Silencing, Censoring, Hosting, Choosing

censored

An opinion piece by J.J. Goldberg appears in the Forward under the headline, Silencing of the Liberal American Jew. Reacting to a synagogue's cancellation of a speech by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Goldberg writes, among other things:

Determined campaigns by noisy minorities or threats by a handful of major donors regularly silence voices deemed controversial...

The disinviting of Wasserman Schultz takes the stifling of free discourse into a new and alarming realm...

[Jews] have long been an important voice for justice. It’s a pity that they let their voice be hijacked, diverted or cut off from allies by an unrepresentative minority.

[Emphasis is mine.]

A few weeks ago, when the 14th St Y canceled a Jewish youth group's planned event to discuss a partial boycott of Israel, a leader of the group said:

“This is consistent with other issues we have seen in Jewish institutional spaces, when Jews who have tried to express opinions that are not of the status quo about Israel are censored". (Emphasis is mine.)

There are two questions here which must remain separate: first, how broad is the discourse that the Jewish community chooses to host, encourage, and/or facilitate? And, second, is failing to host, encourage, and facilitate a discussion the same thing as censoring it?

It seems to me that broader discourse is usually good. Politics matter and carry both moral and religious weight, so both liberal and conservative voices should be heard in our shuls. The Jewish community includes a large spectrum of opinion about Zionism, so a strong case can be made that Jewish communal institutions should welcome a broader spectrum of discourse about Israel than they currently do.

At the same time, I would ask all those who use these terms like censorship, silencing, stifling, etc.: is it really the case that choosing not to host, encourage or facilitate every kind of conversation is censorship? Isn't it within any institution's right to choose its own boundaries and norms? Is it really the case that the membership of an institution is being somehow denied the chance to take part in the discussion, when any member can, at any time they wish, join or attend another institution at which the discussion does take place? Did the 14th St Y somehow lock Young, Jewish and Proud out of the city of New York entirely, preventing them from holding an event at any other venue? Did they lock the doors of anyone's radio station or smash anyone's printing press? Is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of the United States Congress now suddenly lost in the wilderness, bereft of microphones, now that the mighty Temple Israel of Miami has slammed its doors to her humble plea to speak her mind?

We're not talking about anyone facing any actual sanction, danger, penalty, or obstacle for voicing an opinion -- we're talking about institutions making choices about whom they will give a platform for voicing which opinions. Those choices are important, and they merit a real debate, one from which I certainly would not ask Mr. Goldberg, nor Jewish Voices for Peace and its youth affiliate, to back down. I would only ask: isn't it possible to make a strong argument for broadening the discourse within Jewish communal institutions without resorting to spurious (and therefore counterproductive) accusations of censorship?

(Browse BJPA for Discourse and Dialogue.)

UPDATE (June 25, 2012): Right-wingers can play this game too.

A Nonprofit Leader Who Really Did Shut It Down

Ephraim Gopin, writing for eJewish Philanthropy:

I read with great interest the point-counterpoint by Robert Evans, Avrum Lapin and Seth Chalmer featured on eJewish Philanthropy recently. As someone who has recommended to a nonprofit Board to cease operations, I feel I have a unique perspective on the issue...

...There are too many nonprofits and institutions in Israel. I firmly believe that merging nonprofits with similar missions will create a more stable, vibrant sector where long term well-being and strategy are dominant, as opposed to the pettiness of “kavod” – honor – taking center stage...

...Israel has 40,000 registered nonprofits – 5-10,000 of which are active at any given time. We all know that a great percentage of them depend on overseas funding for survival. With the world recession and federations keeping more funds at home, we should be REDUCING the number of nonprofits here seeking funding overseas.

I am well aware of the dangers of merging – job and salary slashing being the worst. However, we should encourage this behavior because the alternative is worse: nonprofits who are debt-ridden, can’t pay salaries or suppliers, may have to shut down. In that case, everyone is out of a job. Donors and foundations should be pushing similar mission-oriented nonprofits to merge, as a means of survival if nothing else.

Lest you say I talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, here’s my story: I recommended to the Board of a nonprofit I headed to cease operations.

When I settled into the CEO chair and began looking over the financials, I was shocked: the organization was in major debt. When I sat with the CFO, we tried every which way to avoid the “cut, slash, burn and trim” method of nonprofit management. To no avail; the pit was too deep.

Finally, after all options had been exhausted, I sat with the Board and told them unequivocally: We need to cease operations immediately, declare bankruptcy and try to find another nonprofit to take over operating the facility... In this manner, we hoped to save as many staff jobs as possible and work on an arrangement where the nonprofit who takes over would repay the debt to suppliers.

