our programs, initiatives and accomplishments. Other very effective Orthodox communal institutions continue to make invaluable contributions. Individually, however, each organization has its own focus and responsibilities, as dictated by its institutional history, its primary constituency of supporters and its leadership. At the OU, we continually reassess our priorities after monitoring our programs’ impact and effectiveness, and after considering ever-evolving communal needs. I assume that other organizations do the same. But these assessments address only allocations made internally, within a single institution. There is no forum for conducting an objective assessment on a national, community-wide basis.

Moreover, guidance on communal resource allocation, for the most part, is provided by individuals already invested in a particular aspect of communal needs, usually areas that happen to be the focus of an institution or project they either founded, support or work for. Such views fail to carry the requisite credibility to sway communal priorities, even when the individuals providing advice are highly regarded and have unassailable reputations.

Geography, however, is no longer the dominant factor in identifying segments of the Orthodox community. The remarkable advances in technology, transportation and communication allow individuals and families of like mind or culture to collectively identify themselves as a “local community,” even when they reside great distances from one another.

As described below, American Orthodox leadership lacks authority, and thus its views have sway only to the degree determined by the community. While Orthodox leaders frequently have a particular group of followers who adhere to their guidance, on a communal-wide basis little deference is paid to their opinions. Alas, such deference must be earned. I suggest that were communal leaders to expend their valuable time on the interests and needs of the broader Torah community, even sacrificing a degree of focus on their own institutions and respective personal day-to-day responsibilities, they would thereby exhibit love and respect for other Orthodox leaders and sub-communities across cultural and sociological divides. Moreover, they would then engender the respect and deference that would ensure that their guidance will be acknowledged and followed.

To fully appreciate the necessary components of a broad-based communal needs assessment, and to understand why our communal leaders should make this a priority, we must first recognize the nature of contemporary Orthodox leadership and its limited power, and understand why our community currently has no leadership that is actually national in form.

The Nature of Contemporary Orthodox Leadership
American Orthodox leadership lacks authority, and thus exercises influence only through social pressure. Admittedly, social persuasion is powerful, particularly as imposed through community schools’ admission policies and, even more so, through the shidduch process. Nevertheless, individuals and families are subject to these pressures only by dint of voluntarily seeking to integrate into the community.

Unlike in past eras and in other lands, American religious communal leadership is neither government mandated nor government appointed. No Jew is compelled to associate with the Jewish community, and those who do may freely decide whether or not to associate with the Orthodox community.

Similarly, even Orthodox Jews wholly committed to observance are not required to belong to a congregation, and no congregation is forced to belong to an association of congregations. Unlike many other organized American religious communities, each Orthodox congregation has full autonomy to select its rabbinic and lay leadership, and individual rabbis and lay leadership groups are free to establish their own internal policies and practices. By the same token, of course, community members, rabbis and congregations are entitled to react as they wish, and express their views regarding the Torah authenticity and validity of the policies adopted by others.

Not only are our leaders handicapped by the absence of enforcement authority, and the array of social options available to communal members, but they are further weakened by the prevailing culture that idealizes autonomy, and imposes a zealous focus on individuality and an Ayn Rand-like derogation of respect for collective identity and responsibility.

The rich array of cultures and paths within Orthodoxy preserves the majesty of our history and the centrality of our mesorah. The vibrancy of multiple styles and approaches allows families and individuals to express their allegiance to Torah in a manner aligned with their needs.

Since American Orthodox leadership lacks enforcement authority, it can only exert influence by engendering the respect of communal members or by providing the inspiration necessary to earn the deference of the community. Our leaders’ participation in a national conversation regarding communal priorities will not only produce invaluable thoughts and insights, it will also significantly elevate our leadership’s status and its ability to influence the broader community. Among other discussions, they would evaluate the relative impact and priority of various communal concerns and opportunities. They would consider the effectiveness of competing approaches to addressing a communal need, and identify efforts that might be revamped or consolidated. By acting and working collectively, a true national leadership will emerge, accompanied by the respect and deference due to authentic national leadership.

