WHILE STILL IN YESHIVA, one instance when I could not fully understand the views of my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, concerned the concept of altruism. I had suggested that true altruism is unachievable, since even acts of apparent selflessness reflect the individual’s desires, such as to be the kind of person who acts selflessly. I noted that whether people get their pleasure from primitive sources or from more elevated ones, all are satisfying their own needs or desires. Rav Weinberg vehemently disagreed and advised that I would eventually grow to recognize and appreciate altruism. I speculated that while such lofty accomplishments were not out of my Rebbe’s reach, they would likely forever elude me. Thus far, I have been correct.
I suggested then, and I continue to believe now, that for the individuals who have yet to transcend my very human reality, true altruism is unachievable. If every person is driven by personal drives, and simply undertakes to satisfy their “self”, what distinguishes one person’s actions or accomplishments from another’s? After all, they are simply satisfying their “self.”
I suggested that the distinguishing feature among people is the scope of who is included in their “self.” The most primitive person sees himself as a solitary individual. Most healthy people successfully expand their sense of self to include others, such as their spouse and children. When anyone in this expanded “self” is threatened, they are personally threatened, because they identify that person as a part of themselves. The greater the person, the more expansive the “self.” I surmised that a true gadol is one who truly feels that the entirety of Klal Yisrael is his “self.” The gadol feels the pain and joy of every Jew, because every Jew is he.
Several years ago, one of my sons directed me to Rav Shimon Shkop, zt”l’s introduction to his sefer Sha’arei Yosher in which he suggests this very thesis. I harbor the hope, however, that one day I will gain access to my Rebbe’s lofty world and see that true altruism is indeed achievable.
In this essay, I introduce the concept of selfish generosity, and suggest that many of the deficiencies of the American Orthodox infrastructure result from our self- centered focus. I suggest that our community’s enormous generosity is flawed because it extends only to those with whom we identify and associate. But is that not inevitable if there is no altruism in anyone’s behavior? Is not all generosity of this very nature – satisfying our own personal needs?
My sole suggestion is that, while everyone may be restricted by the need to satisfy self in every act or decision, selfish generosity is harmful to society when it becomes exclusive and divisive, undermining the interests of the community as a whole for the satisfaction of the individual. When people do not even aspire to expand their sense of self beyond its natural affinities (perhaps even celebrating its limited scope), their “generosity” will ultimately obstruct the needs of a healthy, functioning society.
THE EXTENSIVE INFRASTRUCTURE of the American Orthodox community is actually amazingly impressive. While some suggest that the Eastern European “kehilla” structures were more organized and authoritative, in most instances they were actually governmentally mandated. Moreover, the Eastern European Jew often felt alienated from general society, and had no social alternative but to associate with others from within.
By contrast, the American Orthodox Jew associates with whomever he wishes, and is certainly not compelled to integrate internally. Nevertheless, the community has constructed an elaborate infrastructure of educational institutions, synagogues, social service providers and special needs programs. By virtue of its deference to rabbis, the community also respects communal authority, and takes pride in the extraordinary percentages of its young people planning community service careers.
Simultaneously, however, the Orthodox community’s infrastructure suffers embarrassing deficiencies. The community’s institutions and resources address not only religious needs, but educational, health, financial and social needs, as well. Since the communal infrastructure plays such a significant role in almost every aspect of life, flaws in the infrastructure cannot be swept aside or ignored. Very often they are.
Among the leadings challenges to the community’s infrastructure are (i) the diminishing role, and perceived decline, of national organizations, (ii) the failure of the national community, as well as most local communities, to study and consider anticipated communal needs and create a plan to address them, (iii) the paucity of analysis of community needs on a truly objective basis, and (iv) the absence of community-wide resource allocation studies, on both a national level and within community segments, that would help guide the respective communal priorities.
This essay will review several of the community’s most prominent cultural characteristics, and suggest that much of both the impressive accomplishments and embarrassing deficiencies is an outgrowth of those cultural traits.
