What I learnt from a speech in Lakewood NJ

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 2/6/16

On Monday, January 25, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, one of the big philanthropists in the Jewish world, stood before the top rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey at a fundraising dinner for the largest yeshiva in America, and delivered a speech that shook the ultra-Orthodox community to its core.

In a passionate and thoughtful way, he railed against the elitism in the community that, in his words, “bordered on bloodshed” toward its youth: Young children have been left without elementary schools to attend, more than five weeks into the term. Parents have gone begging, crying to administrators and donors to get their kids into any school so as to avoid facing the shame of being excluded. Yet the schools are caving to the pressure of certain parents who urge them not to accept the children of certain members of the community, lest it lower the quality of education for their own children.

Rechnitz condemned the Lakewood community, stating: “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.”

As his speech goes on, Rechnitz moves from the theme of schools to the paralyzing nature of judgment within the community. Here, Rechnitz accused the ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood of twisting religiosity and the minutia of religious practice into an idol, forgetting that there is value in every single Jew.

I find it hard to concentrate on any online video that is over 4 minutes (the destruction of my attention span – and that of my young adult peers – is particularly worrying), but I was so riveted by Rechnitz’s speech that I sat through all 52 minutes of it.

As someone who works in and around the field of philanthropy, I have never seen such truth being told to such power. In popular thought, it is those with the money who are the powerful, and the grantees who must follow their lead. Yet, in American ultra-Orthodox communities, while the donor is honored, it is the rabbinical authorities that are the centers of power. Yet here was a donor respectfully challenging a dais full of the leaders of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox community in America about the detriment they have caused to their community.

Watching the speech again, I am still stunned.

In Jewish and Israeli newspapers, mega-philanthropists are often accused of twisting Jewish communal discourse to their political world view; whether it’s the right pointing to George Soros or the left pointing to Sheldon Adelson. Rechnitz’s speech shows the best of what a committed, dedicated and brave philanthropist can do when motivated. Indeed, he did not just moan, but committed another $1.5 million to building inclusive schools.

Rachnitz’s speech sent shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, but that did not deter him. He sent a letter apologizing for the harsh nature of his speech, yet emphasizing the theme of elitism, saying that those who hold themselves and their children above others and push communal institutions to exclude those who they perceive as less “frum” (religious) are destroying a beautiful community.

The passion, commitment and urgency of Rechnitz’s intervention are something that the rest of the Jewish community would do well to remember, and emulate, as we look at the crisis of the affordability of Jewish day schools.

As Jewish Americans continue to struggle with the issues surrounding philanthropists’ role within our structures, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz stands as an example of Jewish giving at its best.


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.

Can Birthright bridge the Israel-Diaspora divide?

Ha’aretz 19/09/11

Over the past decade there has been a paradigm shift in the Jewish world as Diaspora communities have changed in concern with international developments and challenges. With intermarriage on the rise and Jewish communities’ connection to Israel waning, private philanthropy, the Israeli government and the established Jewish community came together to found Birthright-Taglit, a free 10 day trip to Israel for any young member of the Jewish people who had never been to the country before.

The program, radical at its founding, was deemed “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” by the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein, a proclamation that is upheld by impressive statistics both in Israel and the Diaspora.

It is overwhelmingly popular, with over 40,000 applicants this year alone. It has, in many cases, staved off intermarriage, with 72% of participants marrying Jewish, and 23% of its participants saying they felt significantly more connected to Israel after participating in Birthright.

Everyone seems to be winning; for the Diaspora, this means more Jewish children, and for Israel there is a greater connection to Jews abroad – the ultimate in the brand Israel approach.

However, Birthright has not increased participation in Diaspora communal involvement, and despite the commendable accomplishments of the program, there is a very real danger that Taglit unintentionally encourages an unhealthy relationship between Israel and its Jewish family abroad.

The Birthright model is consumer-based. It rests on the idea that we need to get our young people to buy Israel and Jewish peoplehood. A ten-day trip serves as an experiential product – a gateway drug of sorts – in which customers consume the environment and programming around them.

The aim is to create a loyalty to the brand, Jewish peoplehood, with the hope that some will indeed join the company and make aliyah.

For the token few Israelis who join each trip, it is a chance for them to take a break from normal army service and join in on the fun and games those from abroad get to have for free. It is also a great boost to the Israeli economy, as the young participants buy a plethora of snacks, drinks and memorabilia, stay in hotels across the country and keep the tourism money flowing at record highs.