What Is a “National” Organization?
Our community is currently sorely lacking in national leadership—at least as such term must be properly understood. It is thus no wonder that so many of us have a cynical view of leadership, and few individuals occupying high-level positions of communal responsibility enjoy broad-based respect. National leadership, however, can be reinvigorated, and its fruit would be sweet and plentiful.

The American Orthodox community is a conglomeration of communal segments of varying sizes. In earlier times, the parameters of each segment were based on where its members lived. Community organizations were categorized by their respective geographic breadth, reflected by the geographic expanse of where their participants lived, and the geographic reach of their respective influence. An institution servicing a local neighborhood was distinct from one that addressed the needs of an entire city, and even more so as compared to one that engaged a full region. An organization focusing on the interests of Jews living across the United States was regarded as a national organization.

Geography, however, is no longer the dominant factor in identifying segments of the Orthodox community. The remarkable advances in technology, transportation and communication allow individuals and families of like mind or culture to collectively identify themselves as a “local community,” even when they reside great distances from one another. Thus, while American Orthodoxy remains an amalgamation of smaller community segments, each sub-community is now primarily recognized by its members’ cultural and sociological allegiances and identity, and not necessarily by the neighborhood in which they reside. This is even true of Chassidic courts, origin-based sub-communities, and sub-divisions of the Orthodox world distinguished by ideology or lifestyle.

Similar to the redefinition of Orthodox sub-segments, an organization is now “national” only if its influence and constituency encompass a broad range of distinct sub-communities. A truly national organization is one with which all observant American Jews affiliate. While several prominent organizations enjoy impressive geographic scope, from a cultural and ideological perspective, each actually functions as a “local” organization, to one degree or another. Even the OU, with its increasing breadth of influence and involvement, is by no means national.

Not only are our leaders handicapped by the absence of enforcement authority, and the array of social options available to communal members, but they are further weakened by the prevailing culture that idealizes autonomy, and imposes a zealous focus on individuality and an Ayn Rand-like derogation of respect for collective identity and responsibility.

The segmentation of American Orthodoxy is healthy and inevitable. The rich array of cultures and paths within Orthodoxy preserves the majesty of our history and the centrality of our mesorah. The vibrancy of multiple styles and approaches allows families and individuals to express their allegiance to Torah in a manner aligned with their needs. In addition, particularly for young people, the intense identification enjoyed with one’s social sub-segment strengthens social loyalty, which serves as an effective barrier to the abandonment of Torah Judaism, and a frustration of assimilation in general. There are few more impactful tools in engendering commitment and loyalty than identification with cohorts of similar goals and ideologies. While all of Torah Jewry surely shares a uniform aspiration of serving Hashem as directed by the Torah, a more specific identification with a particular approach merely strengthens one’s sense of identity and affiliation.

Each sub-community typically has ideological, cultural or socio-economic distinctions that require tailored approaches in many areas, most prominently in the fields of education and social services. The unique characteristics of communal sub-segments should not, however, eliminate or negate kehillah-wide responsibilities. Contending with the impact of technology and other cultural threats to the Torah belief system of the younger generation, addressing social and health concerns unique to an observant Jew, and dealing with tuition affordability are examples of important communal concerns that transcend segmentation. Unfortunately, the paucity of collective thinking and cross-segment discussion compromises the likelihood that these very serious concerns will be solved any time soon.

Finally, I believe that participation in community-wide discussions will evidence selflessness, objectivity and mutual respect. By coming together to engage in a national conversation, American Orthodox leadership will raise its stature in the eyes of American Orthodox Jewry. Perhaps most significantly, by working collectively and addressing challenges and opportunities that transcend one’s own particular community, Orthodox communal leaders will collectively constitute an authentic national leadership. Thereby, American Orthodoxy will be blessed with the national leadership that it sorely needs, and our leaders will receive the deference and influence they truly deserve.

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.

 

Ask the President
The Orthodox Union is first and foremost a communal services organization. Your feedback and input about how the OU is doing in that role is critical to our success as a community.  As president I want to hear from you.

https://www.ou.org/oupresident/

Your input and views will certainly be studied, and will be considered in the context of the views of others.
If you pose questions that are appropriate for a public response, I will do so if you provide permission.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

Moishe Bane
President, Orthodox Union

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This article was featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
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