The Nexus between Culture and Infrastructure
The infrastructure of a country, business, charity or religious community reveals much about its culture. A community’s culture and infrastructure are, of course, correlated. The three most dominant influences shaping American Orthodox culture, and thereby the community’s infrastructure, are the Torah tradition, the community’s recognition of being a people in exile (Golus), and the American personality and ethic.
The Torah Tradition: Torah tradition is the most prominent influence on American Orthodox culture. Torah values produce profound communal respect for Torah study, Halachic observance, family and charity. The Torah ethos encourages the Jew to sense that he belongs to a special people, and to recognize both spiritual and historical ties with other Jews. Shabbos, Kashrus and minyan, and many other observances, remind the observant Jew that he is “different,” and necessarily lives a life of segregation, to one degree or another.
The centrality of the Oral Torah tradition shapes the rabbinic-reliant nature of the community. The rabbinate plays a pervasive role, educating both children and adults, overseeing religious ritual, and answering Halachic questions. It touches every dimension of daily life, from the kitchen, to the bedroom, to the office. Deference to rabbinic authority and guidance is a keystone of the Orthodox experience.
In multiple ways, Orthodox practices also impose significant economic pressure. Parochial school education alone leaves some otherwise financially comfortable families struggling economically. At the other end of the economic spectrum, the communal need for extraordinary levels of philanthropy transforms the wealthiest from merely being targets of admiration or envy into critical benefactors, on whose largesse others rely. These various influences produce a community that relies on its own rabbis, resources and people.
A People in Exile: A Torah Jew behaves and thinks like a person living in golus. We remind ourselves of this golus daily, both in prayers and during Grace after Meals. The typical rabbinic sermon often concludes by hoping for the end of golus, and the joy of a wedding’s climax is seared by a reminder of the historical destruction and the resulting golus. While it may appear that the freedom and indulgences of American life have blotted away the recognition of being in exile, in many ways the American Jew is relegated to being a Golus Jew.
The exile personality is one of suspicion and wariness. Sometimes, the recognized threats are physical and other times cultural, social or intellectual. The openness and seductiveness of American culture and society is particularly enticing. Increasingly, the intrusion of technology has added a seemingly unstoppable intrusion that poses a devastating threat to Torah observance and to the preservation of the frum community.
One of Orthodoxy’s understandable responses to the golus threat is segregation and isolationism. Though each community segment distinguishes itself by the degree to which it imposes such segregation, this segregation is ubiquitous. Whether by sending children to a Jewish school, maintaining a kosher diet or living within walking distance of a shul, segregation is fundamental to the Orthodox experience. For many, clothing, avoiding non-Orthodox cultural and entertainment experiences, and restricting music and reading choices provide additional barriers.
Though not perfect or without costs, the insularity strategy has succeeded. The American Orthodox population has grown exponentially, not only in numbers but also in the degree and scope of both Mitzvah observance and Torah study. While many lament the flow of those abandoning Orthodoxy, the retention rate of yeshiva high school graduates – particularly in the more insulated communities – appears to be strong, and certainly stronger than one might have feared. Around the Shabbos table, complaints regarding sons foregoing college are more likely due to kollel than to lack of responsibility or drug use. Moreover, the yeshiva graduates in secular academia and the higher professions appear to retain their observance at impressive levels. In fact, it seems as if even yeshiva graduates whose depth of commitment to Orthodox Judaism has waned more than often still send their children to a Jewish day school or yeshiva.
The community’s culture of insulation and segregation, in whatever degree on the Orthodox spectrum, significantly impacts the community’s infrastructure, translating into an expansive infrastructure premised upon a deep sense of mutual responsibility. There is a sense (or illusion) that every community member is cared for, in one way or another, and every member is a supporter or participant. For example, all children attend a day school and cheder, which in turn claim to uniformly supplement or provide full scholarships to every single student who legitimately cannot pay in full.
Insulation has also resulted in the establishment of numerous internal community social service agencies addressing needs that would typically be met by outside agencies. The frum community has its own job placement services, mental health resources, food banks and even paramedics. Though invaluable to an insular society, these services are costly. Fortunately, G-d’s most generous benevolence has led to many Orthodox families enjoying substantial economic success, and almost every affluent family extends itself to the community.
