When A Leader Incurs Guilt: Fundraising, Community Building and the Ethics of Change
Ethics in leadership requires more than avoidance of unethical behavior. In
fact, there are times when ethical behavior requires change and risk-taking
to move an organization to achieve new goals—particularly at times of crisis
in the life of an organization, a community or a people. At such times the
status quo itself may be unethical because it is an avoidance of choice that
misses opportunities and allows leaders to operate on automatic pilot. Over
time, institutions can become ethically frozen, forget their mission and allow
means to become confused with ends.
When fundraising becomes the end as well as the means we can
come to believe that anything we do to sustain our campaign is justifiable.
Writing a letter urging clemency is the most obvious manifestation of the
problem, but in my view it is not the most serious one. Every time we turn
away from needed change to avoid “rocking the boat,” and “hurting the
campaign,” we endanger our mission and our community. Frozen institutions are
The Federation movement is particularly susceptible to this kind of ethical
blindness, especially at times like this when we face a time of radical change
requiring a paradigm shift in our thinking and our work. In other words, we
have become deeply embedded in a way of doing business that has done much good
but has now hit a crisis. The end of the crisis must be ethical revival through
a painful process of personal and communal change.
The ethical vision of a Federation can be very beautiful, but also quite complicated.
Is a Federation in business to help develop and help implement a vision of the
Jewish future, or is the Federation in business simply to raise money? Allow
me to state the obvious: You cannot implement the vision without the money.
Since funding is required to implement even the loftiest vision, it is fair
to say that a highly motivated individual who has a vision of the kind of world
he or she wants to create may be more susceptible to “doing whatever it takes”
to raise the money to accomplish the goal than a person who is just carrying
out the old institutional paradigm in the usual way. Either way, “sin crouches
at the door” and as our tradition tells us, Jewish leadership carries with it
the inevitability of sin through action or inaction (“When a leader incurs guilt…”
A personal note: I have always found it difficult to
conduct “business as usual” as a Federation professional. I came from a middle
class Bronx family that had little to do with the Federation. The most
important organizational experiences I had before I became involved in the
Jewish community were as a member of the New Left during the 60s. Inevitably, I
found myself asking these questions: “What is this work really all about? What
is the meaning in this enterprise? How do we find the meaning in this work?
What is our mission? How do we find our way?”
In parshat beshalah we see the problem of a Jewish community
trying to wrestle with decision-making in the absence of a compelling moral
vision. In other words, they don’t have the Torah yet. They literally do not
know where they are going. They are thirsty, and the rabbinic interpretation
of thirst is always, “Thirsty for Torah.” They were thirsty for a direction,
for a vision, for a mission, and in the absence of these, their moral compass
was deeply confused. The moral ethical vision of Egypt was dead and discredited,
but the new moral vision of Torah had not yet been received. I would say that
the American Jewish community today is really very much in that position. In
other words, we had a certain vision, indeed several visions, of what we were
in business for. Those visions have disintegrated.
The first vision of the Jewish Federation developed when our grandparents and
great grandparents came here between 1890 and 1910. The vision was of communities
and institutions helping immigrants settle in this country and in an organized
way and, of course, raising the money necessary to accomplish these charitable
goals. That first period was very much about assimilation, which was not a
dirty word in those days. It was about helping American Jews to become fully
American. We did what we had to do to raise the money to make that happen.
Now I would say that the ethical balance—the ability to be ethical in our fundraising—was
probably stronger in that period than in the second “sacred survival” era of
Jewish communal life, simply because the stakes seemed much lower in the first
part of the twentieth century than in the second.
Jonathan Woocher described the second era of American Jewish as the era of
“sacred survival.” It dramatically raised the stakes in our fundraising. The
sacred survival era began in 1967 with the Six-Day War and it raised Jewish
pride to a tremendous level. Not only the Six-Day War, but also the Black Power
Movement changed the zeitgeist of the American Jewish community. For
the first time we were encouraged to be proud of being what we were. For the
first time, it became a good thing to be a hyphenated American. But it wasn’t
cultural pride that emerged from the sacred survival era after the Six-Day War.
