First, there was the stump speech, delivered without amplification from a makeshift podium. Then the fireside chat. Then the televised press conference. And now this — Barack Obama, a creature of the Internet age, recently conducted the first online town hall meeting ever hosted by a sitting president. Nearly 93,000 people submitted more than 104,000 questions to the administration’s Web site, in text and video, and cast 3.6 million votes to select queries the president then answered before a live audience in the East Wing of the White House.
Sure, it was clever public relations, an attempt to nourish the powerful cyber-community that helped fuel Obama’s unlikely victory last November. But the staged character of this virtual conversation should not obscure its deeper message: Americans want to connect with their leaders. They want to hold them accountable, to be reassured, to be heard. They are not willing merely to send a letter to the editor, or call their senator. No intermediaries. Direct access, now.
And so it occurred to us: If the president of the United States can take questions from the public, why can’t those who purport to speak for the Jewish community? Communal leaders are answerable to their governing boards and their funders, and, we trust, to the members of their respective organizations. But they often claim to speak on behalf of a far larger portion of the American Jewish population without ever having to answer to them.
That many rank-and-file Jews expect more is evident from stories in the news today, from the calls for more financial disclosure in the wake of the Madoff scandal to, for example, the frustration of many Conservative Jews at the lack of transparency in their movement’s leadership.
But this isn’t only about holding those with the purse strings accountable. What’s also missing from the Jewish conversation in America is that Talmudic model of Jews talking with Jews they may not agree with, but still respect. This pluralistic dialogue is especially important since the preponderance of those who call themselves communal leaders are older men who, even with the best of intentions, may not understand the perspectives of the Jewish women and young people who are rarely seen in the halls of power.
The Forward offers to convene this conversation, and to follow the president’s lead by asking readers to submit questions and comments, either of a general nature or to a specific communal leader. Over the coming months, we will invite leaders individually to answer those questions on the Forward’s Web site.
This page will highlight the communal leaders who agree to participate, and encourage those who haven’t yet signed up. The point will be to encourage discourse that is reasonable, informative and fair, and to ensure that it is shared with the public.
Readers are invited to send their questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the mail to the Forward at our new address: 125 Maiden Lane in New York City, 10038.
And because this new interactive era demands more of all of us, the Forward is doing its part to communicate more openly. Starting today, readers can find the e-mail addresses of staff writers at the bottom of each story. Soon, our Web site will host even more opportunities for dialogue and debate. And if you have a question for our editor or publisher, that, too, can be sent to email@example.com.
It’s a flatter world out there, now — flatter, more conversant, more empowered. If ordinary citizens can talk to the president, then surely Jews can talk to other Jews.