The barriers against outside forces constructed by Orthodox Judaism are critical to Torah’s flourishing in golus, but there have been unintended consequences. Often isolationism does not end with segregation, but also leads to degradation and derision of those “outside the camp.” By imposing a physical, theological and cultural distance between himself and others, the Orthodox Jew risks creating a personality of alienation. Rather than embrace Torah values, wisdom and culture simply for their truth and grandeur, he may elevate his own approach to Torah by degrading the values, wisdom and culture of others. Rather than viewing being an Orthodox Jew as a privilege and responsibility, he risks turning his religious commitment into a sense of superiority. Tragically, this self-centeredness and hubris leads to selfishness.
How can the Orthodox Jew, whose Torah values only enhance his generous personality, be simultaneously both charitable and selfish? It is possible to express one’s generosity by “going all out” to help others, while selfishly restricting the scope of “others” to those akin to oneself. The Orthodox Jew has created and mastered the art of being selfishly generous.
This trait develops by first establishing a significant divide between Jew and non-Jew. Barriers are then erected between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Finally, as could be predicted, the divide extends to factions within the Orthodox community. As such, the very segregation and isolationism that produced the exalted infrastructure leads directly to its least appealing characteristics.
Selfish generosity means giving generously, but only to beneficiaries with whom the benefactor identifies. We build schools for children like ours and extend chessed to those who look like us or share our political or cultural views. Selfish generosity means donating primarily at events honoring a peer, rather than those supporting pressing communal priorities. And it entails investing primarily in causes directly bearing on one’s family – whether devoted to managing a particular disease, the pain of older singles, the suffering of a divorcee without a get, or children at risk. While support of causes that touch oneself and one’s family is both appropriate and healthy, the community’s overall resource allocation scheme cannot afford to be guided by that principle. It often feels as if it is.
There is a well known halachic principle of “aneyai ircha kodmin,” priority goes to one’s neighbors. This directive historically applied to ensuring the well-being of one’s neighbors and family, though there is also a basis to include residents of Eretz Yisroel among one’s neighbors. The principle, however, has been extended beyond geographic proximity and, in practice, guides resource allocation toward those with whom one identifies, regardless of location. This practice also is sensible. The tragedy, however, is that most frum Jews view the spectrum of those “with whom they identify” as so very, very narrow. Rather than consider every Jew in need as their brother, they often view as their brothers only Jews who look like them. Rather than seek to support the religious growth of every observant Jew who is sincere and devoted to Torah and halacha, they view as worthy of assistance only those whose religious style and approach is identical to their own. Would a person’s “self” be expanded, their aneyai ircha parameters would expand, as well. There is surely a principle that charity begins at home, but it has never been suggested that it shouldend there, as well.
The experience of isolationism has not only affected the Jew’s social experience, but also his personality and perspective. He has been trained to define “self” as narrowly as possible. He has been acculturated to view an expansive “self” as dangerous, rather than exalted.
Exceptions to this rule include Israel’s vast Orthodox-created chessed institutions that service the broader community, though perhaps Israel is different. American exceptions, such as Satmer Bikur Cholim (which is so often cited as an exception that one may suspect that it was created in order to serve as the token minority), merely highlight the rule. The community watches its own back and trains its youth to do the same.
American Influence: Rarely has a Jewish community, and certainly not a frum community embraced so passionately the culture of its host society. Even the most insular Orthodox Jews have been touched by American values of independence, equality, ambition and creativity. As Americans, the Orthodox community has assumed the American “can do” spirit, and embraces human equality (at least of others within its own community segment).
In light of the central role that rabbinic authority plays in Orthodox doctrine, the American Orthodox Jew struggles with America’s derision of authority, and the influence of a society in which no person or office is so esteemed as to escape mockery. Balancing the American ethos of independent thought and the Torah doctrine of rabbinic authority is a formidable challenge, and this struggle plays significantly in shaping the community’s infrastructure.
