Let’s begin with a truth: Much of what gets published by and in the Jewish communal world is pure self-promotion. Look around, and you’ll see articles, comments, essays, posts and tweets whose chief purpose is to extol the virtues of this or that Jewish communal organization or program. Most authors of this material don’t even try to disguise their motivations. They might think of it as “thought leadership,” but it’s really selling by another name.
Note: As a Jewish communal professional, I have engaged in this kind of activity myself, and I will surely do so again in the future. But for the moment, let’s hit the pause button on the self-promotion machine to reflect honestly on the situation.
Fact is, no one buys — really buys — self-promotional content. No one is authentically moved by it. Some people might enjoy the brazen honesty of naked self-promotion (it’s not impossible to conceive of a rabid Ron Popeil fan), but I imagine that this is a very small niche group. If we seek to be effective communicators, we must do other things.
There are places where self-promotion is actively discouraged, and we need to learn from them. In the world of journalism, for instance, the only self-promotion allowed is paid for and then stamped with the word “advertorial,” to ensure that readers won’t treat it as real news. On the whole, journalism has managed to keep synagogue and state, editorial and advertising, separate. We should strive to do the same — for our colleagues and ourselves. When everything is an advertorial, nothing is trustworthy.
This is serious business. A sustainability issue, even. Create truly trustworthy communications, and you will help build stronger, longer relationships with your constituents, present and future. As Ron Wolfson says, in “Relational Judaism, “After more than forty years of living and teaching the Jewish way, I have come to an understanding about the essence of Judaism: It’s all about relationships.”
Of course, speaking in public is a very complicated business. Every single act of articulation has a goal trailing behind it. “People only speak to get something,” David Mamet said in his Paris Review interview. “If I say, ‘Let me tell you a few things about myself,’ already your defenses go up; you go, ‘Look, I wonder what he wants from me,’ because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage.”
So let’s choose better goals. In the past year, I’ve had the great fortune to spend time with teachers, and they’ve reminded me that while one might always have a goal when one speaks, that goal can be something greater than self-promotion. I’m talking about the goal of education.
What if we made education, rather than self-promotion, the goal of the majority of our public communications? Is it ridiculous to suggest that the things we publish might have a pedagogical aspect? An inspirational aspect? That we can do better than use our words to jostle for position? What if we used them to host an open discussion about the truth?