I keep hearing my grandfather’s voice in my head: “Oy. This is bad for the Yidden” — this is bad for the Jews. This has been the summer of Jewish communal folly. The heads of two very significant communal institutions — Sol Adler at the 92nd Street Y and Willie Rapfogel at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty — were fired in the last few week because of serious scandals. Add that to the Claims Conference scandal and what you get makes this Spitzer/Weiner New York hot and blustery summer a terrible one for the Jews. It’s been a man bites dog summer.
And the consequences of the scandals are not over. The residual impact and the tarnishing of trust in Jewish nonprofits — still not fully recovered from the Madoff scandal — continue. Hundreds of quiet, honest, competent and dedicated people will go to work for them each day and fight this demon even though they seek minimal recognition and do great work. Those in the trenches will pick up the slack and, in some unarticulated way, face the blame placed on their Jewish nonprofit shoulders even though these scandals were not their fault.
When I first heard about the firing of Met Council’s Rapfogel, I was shaken. Willie was a respected colleague for years. And his exit came soon after Adler was let go from the 92nd Street Y, which has always been the locus for great conversation. I never expected it to be the place for a torrent of gossip.
How could this be? It made no sense.
Another friend called me to report the news about Willie and the impact of the story. This is no proof, he argued, that our communal institutions are broken or lack good leadership. These are just aberrations from the norm. The public has always been fascinated by scandal. It gives us something to talk about so we can avoid looking into the mirror for too long.
Maybe that’s the point. This time, we did look into the mirror, and we handled scandal differently than we might have years ago. When news broke about the Met Council, its board acted quickly and decisively. Board members did not hesitate to go to the state’s attorney general. There was no thought of sweeping anything under the proverbial rug. There was no misplaced loyalty and there were no attempts at a cover-up because of what the scandal might reveal about the organization.
This is the lesson that I have taken from this summer’s mess. The worst part about scandal is not that some people will get fat with power and try to get away with dishonesty, fraud, etc. It’s that for far too long we have protected leaders because of our fear of what it would say about the rest of us. We heard this repeatedly about cover-ups in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal: It will hurt the church if people find out. The same was said by some when rabbinical sex abuse was reported; it will hurt our community if it comes out. That was the biggest error of all.
The lesson is don’t protect your corrupt leadership. Cut your ties with those who cannot represent you with dignity and integrity, and save your institution. Let the public know that there is a zero-tolerance policy for corruption.
Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I viewed the Watergate scandal as an absolute revelation, a watershed, for me. That the head of a country could be subject to the same laws as any ordinary citizen gave me faith that moving to the United States would alter my life and my notions of justice. It did.
So, are these recent scandals “bad for the Yidden?” Of course. But it also brings to mind another expression, this time from the Talmud: “kol Yisrael arevim ze le’zeh.” It means that we are responsible for each other — physically, spiritually and morally. If we are supposed to be an extended family with a purpose, then when someone does something morally repugnant, it reflects badly on the family, in much the same way that we take collective pride in Jewish accomplishments. It does not mean that all members of the family are to blame. But it does mean that we have to go out of our way to build trust and repair the wounds of shame and embarrassment.
If this has been the summer of our discontent, let it be the autumn and winter of our healing. Let’s not invalidate the accomplishments of some because of the sins of others. Let us not forget how amazing our communal network of agencies is or forget to tell the stories of our everyday Jewish heroes.
And let us go into this Day of Atonement with a cleaner communal heart.
Misha Galperin is president and CEO of international development for The Jewish Agency for Israel.