While most institutions and dimensions of the infrastructure claim to be guided by rabbinic authority, true deference is often superficial. Even the most respected rabbi may be heard deflecting rabbinic responsibility for curing a community woe by lamenting the limited rabbinic sphere of influence. Calls by community leadership to support a particular cause or behavior carry little weight, and the tradition of lay people allocating their charitable dollars to the community’s gabbai tzeddaka(central collection), or to their local Rav or Rebbe for prioritization and distribution, appears to have substantially disappeared.
Resistance to authority, of course, is not unique to American Jewry. Jewry’s greatest leaders, from the times of Moshe Rabbeinu and onward, confronted this challenge. The difference is that American resistance to authority is not just a deviant tendency but rather a celebrated value.
American Orthodoxy has innovatively resolved its struggle regarding the validity of authority. It pledges allegiance to rabbinic authority, decrying as heretics those who refuse. In practice, however, deference is most often limited to purely halachic decisions, or to rabbinic positions consistent with one’s own. The only types of rabbinic decree attracting consistent loyalty are those that declare that someone else is doing, or thinking, something inappropriate.
The rather ambiguous role of rabbinic leadership may also result from the passive role assumed by most pulpit rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva. Notwithstanding the communal leadership role assigned to the rabbinate, it seems like rabbis rarely engage in studying the communal landscape and its people, and even less often advance a vision for prioritizing and addressing communal needs. For understandable reasons, most leading rabbinic personalities appear to focus almost exclusively on their own students, congregants and institutions – or those who may approach them directly for assistance or guidance.
Rabbinic passivity encourages lesser individuals to fill the leadership void by initiating and building programs and institutions on their own. Guided by selfish generosity, these communal entrepreneurs dismiss any objective exploration of the community’s needs and resources in favor of advancing personal affinities and needs. Requests by this cohort for rabbinic input is superficial, typically limited to soliciting rabbinic letters of support, or carefully avoiding crossing select policy lines that might trigger a rabbinic objection.
Another American character trait is to view every problem as solvable, every challenge as worthy of attention, and every perceived need as appropriate to be addressed. This culture leads to wonderful benefits for the community’s infrastructure, but it also introduces significant challenges. The expansive view of the potency of the community has led to a plethora of absolutely wonderful programs, incentivized creativity and spurred enormous progress in tackling long-ignored or denied internal challenges and crises. Orthodox Jewry is the richer for it. However, there is a downside. Most significantly, communal resources are typically expended on initiatives not considered in the context of broader communal needs. Absent a rigorous focus on communal planning and triage, attending to every concern inevitably diverts resources away from critical issues that either affect larger numbers or otherwise have greater priority.
In addition, there is a downside to saddling an already overworked and often overwhelmed communal leadership with unrealistic expectations. The inevitably dashed hopes often translate into diminished financial commitment, compromised communal faith and reduced allegiance to communal leadership and its infrastructure.
The Redefining of “Community”
Another profound impact on the infrastructure of Orthodox Jewry has been the redefinition of “community.” Traditionally, a frum community encompassed observant families who live within walking distance of shuls. While members may have deviated slightly in culture or observance, community affiliation meant both practical and psychological identification with neighbors and the local communal infrastructure. Local communities recognized that certain functions were best addressed by national organizations, and so the most highly respected national organizations thrived as they addressed certain collective needs of the various local communities.
Over the past decades, the geographically-defined sense of community has waned. While one’s town or neighborhood infrastructure still addresses certain needs and frames one’s identity to a limited degree, Orthodox Jews increasingly associate and identify with others based on other criteria as well. For example, they often view their community as those with whom they share an approach to Torah values and culture, regardless of where they live. Shared values and culture may derive from a common yeshiva background or a Chasidic rebbe, or by nationality, such as Syrian or Bucharian. For yet others, community may be built upon a common ideological view – such as supporting or opposing Religious Zionism. There is even a geographically dispersed community of families who share a collective focus on kiruv.
