Seeing ‘Crisis’ In Jewish Ethics, Group Urges Reform
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Seeing ‘Crisis’ In Jewish Ethics, Group Urges Reform

Rabbis, academics say recent breaches ‘make mockery of Jewish values’; offer new blueprint.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Fed up with ethical lapses among Jewish leaders that have “reached crisis levels,” more than 350 scholars, authors, rabbis, cantors and Jewish community activists have signed onto a “declaration” that is challenging individuals and organizations to act with more transparency and accountability, and in accord with Jewish values.

In the past several years, the New York Jewish community endured the embarrassment of prominent rabbis accused of sexual abuse; a leading Jewish communal official going to prison for accepting millions of dollars in a kickback scheme; and the financial collapse of FEGS, the mammoth social service agency that seemed to suddenly lose $20 million while no one was looking.

“Disturbing developments” like these, the strongly worded declaration states, “make a mockery of Jewish values, shatter the trust that we have placed in our community’s leaders, and alienate young people from Judaism.” News of the declaration is being reported here for the first time.

Rafael Medoff, a Holocaust historian and author in Washington, D.C., said he reached a tipping point a few months ago and felt he had to do something to “at least start a conversation in the Jewish community about ethical issues that will affect the future quality of American Jewry.”

He and several other academics have just launched a website (jewishleadershipethics.org) and a “Declaration on Ethics in Jewish Leadership,” a bold 10-point statement urging that “whistleblowers should be encouraged,” “excusing offenders’ conduct or blaming the victims for coming forward is intolerable,” and that “Jewish organizations should adopt term limits, to combat the phenomenon of entrenched and self-perpetuating leaders.”

A diverse group of prominent Jewish spiritual leaders and academics from around the country — including former Rabbinical Council of America president Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Hebrew Union College demographer Steven M. Cohen, Holocaust historians Deborah Lipstadt and Deborah Dwork, Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, White Plains Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker and University of California Santa Barbara Jewish studies professor Elliot Wolfson — have signed on to the document, which has been circulating on a grassroots level for about three weeks.

Medoff said he is pleasantly surprised at the number, diversity and quality of people who have already added their names to the initiative, which is seeking additional signatures as it spreads the word, and hopes to become an ongoing presence.

The declaration, which Medoff describes as “an opening salvo,” is not aimed at any specific group or individual but encourages organizations of all “all denominations and factions to embrace” its “core principles of ethical behavior, which are anchored in the time-honored values we cherish as Americans and Jews.”

By citing the need for democratic elections of lay and/or professional officers, setting term limits, and resisting major donors from having undue influence in determining policy, the declaration may come to represent a test for a more authentic standard of accountability in organizational life. And it raises the question of who speaks for American Jews in a community that is voluntary and increasingly factionalized.

Until now insiders have acknowledged with a wink and a shrug the difference between open equality and “Jewish democracy,” where lay leaders — often generous donors — may be chosen in a closed-door, predetermined manner and policies passed in swift voice votes.

Giving Voice To The Majority

What prompted Medoff to act, he said, was a Letter to the Editor in The Jewish Week last June from Susannah Heschel, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, regarding the “sauna scandal” surrounding Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center.

She wrote, in part, “if bringing boys and young men with him into the sauna was perfectly acceptable, why was it kept hushed by leaders of the congregation?”

“Susannah’s letter was my inspiration,” Medoff explained. “She made a powerful point about enablers — those, including leaders of the congregation, who had long known about the rabbi’s activities but had not acted on them.

“We are seeking to give voice to the overwhelming majority of Jews who are upset” with reports of rabbis and others in leadership positions who violate the communal trust, said Heschel, one of the founders of the site.

She and Medoff formed a small committee, which also includes Thane Rosenbaum, an author and professor at NYU Law School, and Shulamit Magnus, a professor of modern Jewish history at Oberlin College. In an interview this week, they said they are determined to speak out — including naming names and citing specific failings — as part of a moral obligation not to stand idly by in the face of ethical violations.

Their declaration asserts that “concealing evidence of unethical behavior is itself unethical and antithetical to Jewish values” and that “the leaders of Jewish institutions and organizations should not receive excessive financial remuneration.”

“Shining light on issues in the dark has a way of changing the landscape,” Rosenbaum said. “Calling attention to misdeeds among Jewish leaders has its own value.”

Agreeing In Principle

Asked to respond to the declaration, the professional heads of three major Jewish organizations responded positively, if a bit defensively, in noting that their groups already comply to high ethical standards.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization “welcomes any initiative designed to stress the ethical and moral imperatives of Jewish behavior, be it individual or organizational, and especially against the backdrop of distressing revelations” that have come to light in recent years.

“We take those imperatives very much to heart in how we conduct ourselves at AJC. That’s why we resonated to much of what this document aspires to, even if we might have some quibbles or questions here and there…”

Harris noted that AJC has a “constant set of checks and balances” between lay and staff, executive council leaders are subject to term limits, the president serves only one three-year term, and finances are subject to strict internal and external controls “aimed at maximum accountability and transparency.” He also noted that AJC has whistle-blowing and conflict-of-interest policies, as called for in the Declaration, as well as strict non-discrimination rules.

“That said,” Harris wrote in an email from overseas, “we shall always aspire to do even better,” well aware of the “sacred bond of trust” AJC is committed to uphold.

Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League since the summer, said in an interview that he understands the sense of urgency in the Declaration, given recent “challenges” in our community. But he expressed some concern that such basic principles of ethical behavior needed to be publicized in terms of adherence in the Jewish community.

“In principle I agree with the document,” he said, though he found some of the language ambiguous. “The act of re-stating some of these principles may have value in itself, reminding us of the importance of democracy, transparency and pluralism. I get that.”

Having served as special assistant to President Obama, dealing with issues of governance and best practice in the nonprofit world, Greenblatt noted that there is a wealth of material and a well-developed set of practices available to nonprofits on the issues raised in the declaration.

Beyond that, he observed that “we are the people of The Golden Rule, we live by 613 commandments, and ethics have been core to Jewish practice for millennia. So it is unfortunate that some of our leaders are not congruent with these practices,” adding that “ADL is at the front of the line” when it comes to setting and adhering to high ethical standards.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he, too, agreed in principle with most of the declaration, noting that organizations have differing compositions and agendas. Lay leaders of the conference are chosen by a highly representative group of members, he said, and though there have been no two-person elections since the days of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, more than three decades ago, “the process is completely open and everyone gets a hearing with the nominating committee.”

Hoenlein added that he hopes “the same process” of ethical behavior “apply to Jewish media,” which he said has been known to publish “deliberate distortions.”

(Speaking off the record, he mentioned one publication — not The Jewish Week — by name.)

It is too early to say whether or not substantive change will come about as a result of the declaration. But it was heartening to see that each of the three major leaders I reached out to for comment responded in a timely manner and had mostly positive things to say.

They took the statement seriously and sought to show how their organizations follow ethical guidelines.

What happens next?

If the public signs on to the statement in impressive numbers; if more organizations review and respond — publicly or internally — to the principles set forth; if the committee that launched the initiative follows through and names those who do not meet their standards (as well as those who do); and if all of this activity leads to more reflection and discussion, positive change could take place.

It’s a long shot to disrupt a communal culture, but if our Jewish institutions want to remain relevant in the 21st century, they’d best be responsive to the voices of those who care most.

The declaration can be found at www.jewishleadershipethics.org.

Gary@jewishweek.org
 

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