I know there are too many nonprofits, too many institutions in Israel. Some are in debt, are behind in paying staff and suppliers and yet they refuse to shut down. I also know that upper management would never “fire themselves.” But something has to be done because, when a recession hits, the whole sector suffers enough. The problem is compounded when, in reality, a little forethought would have made the sector stronger, not weaker.

Gopin's perspective and unique experience is a welcome addition to the conversation, and a welcome reminder that waste and redundancy truly are present and problematic.

It's worth noting that the nonprofit sectors in Israel and the United States are quite different. The American combination of unprecedented commitment to private charity along with a comparatively meager government social safety net makes the US nonprofit sector rather a different beast from its counterparts not only in Israel, but really everywhere else, at least in many ways.

For the Jewish nonprofit sector in particular, it is also of great import that in America, voluntary associations, congregations and nonprofit organizations constitute the entirety of Jewish communal expression, whereas in Israel the very State itself is a Jewish organization.

These two differences -- in the relationship of nonprofits to the State, and in the relationship of Jewishness to the State -- are bound to affect the ways in which each country's Jewish nonprofit sector conceives of itself, and is likely to affect questions of efficiency, redundancy, ideological diversity, and more.

For more reading on charitable sector leaders intentionally putting themselves out of a job, I suggest reading up on the AVI CHAI Foundation's decision to spend down and sunset itself.

I'll Put Down My Institution if You Put Down Yours

Writing for eJPhil, Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin point out that we have, in the United States, "Too Many Jewish Institutions".

As a community, we have funneled untold billions of dollars and other human capital into constructing Jewish institutions – museums, hospitals, social service agencies, arts and cultural entities – that in too many cases would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities rather than as “stand alone” entities...

... It is not our role to state which institutions hold the most value, reputation or prestige. That is the role of stakeholders, constituents and leaders. However, our logic tells us that if your city already has millions of dollars invested in a Jewish art museum, you probably don’t need to build a new institution nearby that could feature exhibits and collections housed elsewhere.

We should also address the specialization of each institution. If there is a strongly-supported American Jewish history museum, does there need to be a Russian-American Jewish history museum, a European-American Jewish history museum, a Spanish-American Jewish history museum or can we cover them all under one set of four walls?...

...Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing? By putting these entities all into one building, we are preserving precious resources and reflecting on cooperation and other efficiencies.

I can just imagine the meeting between all those "stakeholders, constituents and leaders." Somebody starts the meeting off noting that a lot of the institutions represented in the room, in the words of Evans and Lapin, "would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities." "Sure," another leader will respond, "some of us need to be subsumed. Fine. You go first." The egos of leaders can be annoying, but the egos of leaders do not constitute an entirely harmful force. When leaders feel like big shots of organizations, they're more invested. Spreading around the ego-boost is a very real way to spread around engagement.

But this isn't really about leaders' egos. Another quibble: the authors seem to assume the existence of a certain, stable-sized pot of funding which can either be divided among many institutions or given to fewer of them in larger portions. This is a false assumption. Perhaps there are certain donors who will donate generously to a Russian-American Jewish history museum, but who will not give anything at all for an American Jewish history museum. In such a case, the separate museum is not necessarily as inefficient as one might assume. How much of the redundancy really represents money that could be consolidated, and how much represents money that will be spent either redundantly or not at all? It would seem quite difficult to say.

Let me not belabor this point, however. I fully concede that inefficiency is rampant in American Jewish communal life. The real problem is that human life is not all about efficiency. The most efficient meal would be a perfectly calibrated nutritional concoction delivered intravenously, but I think most of us would rather have a nice meal. Consider: how many of the best days of your life could be best described by the word "efficient"? I don't mean to say that efficiency counts for nothing -- just that it only counts as much as it counts, because other things count too.

Some of those things that count are the vast diversity of views and ideologies in American Jewish life -- differences that sometimes require institutions with divergent missions, values, and operational guidelines. To the authors' rhetorical question, "Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing?" I answer: what kind of synagogue complex? Whose shul gets the community's art, and what does that say to the people who daven across the street?

The countless throngs of Jewish organizations that have sprung up from generations ago to the present tell the story of a people unlikely to fall suddenly into lockstep with one another, and I'm not ready to say that's a bad thing. Evans and Lapin make a point worth considering, and I'm sure there are many cases in which they're right. But in a world of declining civic engagement, do we really want to say that fewer of us should be starting organizations? Maybe we do. Maybe we need more joiners, more humble servants, and fewer egotistical leaders. But I do hope we conduct the conversation rightly started by Evans and Lapin on grounds far broader than efficiency alone.

David Elcott on Engaging Baby Boomers

As part of our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his research into Baby Boomers and their place in the communal life of minority communities.

Who Will Rest, and Who Will Wander: The Jewish Transient & Yom Kippur

J-Vault logo

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time...

