The pay-to-play of Jewish leadership

Ha’aretz 17/10/11

In a democracy we pay our elected representatives because we recognize that everyone should be given the equal opportunity to run for election and pursue public office. If public representatives did not receive a salary, the positions would be reserved for the independently wealthy and a privileged few.

Although the majority of Diaspora Jews live in democratic countries, this is not a practice that the Jewish world has taken on board. We are a society that is governed and represented by those who can afford to lead.

Although it would be unfair to generalize, and each community has customs and practices of their own, the ubiquitous feature of Jewish Diaspora communities the world over is those who give get to lead. It is an understandable trend; philanthropy is the life blood of the Jewish community.

From schools and shuls to welfare and Israel lobbying, each part of the Jewish communal ecosystem functions thanks to the kindness of its donors. The mega-donor class in the Jewish world is a select club, and they deserve recognition for the significant portion of their wealth that they give to their communities.

And even more credence must be given to those who contribute not only their their money but their time and passion to various organs of the Jewish community. It is relatively easy to sway a community with a checkbook, and those who go beyond monetary influence, chairing trustee boards and involving themselves in the causes they contribute to,  truly give of themselves and must be celebrated.

However, a distinction must be made between leading a charity, which you support, versus taking control of an organization that purports to represent the Jewish community in any formal way.

Philanthropists will often take on positions of formal representation within their communities, simply due to the financial buoy they provide. This is unhealthy for both the donor and their communities, which in many instances in both Europe and the United States – champions of democracy – are solely represented by the donating class.

It is hypocritical for a community to hold democratic values dear at a national level, while forgoing them at a communal level. As such, Jewish community leaders should be provided a stipend in the same way that leaders of a democracy are given a salary to ensure just, impartial and equal representation.

The current system prevents those who wish to lead but do not have the resource to do so from being able to positively impact their communities. And it perpetuates a leadership that is increasingly detached from the dynamic Jewish community it is meant to represent.

As Jewish community identities become more varied and the new generation forms its own denominations and institutions, the old, pay-to-play model of representation becomes increasingly obsolete.

Although there undeniably needs to be a paradigm shift in the mode of leadership in the Jewish world, this does not mean that philanthropic titans must abdicate their leadership entirely. The Jewish Diaspora leadership does not need to be destroyed entirely, but rather rebirthed, making way for governance that is earned – not purchased.

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