Last week, a couple of days after President Barack Obama took the oath of office and set about trying to straighten out the country, I was in a meeting room at the elegant Brandeis House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a small group trying to do the same for the Jews.
The event was a kind of think tank to imagine the future of Jewish community. Nineteen participants, mostly philanthropists or their consigliere, gathered to take stock in the wake of what has been a gut-punching year — and what promises to be an equally tough year to come.
“I have a dire view,” said one portfolio manager who serves on the boards of several major Jewish charities, including Yeshiva University. He predicted a deepening recession and unemployment reaching 15 percent.
Whether he’s being alarmist or optimistic, there’s no question that the sudden sucking of billions of dollars out of Jewish charitable institutions and endeavors demands a reckoning. What are our top priorities? What’s keeping us from achieving them? And how do we fund the future of the Jewish community?
David Sable, a marketing expert, ran the session, which was co-sponsored by The New York Jewish Week and jinsider.com. Sable insisted from the start on only one ground rule: “We aren’t going to mention the ‘M’ word,” he said. In New York, the M word — Madoff — is very much a raw scab. Some participants sat on boards with the man; others socialized or invested with him. Besides, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said in his opening remarks, Madoff is not the problem, but a symptom of something much more dysfunctional in our community.
“We need to return to basic Jewish values,” Telushkin said. “We have come to equate religion with ritual. But ethics are not an elective in Jewish life.”
Telushkin carried with him his new book, just out from the printers that day: “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2” (Harmony/Bell Tower). He reminded the group that our tradition says God will ask each of us four questions on Judgment Day: Have you been honest in your business dealings? Did you study Torah? Did you try to procreate? Did you hope for the world’s redemption?
In other words, Telushkin said, “We have a world-transforming agenda.”
Somewhere along the way we came to measure someone’s Jewishness solely on how well they wrapped tefillin or kept kosher, or by how much a person gave to charity, not by how they made what they were giving way. (Please, no ‘M’ word.)
It usually works this way: What happens to the Jews is what’s happening to the world at large, and we, too, have been waylaid by easy money. Like our country, we have been enticed by “childish things,” as our new president said, and a self-satisfaction that borders on the ridiculous. The descendants of Moses and Isaiah, of Rambam and Bellow, of Freud and Soloveitchik drifted from learning and activism to getting and golfing.
“A Jew should be studying, arguing, thinking, working, making money, contemplating why God has put him through so many trials,” Joseph Epstein wrote in a post-M-word Newsweek essay this month. “A phrase like ‘dogleg to the left’ should never pass his lips.”
So, what should our priorities be?
This group came up with five:
1. Offer affordable, quality universal educational opportunities (schools, camps, continuing education, etc.) for multiple ages. Our future rests on our ability to transmit our stories and values to the next generation. We have to find ways to do this that are affordable in a world without as much money.
2. Tell the Jewish and Israel story to the world and to the Jewish people. We have always been a people who have a much larger impact than our numbers, and the key, said Gili Gordon, managing partner at Boston Consulting Group, is to “leverage our abilities.” One of those abilities is storytelling.
3. Find innovative ways to fund our future. It is time to rethink every single one of our organizations with an eye toward efficiency and effectiveness.
4. Ensure a thriving Israel and peace with its neighbors. The world’s Jewish health is tied to Israel’s health. We can’t be passive observers of Israel’s fate.
5. Eradicate poverty in our communities and in the world.
OK, this all sounds a bit ambitious, but it doesn’t cost a dime to think big. We have, as the rabbi said, a world-changing mission.
Listening to these ideas, I was struck by how much they aligned with what the new president said just two days earlier. His inauguration was novel — a black president, an articulate president — but the values and traditions he spoke about were traditional, even conservative: a return to service, individual responsibility and institutional accountability. None of these cost money.
It doesn’t cost a fortune to find brilliant ways to tell our story, to connect with and help others within and outside our community. As Obama’s campaign deomonstrated, there are new ways to do all this through new technology, and there are some reliable old ways, like volunteering.
The Jewish organizations that engage people in meaningful, hands-on volunteerism — not just having them volunteer to raise money for the organization — will be the ones that come out of this recession stronger. After all, even when the money’s all gone, we still have us.