This redefining of community results from numerous trends. Families relocate more frequently, and children often marry and move far from home.
The pervasiveness of modern communications, media and the Internet likely has played the greatest role influencing sense of self and identity, in conjunction with the ease, speed and affordability of travel. These technological developments have profoundly altered the human experience, and impacted the frum community and its infrastructure incalculably. For example, proximity and geography are no longer the exclusive keys to relationship building. This shift in the composition of community necessarily affects the way in which American Orthodoxy addresses infrastructure, as well as interactions among community segments.
Are There Any Truly “National” Organizations? If Not, Who Cares?
What constitutes a National Organization? An organization may claim to be “national” because it addresses a need that is prevalent throughout the country or attracts members and loyalty from beyond a single region. The agenda of an Orthodox organization that is truly national, however, must be expansive, earning the allegiance of the greater portion of American Orthodox Jews. Aside from perhaps a smattering of single-issue institutions, American Orthodoxy enjoys no truly “national” organizations.
In earlier decades, American Orthodoxy was substantially dominated by Eastern European immigrants and their progeny. While a few Sephardic Jews resided in certain cities, and distinctions in religious approaches and culture within the community abounded, a degree of communal uniformity prevailed.
Local Orthodox communities benefitted from umbrella organizations that unified them, providing a sense of security in being part of a greater whole. Moreover, local communities were typically ill-equipped to create programs and approaches to religious education and engagement, and lacked the resources or training to represent their own interests and needs in the public marketplace. Thus, the national umbrella institutions assumed these roles. The national organizations were, thereby, respected and appreciated by the broader frum community, and attracted the involvement and support of many of America’s most committed, capable and creative Orthodox Jews.
National Organizations Failed to Change with the Times: As described above, the nature of “community” changed, leaving American Orthodoxy as a patchwork composition of disparate communities of interest. Each of these sub-communities maintains its own halachic standards and specific views regarding the day’s central issues, such as the public and communal role of women and the appropriate degree of integration into American culture and society as well as into the broader, non-Orthodox Jewish community. The most significant distinctions among community segments are the varying degrees (at least in theory) of deference afforded to rabbis, and the extent to which there is a commitment to keeping things “the way they were.” But distinctions between communal segments are not restricted to hashkafic matters. There are also distinctions based on culture, such as whether Chasid or misnaged, or country of origin, such as whether Syrian, Bucharian, Israeli or Russian.
No single organization tries to balance the often-competing needs among these segments, or even to coordinate joint efforts among disparate segments regarding issues that they have in common. Each alleged umbrella organization represents an increasingly narrow faction of American Orthodoxy, typically a single community segment, and the spectrum of each faction is narrowing further. Occasionally, an organization will pay lip service to representing a broader swath of American Orthodoxy, perhaps even inviting someone from another segment to join a board or speak at an event. However, unless the interests of other segments happen to align with the communal segment dominating the organization, the expansive agenda quickly fades. In sum, the traditional national organizations simply fail to represent today’s more diverse composition of American Orthodoxy. This is no surprise, of course, since American Orthodoxy’s current trend of selfish generosity only sharpens the distinct preferences of individual sub-groups, at the expense of genuine concern about others, even if they are Orthodox, as well.
Is there Really a Need for a National Organization?
The failure of organizations playing important functions is not unprecedented. Interestingly, though such failures are typically followed by a rush to fill the vacuum, no such rush, nor even a slow shuffle, seems to be in evidence. This likely signals either that there is no significant need for a national organization, or that there are other obstacles to developing them.
In fact, there may no longer be a compelling need for a national organization to serve functions initiated thirty or forty years ago. But there are new, vital functions to be addressed on a national level, and the absence of a national organization that can serve these functions encompassing multiple community factions is hurting American Orthodoxy.