It was, instead, a deep concern about Jewish physical survival. It was a commitment
to making Israel strong enough to withstand all its enemies so that there would
never be another Holocaust and so that the Jews would survive. The Six-Day War
began with fear of annihilation and ended in triumph, and the 1973 War began
with fear of annihilation and ended in uncertainty. When you are in that mode,
you can do anything you want to raise money. In the sacred survival era we
were of course meticulous about following the law, but beyond that almost any
kind of pressure was acceptable. We were, after all, raising money to save
lives, so when one donor solicited another, it seemed acceptable to use almost
any kind of pressure to get the prospect to give far more than he or she ever
dreamed of giving.
The vision of the modern federation movement and its purpose was built in those
days. Its persona and the way it is perceived to this very day developed during
the sacred survival era. How many people do we run into who say something
like, “I will not give the Federation a damn penny because I remember how the
president of the Federation, humiliated my father thirty years ago. He brought
my father to tears.” This is not an unusual story. If you wanted to be a good
Jew in those days you gave a hundred dollars. If you wanted to be a great Jew,
you gave a thousand dollars. If you wanted to be the best Jew in the world,
you gave a million dollars. The level of honor—of kovod—was related to
the amount of money you gave. This has always been true and of course the money
did save many lives, but the long-term results were also deeply problematic
from a communal standpoint.
There is a church outside Chicago called the Willow Creek Community Church
that teaches an important lesson. My friend Len Schlesinger developed a Harvard
Business School case study based on the Church and its market research. What
did the Willow Creek Community Church discover? Why did people hate the church
before it restructured itself and changed its culture? They rejected the Church
because they felt that it cared more about their money than about their souls
or about them as human beings. Of course, this sounds familiar. Let’s think
about the paradox here. We are trying to strengthen the Jewish community. We
are trying to build a strong State of Israel. We are trying to raise every penny
we can to strengthen Israel and to rescue Jews and in the course of doing this
we are alienating them! We are bringing some people in and we are alienating
thousands of others. They feel less and less connected because they believe
that their connection is largely based on money. When community organizing
becomes synonymous with fundraising, we become risk averse, vision disappears
and the community is weakened.
I make it a point to try to see two or three people a day, at least one or
two who I have never met before. I cannot tell you how many people say, “I
know what the Federation is all about. It’s all about money.” This includes
people who have a lot of money and give us a lot of money. Yet it is not the
most beautiful vision in the world or a prescription for success in the 21st
Now that the sacred survival period has ended, the question for the Jewish
community regarding our mission becomes even more intense. Part of the problem
with the UJC merger, which generally is a good thing, is that a huge proportion
of the leadership continues to focus on, “How much money do we raise and what
proportion of it goes overseas?” to the exclusion of almost every other serious
discussion. The idea that everything in the Federation world is measured by
how much money we raise—or similarly that an Orthodox organization is measured
only by the number of souls it saves—leads to problems. It can lead to moral
blindness and it can lead to ethical narrowness.
The Federation movement raises nearly a billion dollars a
year. It has enormous potential power to define a vision for the American
Jewish community and that power brings with it enormous responsibility.
The Boston Federation raises over $26 million for the
annual fund and millions more for endowments and capital campaigns of various
kinds. This level of resource demands responsibility and vision. The failure
to give leadership under these conditions is itself an unethical act. That is
why we must ask ourselves each day what we stand for, what kind of community we
want, what our communities teach, what kind of story we want to tell our
children. And most importantly: What do we need to do and how we need to use
resources to implement our vision?
This ethical decision-making is not easy, not at all easy. When we make decisions,
we must ask ourselves which ethical worldview motivates us. Are we operating
out of professional ethics as social workers who are value free and interested
only in the good of the individual? Are we operating out of Jewish values?
Are we operating out of Orthodox Jewish values? Are we operating out of communal
values that are created by the Federation system and the Federation world?