Israelis see these Birthright buses as a chance for them to break from their day-to-day lives and to make some money. Diaspora Jewish life is seen as the never-ending holiday, which they can never partake in. The participants from abroad have a good time and feel like they have done their Zionist part.

This dynamic, with Israelis seeing Jews from abroad as cash cows and a respite from their hard reality and Diaspora Jews seeing Israel as a good time for a holiday is a model that does not do either side justice.

With the Israeli-Diaspora relationship at stake, this consumerist approach is more problematic than ever. Jews abroad crave the respect and ear of Israelis in a bid to coproduce the Jewish people’s future, while Israelis want those outside to understand the hardships they undergo, withholding judgment on issues they do not understand.

We are never going to advance a value-based Israel-Diaspora relationship with a consumer model of interaction. We must find a way to facilitate shared experiences in which Israelis see the value of the Diaspora and Jews abroad understand the challenges faced by Israelis.

We have to transform what has become a remarkably successful program into one that can also serve as a tool in building the Jewish people’s future both in Israel and beyond.

Both sides must come together and create an experience that has a reciprocal, lasting impact. A new model must synthesize tourism and mega events with dedicated volunteering and discussion groups with local residents.

For example, a group from Chicago could spend two days volunteering in Lod, sharing huge communal meals and discussions with its residents. The Chicagoans would foster an understanding of the people – not only the problems – of Lod, while the residents could connect with their fellow Jews from abroad at a communal level. A link would be maintained between the Jewish community of Chicago and the city of Lod.

By creating community-based volunteer programs in Israel for Birthright participants, a true connection could be built between Israelis and Jews from across the globe. This would be a value-based relationship in which locals and Diaspora Jews could move forward in cooperation with a newfound mutual respect.

As one of the most successful programs of the Jewish people to date looks forward to its next ten years, it has the tremendous opportunity to redefine the relationship between the younger generation of Israelis and Diaspora Jews, creating a sustainable, healthy and reciprocal connection that will last for generations to come.

With more than 10,000 millionaires, why is Israel still a charity case?

Ha’aretz 24/8/11

The past few years have seen a whole new generation of wealth being created within Israel. The collective worth of Israeli’s 16 billionaires stands at just over 45 billion dollars and Israel now hosts 10,153 millionaires, a 20-percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

With all this money sloshing around at the top of the system, it’s more than a little disappointing that Israeli soup kitchens still feel the need to come around to the global Jewish diaspora, cap in hand, looking for vital donations to help those on the bread line in Israel.

Jewish communities worldwide are happy to put their hands in their pockets to help out in crisis scenarios. For example, when the Galilee needed rebuilding after the second Lebanon war,living bridges were developed to link communities abroad to communities in Israel.

Every Jewish community wants to see their name on the side of a Magen David Adom ambulance and there is an intrinsic Zionist value in giving to essential Israeli services. However, there is a difference between giving to feel bonded to the country and society, and giving out of necessity because funds could not be secured at home.

A renewed focus on Israel-Diaspora relations is examining the connection of young Jews to Israel across the world. This relationship has, for far too long, been defined by wire transfers. As a British Jew I would be embarrassed if Jewish Care, one of the major welfare charities in the U.K., needed to go abroad to ensure its survival. Yet it seems this shame is not felt by the Israeli wealthy elite who have no issue with their own society’s poor looking elsewhere for desperately needed charity.

Israeli philanthropy is its nascent phase, standing at only 0.7% of GDP compared to 0.73% in the U.K. and 2.1% in the US. Foreign donations account for a whopping 62% of all given money in Israel.

The inability to raise funds locally has many culprits and comes on the back of a history of dependence. With homegrown philanthropy being a relatively new phenomenon in Israel, it is easier for charities to go abroad to raise cash than to turn to the new wealthy class.

No one wants welfare charities to go without, but there needs to be some motivation for Israelis to fund their own society. At what point should the communities in the Diaspora say to Israelis that enough is enough- we will give, but we will not allow those in your own society to shirk their responsibilities?

It is not only the newly minted wealthy in Israel who are to blame. International donors like being feted, and if the Diaspora begins giving less, it will diminish their role in Israeli society. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, with Diaspora Jews often toting different political agendas than Israeli voters.

Israel might also not be ready for the demands that big philanthropy brings – the $20 million Ofer donation to Tel Aviv Museum of the Arts being a case in point.

However, the current relationship is unhealthy for both Israel and Diaspora communities. If, as the Hartmann Institute has intimated, a new relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is to be founded beyond that of crisis, then foreign vs. local giving needs to be part of this conversation.

An Israel that is a member of the OECD should no longer be a charity case. I want to give to Israel because I need to, not because it needs me to.