During this week leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews will ponder the words of the High Holiday prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which promises that the unique mitzvah of giving tzedakah can improve one's prospects for the coming year.

...Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning....

As the weather turns colder here in New York, our thoughts may turn to those who have no homes to keep out the cold.

...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

This week, a special holiday J-Vault: The Jewish Transient (1932)

"Throughout our history," said Emma S. Schreiber at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, "responsibility for the stranger has been one of the finest examples of the manifest actions of our social conscience." But Schreiber did not intend to flatter the Jewish community; instead, she painted a bleak picture of a terrible problem:

Jewish communities themselves, believe that [Jewish] transients turn to Jewish resources almost entirely. Seven of the 85 communities [in a nationwide study] reported free use of non-Jewish facilities, while the others felt that Jewish transients use them to a limited extent or not at all...

...Discussions with shelter caretakers, representatives of shelter groups, and individuals in the community clearly show that these groups despise the transient, even while they consider it essential to extend him shelter service. The condition of the shelters is the best proof that this spirit exists. In a general way, the Jewish transient is certain of a minimum amount of care in the elementary necessities of food and shelter. In individual cases, the provision is generous. Usually, transients can expect from one to three nights' care and two or three meals a day, although practices vary greatly from place to place. But beyond these elementary provisions, the administration, in terms of sanitation, is below any acceptable community standard...

...All age groups are represented in the transient population, but the Jewish transient is more likely to be in the age group 20 to 30 and less likely to fall into the ages 60 and over... Seventy-nine and three tenths per cent were single men and only 9.5% reported no kinship ties. Almost half of the transients who claimed relatives reported parents as the nearest tie. The Jewish transient is not close to the immigrant period. Fifty-seven and six-tenths per cent were native born and even the foreign born had been in the country long enough to become citizens. Eighty-seven and five-tenths per cent were citizens and 8.4% had their first papers.

Interested? Download the entire publication.

But repentance (teshuvah), and prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) avert the severity of the decree!

Please consider a donation to one of the many organizations working to end homelessness. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty provides housing for the homeless, and of course there are many fine non-sectarian agencies, such as Pathways to Housing and Project Renewal. (Know of more? Please share them in the comments section.)

Gemar chatimah tovah.

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Naming "Nonprofits"

Writing for e-Jewish Philanthropy, Richard Marker makes a solid case against using the terms "non-profit" and "not-for-profit" to describe the sector in question:

After all, if a local boutique loses money, it does not make it a “non-profit.” And conversely, if an organization which is recognized as a US 501C3 by the Internal Revenue Service happens to have an annual surplus, it doesn’t immediately morph into a tax paying “for-profit.” We all know that the bottom line definition has only a little to do with a balance sheet or annual budget...

...The words “non-profit” are suggestive of what a society considers normal. Why call something “non…” if it is the preferred or standard way to do things?... In a very real sense, the words misrepresent the vast scope of this field. In every city, “non-profits” are among the largest employers, the largest landowners, and major contributors to the overall economy...

...There have been no shortage of attempts to more accurately name what this is: “Independent sector”, “third sector,” and “voluntary sector” are two that have resonated with many for a while.

I, though, would like to ascribe to and endorse one of the current formulations which I believe more accurately describe the legal status and gives this essential part of any open society the gravitas it deserves Thus: The distinction should be between two kinds of entities: Those which have historically been called “for profit” are better referred to as “private benefit” entities, and those which have traditionally been called “non-profit” are better referred to as “public benefit” entities...

...Among the benefits of these new formulations is that it would help redress some regrettable baggage which the “non-profit” appellation brings with it. For example, it would remove the association of public benefit organization being viewed only as “charities” existing only for the neediest. That is a worthy and crucial component of the sector, just not the whole thing.

Marker is right that the terms "non-profit" and "not-for-profit" lack substance, defining such organizations solely by what they are not. This problem also applies to "NGO," "Non-Governmental Organization". (If that title were to be taken literally, everything from Coca-Cola to Al Qaeda to a child’s lemonade stand would count as an NGO.)

“Voluntary sector” is misleading because those of us who work in the sector do expect to be paid, thank you very much. “Third sector” is completely vague (one might as well call it Sector 7G) and only marginally less of a negative definition than “non-profit.” “Independent sector” is laughable – no sector is less independent than the sector that sustains itself mostly by asking for money. (Really, no sector at all is "independent." We have an integrated economy.) “Philanthropy” is a venerable word with a noble meaning: love (philos) of humanity (anthropos). But the phrase “philanthropic organization” is quite a mouthful. One can’t refer to an organization as “a philanthropy” any more than one can call a philosopher a philosophy. (The grammatical analog to the philosopher is the philanthropist, but that refers to a person, not a group.) “Philanthropic organization” could be abbreviated as “PO,” but this acronym must be dismissed for other reasons.

