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The Case For Term Limits In Jewish Life

The Case For Term Limits In Jewish Life

As we anticipate the beginning of the New Year it’s a good time to reflect, take stock, and think about life and mortality. Not just personally, but communally as well.

Perhaps its time to have a conversation about term limits in Jewish organizations.

Term limits were instituted in the United States as a way, in part, to prevent someone from holding office for life. While they are an important part of our political system the concept can be traced back to ancient Greece with respect to service on the citizen’s council. In 1951 the U.S. Constitution was amended to limit the number of terms the president can serve, and many states impose similar limits on their governors and legislators.

Why term limits? The motivations were complex but there were twin elements: the notion of the citizens who came to serve, representing their neighbors, and then returning to live among those neighbors. Second, there was the fear of incumbency. It’s difficult to vote someone out of office, even if their productivity is waning. Americans worry when politicians are more focused on their associations with each other than on their dealings with their constituents.

Term limits for heads of Jewish communal agencies (public charities) would offer several benefits. First, it would breathe new creativity and vibrancy into our agencies. It’s far too easy to fall into a rut, into a certain way of doing things, of thinking, of acting, after being in any job for too long. Where is the passion and where is the motivation for risk- taking if CEOs knows that they are retiring in the job that they are holding, even though that retirement may be 20 years away? Where is the fear, the tension, the lack of comfort that breeds edginess?

The corollary benefit is that we can move those years of experience and expertise into another agency. I’m not suggesting that all of these CEOs retire from Jewish life. Term limits will allow a greater opportunity to import talent from agency to agency where it is merited. Ultimately, CEOs serve as stewards for the Jewish people — accountable to them. It is sometimes hard to feel that accountability if there is no longer any danger of being held accountable. It is for this reason that my one exception (though I know I will be accused of being self-serving) would be private foundation CEOs as they are, for the most part, accountable to a single family at whose pleasure they serve and not as stewards of the Jewish community in which they reside.

The second benefit of term limits would be among lay leadership. CEOs often (but not always) surround themselves with like-minded lay leaders, people they may have long-standing relationships with members of the “club.” A change at the top makes room for a new CEO to recruit new senior lay leadership, opening up space on boards that may not have seen enough diversity in background or in thinking. And a new CEO would have to negotiate with the current lay leadership as well, persuading them to consider new ideas but encountering their push back as well. Our agencies could benefit from a “loyal opposition.” Additionally, term limits would force lay leadership to deal with an uncomfortable topic — succession planning. The long-term health of our agencies could benefit from a more sustained focus in this area.

Third, one of the most neglected sectors in Jewish professional life is middle management. They work hard. They are creative, passionate and hungry. We don’t invest in them, we don’t train them and we put them on a career ladder that abruptly stops in mid ascent. Too often their ambitions are thwarted by a lack of mobility and a lack of vacancy in the executive suite. By clearing out that office we may see that some of these cloaked stars can really shine. And we may find more opportunities for women to fill what have traditionally been male dominated roles.

Fourth, we’ll save money. CEO salaries rise over the course of their tenure and well they should. They work hard, and they are deserving of good pay. But sometimes they rise faster than the market, either because the board is afraid of losing them or because they are too involved in matters of their own compensation. Term limits will allow agencies to adjust CEO salaries to current market conditions as they employ new and often younger candidates, freeing up resources that can be invested back into personnel training and benefits.

Too many agencies are becoming extensions of the CEO — their personality, their ideas, their friends in the lay leadership and like-minded professionals in senior positions. Yes, there are exceptions, but if government has taught us anything it’s that we should not legislate for the exception to the rule.
I realize that the analogy is not a perfect one as we have elected (I use the term loosely) officials at the heads of our agencies who often have term limits — our volunteer lay leadership. But that analogy is imperfect as well. The elections that placed those lay leaders in their positions don’t often enjoy wide participation. And our professionals usually enjoy far greater power and authority than a bureaucrat serving an elected official. Think of five major national Jewish agencies; can you name their top lay leader? (I didn’t think so.)

How long is too long at the top? I’m not dogmatic, but eight to 10 years feels like it’s enough. While it may seem a short time, it should. We should feel a pressure to achieve our agenda, to affect change.

Jewish communal service is a privilege and being CEO is a remarkable opportunity. But it’s not a right. While we should respect seniority, institutions function better as meritocracies. Our community deserves nothing less.

Mark Charendoff is president of the Jewish Funders Network and promises not to stay forever.

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