Notwithstanding the significant distinctions among communal segments – which are to be celebrated rather than lamented – there are also many common interests.American Orthodoxy’s infrastructure should include a national organization that identifies the common needs shared by all the various factions and that works with the various factions in exploring how to address them. The actual implementation of solutions may differ among factions, in accordance with both the nuanced and the significant differences among them, whether religious or cultural. But if brought together by a national coordinating body, each faction would certainly learn from the others, creating a far more dynamic and creative process that would benefit everyone.
Several months ago, leading chessed activists from across the country met at an unpublicized meeting to share ideas and concerns. Attendees included individuals from almost all community segments, including Lakewood, Chassidic towns, wealthy and less affluent communities and the Syrian and Modern Orthodox communities. This gathering was organized not by a large and influential organization, but rather by a single, extraordinary community activist. This group of leaders in the area ofchessed, and other groups like it, would benefit substantially from a national organization that would be equipped not only to coordinate such large scale efforts on a consistent basis, but also to follow up such meetings to ensure an ongoing sharing of ideas and experiences.
In addition, a national organization is vital in order to undertake those select activities that are best pursued collectively if they are to succeed. For example, if the various factions coordinated on national and local levels in their interactions with the government, the collective agenda would be significantly advanced. The cost of private education, kosher food standards, religious freedom in the workplace and homeland security are but some examples of interests shared by all community segments. The absence of a coordinating body results in communal redundancy and waste, and signals the community’s disorganization and confusion.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a truly national organization would demonstrate to G-d the collective love that the frum community has for each other, as well as its commitment to the kedusha of Klal Yisroel. It would also confirm that our communal segmentation is solely the result of our varying needs and perspectives, but not, G-d forbid, due to a lack of mutual love and respect. Every parent can attest that one of their greatest pleasures is witnessing love and peace among their children. How can the community deny G-d this nachas from His children?
Is Anyone Prioritizing Community Needs? Or Planning for the Future?
Based upon the absence of published reports or information (and organizations are not shy about publicizing their efforts), one observes that the various needs of the community are rarely reviewed, and their relative import and urgency almost never assessed, on either a national or local level. Facts relating to communal matters are not compiled, and the effectiveness of current initiatives and programs are rarely evaluated. Similarly, there is apparently no one sufficiently assessing the community’s future needs or engaging in long-term planning. In the absence of these critical ingredients, it is impossible to even contemplate proposing communal resource allocation schemes, which should be based on the results of these exercises, in accordance with halacha and Torah values.
These undertakings are not neglected due to any lack of resources or strong leadership, but by a culture severely limited by selfish generosity. A prerequisite to such broad endeavors is a shared commitment to the whole of the community’s needs, with a non-biased view toward individual programs and institutions. The community’s current approach is just the opposite.
Both lay and professional community activists tend to focus on their selected sphere of concern, be it education, social needs, health-related matters, or others. An unbiased survey of community needs can hardly be considered, even if reliable data would be compiled.
New organizations, projects and other undertakings – all valuable additions to the community – are typically initiated by any individual who so chooses, without consideration of broader community needs in the allocation of resources. Success of a project is usually unrelated to community need or program effectiveness, but is rather dependent upon the effectiveness of fundraisers. Often these initiatives are the pet projects of individuals who are motivated by a personal experience or as a career building strategy. Those who will be expected to support the effort are rarely consulted in advance, nor are rabbis designated by the community to oversee such decisions. Those who decline to financially support a particular project are self-righteously portrayed by the solicitors as miserly and not community-minded. By contrast, many basic and fundamental communal needs are less alluring and exciting and thus enjoy relatively little support. Consequently, innovative and novel projects often attract far more financial support than far more critical basic needs. This system reflects selfish generosity.
Long term planning is simply not on the community’s agenda, whether nationally or locally. For example: who studies what categories and numbers of community professionals will be needed in 20 or 30 years, and whether too much or too little is invested in preparing our youth for these positions? How many classrooms and shul pews will be needed? Should new neighborhoods be established to house the seemingly burgeoning frum population? And, what are the religious and spiritual needs of the unprecedented community of retirement-age Orthodox Jews that is about to flood our community?