So Marker identifies a legitimate need. But really: "public benefit entities?" This proposed term is precise to be sure – precise to a fault. It's cold and technical, devoid of poetry – nearly robotic. Why, I can hardly wait to write a check to a public benefit entity. Then I shall expose animal and vegetable matter to copious heat in order to aid digestion and enhance culinary appreciation during the process of nutritional intake. And on Tu B'Av, I shall write a card for that special someone reading, "This is to inform you that I have a pronounced romantic affinity for you, finding you both sexually and aesthetically appealing. Our overlapping interests and compatible personalities make me confident that we shall remain in monogamous partnership for the foreseeable future. Figuratively yours, [full legal name].”

Is it unrealistic to hope for a revival of the simple word “charity?” Marker notes (accurately, unfortunately) that this word has come to connote helping the needy exclusively, while the field actually encompasses much more than this (the arts, religion, intellectual discourse, etc.). Still, might it not be worth trying to expand the semantic range of “charity” and assert it as a more general term?

This would be a renaissance for the word, not an innovation. Thomas Aquinas defined caritas, from which the English “charity” derives, as “a friendship of man and God” which “extends not merely to the love of God, but also to the love of neighbor.” So defined, “charity” is as broad and beautiful as “philanthropy,” and it’s much easier to say “a charity” than “a philanthropic organization.”

The only objection I can envision is from fire-breathing secularists, but surely even they can find a way to appreciate Aquinas’s definition by taking it figuratively. If they cannot, it will be another symptom of the same affliction Marker’s preferred term suffers, an affliction spreading rapidly in the modern world: a precise term might be something like “pronounced societal metaphor deficiency syndrome,” but I’d rather just say that we could all use a little more poetry in our lives.

JDub to Close

JDub

Responding for e-Jewish Philanthropy to the news that JDub Records will wind down, Ruthie Warshenbrot asks:

Was arts & culture programming actually a good entry-point to Jewish life, especially for young adults? Many studies emerged just as JDub was gaining popularity that supported its mission, almost verbatim and JDub’s own numbers in its departure press release are fairly significant – 150,000 participants over 9 years. Is there now a niche to be filled in the Jewish community of young, culturally-engaged adults with no way to get their fix of Jewish music, media, and cultural events?

Prompted by Ruthie's questions (and her entire response is insightful), here are a few questions of my own:

  • When we talk about Jewish arts as an "entry-point to Jewish life", what do we mean? Do we hope that young Jews will be so smitten with innovative Jewish arts that they reconnect to Judaism and then join traditional institutions? (JDub as a bridge to shul and Hadassah?) Or do we mean that these new ways of connecting to Judaism will completely constitute the way a certain (large) segment of Jewry "does Jewish"? (JDub as a replacement for shul and Hadassah?)
  • Is it more desirable for Jewish artists to create specifically Jewish spaces to integrate Jewish culture and new artistic expression? Or does that send a message that Jewishness doesn't deserve to be part of the "mainstream" artistic world? (In other words, was it good or bad for the Jews when Matisyahu left JDub?)
  • JDub founder Aaron Bisman laid out his vision for the company in Sh'ma last November. Tackling the sticky question of what makes music Jewish, Bisman wrote: "For us, 'Jewish' was in the intention of the creator." (A digression: a handful of generations ago, most Jews might have completely agreed with Bisman's 2010 definition, if he had only capitalized the C in "creator".) Expanding the issue beyond music, and beyond art, and addressing the whole concept of young Jews redefining Judaism for themselves, I have to wonder: can such an open definition avoid becoming a boundary so wide that it is meaningless?

I don't know if any of these issues have anything to do with JDub's decision to close, but they are at the heart of the discourse JDub created during its lifetime. Whatever JDub's legacy turns out to be, the organization is to be thanked for sparking discussion of these issues.

Shared Leadership

Partnership

eJewish Philanthropy reports that The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel is moving to a dual leadership model -- i.e., the organization will now have two executives standing together on the the point of the managerial pyramid.

This move is worth observing in future months and years:

  • How will the organization fare under this model generally?
  • How will Board-Staff relations be affected?
  • How will donors react?
  • How will the organizational culture change?
  • How will disagreements between the two leaders be handled?
  • Will this model enhance each leader's work-life balance?

Related reading:

Networking

Did you hear? Networking is "the New Buzzword of [the] Nonprofit World".

How timely. Just a few weeks ago, BJPA uploaded the entirety of the 2001 book, Jewish Networking: Linking People, Institutions, Community.

Jewish Networking

Is Rabbi Hayim Herring's vision of "Network Judaism" taking off? Taking shape? Taking its time? What do you think? These blog posts have comments sections for a reason.