Too Many Geniuses and Not Enough Grunt Workers

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published July 10, 2008, issue of July 18, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Earlier this year a contest was held for the best idea for a book that would transform the way Jews think about themselves and Judaism. Sponsored by a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, the contest was billed as the Jewish equivalent of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” program, which bestows no-strings-attached gifts of a half-million dollars to a handful of do-gooders around the world each year. The winner, a bright young man named Yehuda Kurtzer, got a two-year teaching gig at Brandeis and a book deal.

Forget the question of whether we needed to commission a book to transform how Jews think about themselves. (I was under the impression that we had that covered a few thousand years ago.) The bigger question is this: Why do we continue to shower even more grace, fame and riches on geniuses in our community?

Look around: The Jewish community has no end of genius. And if you doubt that, just ask anyone in the community. They will tell you all about the many geniuses they know. Why, they may very well be one of them.

Thousands of new geniuses are minted every year, in day schools, high schools and colleges across the country. We elevate these young lions to positions of status and honor. A synagogue in Washington recently lost out in the competition for a young and gifted rabbi. The winning bidder bagged its prey with a package fit for an Ivy League university president: large salary, day school tuition, apartment and so on.

I am a Republican, and I believe strongly that the market alone should dictate compensation for people of accomplishment and promise. But here is the problem: Geniuses are a lousy investment, failing consistently to produce a return on investment.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of the geniuses. These young lions are indeed dazzling in their talent. Kurtzer, for example, is already putting his ideas to work as the founder of an innovative young shul in Boston.

The problem is that the Jewish community, convinced that mere ideas will transform the community, routinely turns to young talent for fresh thinking but rarely puts that talent to work in meaningful ways. Which is to say, nobody ever lets the geniuses actually run the show.

The ranks of America’s leading Jewish community organizations are led by men who were there 10 years ago and will probably be there 10 years from now. They are not going anywhere. And why should they? They have their donors and their dinners. They don’t need much else.

Meanwhile, many potential geniuses hang around the periphery of the community, working on special projects, such as Kurtzer’s, funded by foundations. Yes, they receive much admiration and praise. But the levers of power are set too high. Ultimately, being a genius is a curse. (Thankfully, that’s a problem I myself have never had to face.)

In an ideal world, geniuses would create a parallel leadership structure in the community, taking with them not only talent but dollars and programmatic success. But that is not the case.

Why not? Young geniuses think big, talk big and act big, but have little experience focusing on the small details essential in building functioning organizations and lasting agendas. Some could develop those skills, but are sidetracked by the lure of major funding for the next big idea.

They never develop the discipline and management sense that come with a few years plodding away at a single purpose. So they go from geniuses with promise to mere luftmenschen, bright young men and women with few practical insights or skills.

Fact is, we make it easy in our community to be exceptional. What we don’t do is make it rewarding to be ordinary. So we get bursts of creative output at one end of the spectrum, while the rest of the community suffers.

Consider the following opportunity for improvement: Each year, countless local chapters of major Jewish organizations hold fundraising dinners that are epic in length and devoid of any content, save for self-celebration. How is this possible?

We are the people who invented Hollywood, dominate Broadway and fill concert halls. Yet when we gather to entertain ourselves, we bore ourselves to sleep.

We don’t take our talent for showmanship, on display at the highest levels, and translate that to the day-to-day life of the community. Our geniuses are not put to work.

Yes, we nourish and raise our geniuses to do great things. But in the end, their successes matter little, because they don’t focus on competent, plodding and incremental work — such as executing the ideas dreamed up by the last generation of geniuses.

We are a community of generals, desperately in need of sergeants: People who can take authority without complaint, cope with disappointment, make adjustments and move on to new tasks efficiently. We need the equivalent of firefighters and welders — people who do their jobs without fanfare, even when the work is dangerous, messy and financially unrewarding.

The problem, of course, is that in the Jewish community, everyone wants to be a prince or a princess. Nobody, except perhaps the emissaries of Chabad, wants to take directions from someone else.

Is it any wonder that Chabad is so effective? Its message is simple, its mission is simple and its followers are persistent, steady, committed and incredibly effective.

Of course, that takes faith, not just in the mission, but in the community and its future. We do our geniuses no favors by asking them to save us, over and over again, with fresh ideas.

We don’t need more fresh ideas. We need simple ideas, executed brilliantly. Geniuses could do that quite well, if they knew that was the path to leadership.

Perhaps instead of commissioning yet another book about the future of the Jews, we ought to hire people to organize fundraising dinners lasting two hours or less — now that would be a true stroke of genius.

Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.