Perhaps most significantly, how are local institutions and the national community preparing for the avalanche of retirement and severance funds needed to ensure the basic living needs of community professionals (mechanchim, rabbonim, etc.)? There will be hundreds, nay thousands, reaching retirement over the next 20 or 30 years! American industry has shown that inadequate planning for pension funding can bankrupt an enterprise. Continuing to ignore this impending crisis in the Orthodox community is at the community’s peril. And what about the average baalebatimwho will arrive at retirement with no savings to speak of (and perhaps heavy debt) because of the exorbitant costs of tuition, weddings and supporting children in kollel – children who will be in no position to help their parents? Communal planning is not pursued, of course, because it is not in sync with the culture of selfish generosity.
As noted, rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva focus on their own congregants, students and institutions. While attending sporadic local and national meetings, few allocate the necessary time to follow up on the issues being addressed. It is surely no fault of the rabbis; they are typically overwhelmed by the numerous demands on their time, while congregants and students pine for more well-deserved attention. Moreover, they often have to raise funds for their own institutions and thus can barely be expected to allocate meaningful time to the broader community picture. Similarly, other types of communal professionals are burdened with work, with little breathing room to focus elsewhere. That leaves these tasks to lay activists.
While lay activists are inadequately equipped to make final triage or planning assessments, they may be most appropriate to initiate the effort. In fact, lay volunteers’ skill set is often suited to addressing these types of exercises. Ultimately, these deliberations require the guidance of great Torah scholarship and the nuanced depth of mesorah. But up to that point, lay activists can play a critical role in carrying the ball.
Equally welcome would be the assumption by philanthropists of the communal responsibility imposed upon them by the wealth they have been granted. Often, philanthropists are uniquely qualified to appreciate the importance of data compilation, need assessments, prioritization and planning, and they ought to play a pivotal role in the development of community infrastructure. Too often the most affluent within the community restrict their contribution to general donations, rather than to the type of input and inquiry they would impose on their business interests. No, philanthropists should not be generating communal agendas. But, they should be urging those in charge of the infrastructure to be diligent in making communal decisions based on adequate information and with due analysis of triage and planning needs.
Proposals: Perhaps Unsatisfying and Perhaps Unrealistic
How can a national Orthodox organization be created to address the new needs of the community, along the lines described above? Similarly, what might induce the community to ensure that analyses are performed that will empower donors and community builders to identify priorities and make the best choices? And finally, how can the community be induced to study and project future community needs, and to implement the steps that will be necessary to address them properly?
There is always the possibility that one or more Torah personalities may emerge who will capture the hearts and minds of the broadest spectrum of Orthodoxy, and successfully remodel the community’s culture, and thereby its infrastructure. But, then again, Moshiach may tragically be yet further delayed.
A Possible, though Perhaps Unrealistic, Proposal
One approach is to attempt to diffuse the culture of selfish generosity. As noted, this dangerous trait derives not from the community’s insularity, but from the self-centeredness bred by unchecked insularity. Insularity tends to breed yet other unnecessary and destructive tendencies, such as the gratuitous degradation of others, and the “bittul” (negation) of anyone whose views or behavior differs from one’s own. But, we are a wise and creative people. Can we not introduce an approach that will allow us to maintain the necessary insularity without all the harmful side effects?
The first step is to promote a desperately needed culture of respect and admiration for all people – and certainly all Jews – even when their behavior and ideas clash with one’s own. This effort should begin with an increased respect for all frum Jews. As Rav Weinberg taught, one’s Yiddishkeit and yiras shomayim must never be built on the degradation of others’ Yiddishkeit. Role models who promote this view should be selected to lead our shuls and communities, and special attention should be paid to ensuring that children’s role models encourage this attitude, and certainly that they do not advocate against it. Similarly, communities should promote increased study ofseforim that encourage ahavas Yisroel and an appreciation for the kedusha of every Jew.
If such a revolution in attitude could be initiated, perhaps community members would begin to become more comfortable with the idea of expanding the scope of their “self” (especially if it is widely discovered that increased respect for one another does not undermine one’s Orthodoxy or lead to reductions in halachic observance oryiras shomayim).