Which set of ethics are we operating out for any given decision? Ultimately
it comes down to: What kind of community are we trying to create? What does
Jewish history and the God of Israel demand?
In the course of our last Boston Strategic Plan, it became
absolutely imperative to enunciate some kind of vision of Jewish life, even if
it was bound to alienate some portion of the Jewish community. In other words,
we needed to risk some of the stability that is essential to fundraising in
order to move toward a new vision and new priorities.
Underneath it all were
always the core questions: What are we raising this money for? What is the
vision of the Jewish community that we want to create?
Our strategic planning
process was organized to create dialogue with as many people as possible, to
share the vision we had developed over the prior few years, and to listen to
the concerns of the community. It would be wrong if I told you that we achieved
complete community consensus. If twenty percent of the Jews of Boston have
the vaguest idea of what we are doing, I would say that we are ahead of the
game. Yet we did make an attempt to bring several thousands of people into the
dialogue. We made a commitment to do this by going to every grassroots institution
and organization we could find. Outreach into the synagogues. Outreach into
the Community Centers. And our vision in Boston actually evolved as we created
our Strategic Plan. Outreach to inter-married was not part of the vision at
the beginning. It was integrated because we listened to what people were saying.
We tried to listen to what people were saying and integrate new ideas into an
evolving vision for our community.
But our vision was not
completely open-ended. We began with a vision based on a conception of Jewish
history and a critique of our Federation at the end of the sacred survival era.
We believed that Jewish learning and culture and synagogue renewal were central
to our Jewish renaissance and we had learned that there was a real hunger for
Jewish learning and community within the leadership and at the grassroots.
Our Strategic Plan called upon our community to create a norm of Jewish literacy
and Jewish learning starting with adults and families. We have made real progress—not
just because of what we’re doing, but because the times are right for a vision
that emphasizes meaning and roots and engagement with our tradition as a way
of finding meaning in the world.
In addition to creating
communities of Torah, we committed ourselves to creating communities of hesed
(caring). We believe that the very idea of community is disintegrating in America.
This is a disaster for the Jewish people and it can only be remedied by strengthening
grassroots, face-to-face communities. This means that communities can only
be strengthened by providing volunteer energy at the grass-roots of the Jewish
community so that every synagogue—even a synagogue with twelve hundred family
members—can actually feel like it cares about a disabled member, about an elderly
member, about a person who needs help. There is no such thing as communities
of Torah, if they are not embedded in a real sense of community where human
beings care about each other.
That is one of the things
that we as an Orthodox community have to share. Most of our communities actually
do function more or less as communities of caring. Perhaps this is because most
Orthodox congregations are small or because we live near each other or because
Shabbat is a ready-made part of what it means to create a real sense
of community, or because our children go to the same schools. For all kinds
of reasons we know how to create caring communities.
Finally, we stated that
as a community of Torah and a community of hesed, we could never be complete
unless we were also a community of social justice. This demands serious outreach
into the inner city and extensive engagement in creating a better world for
all the people of Greater Boston.
In the end, we were able
to create a real consensus, a broad consensus around the need to accomplish
all these goals at the same time. Create warm, caring communities. Create communities
of Torah where Jewish literacy is a norm, and create within those communities
of Torah and hesed a commitment and a norm for engagement in the world
and for social justice.
All together we tried
to create a complete philosophy of Jewish life. We tried to develop a vision
and not just a series of programs. We tried to develop a vision of commitment
to a Jewish life not just a Jewish lifestyle and a commitment to real community
within which Jewish values could be lived and where Jewish learning could be
transmitted to a new generation. We took risks and helped change our organization
and our community. None of this guarantees ethical leadership but it is I think
a prerequisite for ethical leadership. As my friend Michael Hammer is fond of
saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
None of this is easy. I know many will perceive conflicts for an Orthodox person
helping to develop a vision that includes Torah, tsedek and hesed,
but also outreach to interfaith families. There are conflicts and there are
tensions, but they are positive conflicts and tensions. Engaging these tensions
allows for the possibility of success. Avoiding them assures only failure.