The common concern, of course, is that showing respect for those representing unacceptable views risks encouraging them and strengthening their resolve, perhaps even at the expense of one’s own. Though a legitimate consideration, it is diminished if adequate effort is invested in accompanying the respect with assertive expressions of one’s own positions in a thoughtful and compelling manner. Not only would asserting one’s views illuminate any misimpression by others of one’s own resolve, the need to express those positions will provide a welcome incentive to learn more about them, including the responses to potential challenges one might encounter. When a community adequately educates its members, explaining the deeper justifications for their beliefs and positions and the principles and values upon which their approach is based, the community becomes sufficiently self-assured, and ready to interact with those who differ.
A Rather Unsatisfying, though Perhaps Viable, Proposal
Inevitably, some will reject the premise of this essay, and argue that the community behaviors and attitudes lamented here are neither troubling nor problematic, and that they are line with Torah values. Others may agree that the behaviors described as selfish generosity are problematic, but may nevertheless favor retention of the status quo for fear of the unpredictable effects of tinkering with social and philosophical norms. After all, how can one risk compromising frumkeit, regardless of the possible upside?
Both of these groups will resist any inclination to change their attitudes regarding the Gentile community, or even the non-observant Jewish community. In fact, they may even fear any blurring of the lines between themselves and other types of frum Jews.
Perhaps, however, the communal infrastructure challenges highlighted above can nevertheless be addressed by harnessing the power of selfish generosity, rather than by stifling it. This would be accomplished by seeking to align the “selfish” interests of decision-makers and generous donors with the broader interests of the greater community.
The first alternative in capitalizing on the power of selfish generosity is by providing evidence to community leaders and activists as to how various suggested improvements would vastly improve the situation of their own subgroup, and how they, themselves, would be the primary beneficiaries of such improvements. For example, coordinating with others through a national organization should not be presented as a means to assist other groups, but rather to provide them with access to ideas and resources to advance their own interests.
They must be convinced that a broader study of their community’s needs would enhance their ability to succeed in their individual project, even if it requires short-term modifications of their current efforts. They must also be shown that planning for the future can materially benefit their community, and ensure their legacy for many years to come.
If this approach to utilizing selfish generosity to advance community needs fails, perhaps the only alternative is a hardball approach – one that many savvy community leaders have used for generations. Rather than trying to stifle the selfish generosity that has been frustrating the need for broader communal analysis and planning, use selfish generosity to advance the very personal needs of the decision-makers, themselves.
Most individuals involved in community matters are motivated by one or more of three considerations: a sense of accomplishment, kavod, and entertainment. Within these three overarching categories are many sub-categories, such as parnassa advancement, a sense of belonging, opportunities to express one’s talents, and opportunities to grow from association with special people. But it all boils down to accomplishment, kavod and entertainment.
Honor is provided to those involved in communal activities by raising their public profile and facilitating association with high-end “machers.” Satisfaction is usually the product of producing actual, substantive achievements and convincing oneself that the results are achieved through one’s efforts, whether or not deserving of the credit. Finally, entertainment is attained by meeting interesting people, traveling to interesting places, and being privy to the “inside scoop.”
Perhaps the solution to creating a national coordinating organization, introducing the practice of communal assessment, study and prioritization and developing long term communal strategies is to compile a cadre of the most prestigious community personalities from across all community segments and, with great fanfare, charge the group with the task of implementing these objectives. Participation would be the ultimate kavod, and the access granted to all the inside information about community would be exhilarating. Moreover, members of this august group would necessarily have unfettered access to Torah greats, both in America and Israel, as they review their findings and contemplate triage alternatives.
This caricature of communal leadership is obviously undesirable, as efforts to serve the klal ideally must be motivated by pure intentions. Alas, if introducing a measure of self-interest could lead to a substantially healthier communal infrastructure, perhaps it is the route we ought to pursue.
Moishe Bane is a partner at Ropes & Gray, LLP and is the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Orthodox Union. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Klal Perspectives.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.