In his new book on Jewish leadership, Rabbi David Teutsch reminds us that one of the most important aspects of leadership is serving as a role model. “You can say a great deal, but what you do is much more powerful than anything you can say,” he writes. “The synagogue whose president never attends services or adult education classes has a problem because that person is failing to model the values and behaviors he or she is supposed to exemplify.”
Words are of high importance in Jewish culture, but as Teustch notes, deeds are even more so. As Jewish organizations around the country grapple with a perfect storm of plunging endowments, reduced giving, increased need and, for many, Madoff-induced financial distress, there has been plenty of talk about efficiency, hardship and sacrifice. The Forward decided to explore whether those words translated into deeds, and whether leaders of organizations where layoffs had occurred were modeling the values and behaviors we have a right to expect in the Jewish world.
Sadly, the answer in too many cases is no.
Of the 21 organizations we surveyed, only one-third of the top leaders committed to sharing the sacrifice — or, at least, to saying so publicly. Ten of the leaders took no hit at all, while another three didn’t respond to our repeated requests for information. Another two said they had reduced their salaries, but wouldn’t disclose by how much, leaving a disturbing credibility gap in their wake.
Some of the executives whose salaries declined spoke of the ethical dimension of their behavior. Some of the executives whose salaries remained untouched displayed an arrogance stunning for this time, or any time. Howard Rieger, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, all but dismissed executive pay cuts as “political,” even though his organization has laid off 31 staff members over the last year while his salary and annual expense allowance topped out at more than $700,000. And that was just in 2006-07.
Symbolism is important, no doubt about it, but the power of a pay cut extends further and deeper. Ten percent of some of these top salaries can literally save a rank-and-file job. (The fact that there exists such a profound salary gap in some Jewish organizations is a disturbing issue for another day.)
Moreover, nonprofit organizations that exist to serve the Jewish community ought to exemplify the empathy they ask of us. We are asked to join, to donate, to volunteer, to offer up the hours and miles and sweat and money out of a deep caring for our fellow Jews and fellow human beings. But if the man in the corner office — and it’s nearly always a man — does not hold himself accountable to his workers and clients, then the organization is bankrupt, no matter what the balance sheet says.
This is not the time to withhold support out of anger or disgust; the needs today are too urgent. Instead, it’s the time to demand accountability from Jewish organizations and their governing boards. If jobs are lost and services denied, then members and clients ought to be able to know why.
And while we’re asking, let someone explain why the leadership of the 21 organizations examined by the Forward — and others not included because they did not cut staff — is comprised of nearly all men. The only woman on the list is Morlie Levin, national executive director of Hadassah. And here’s an astonishing fact found in the public record: In 2006-2007, Levin earned $285,847, while her (male) chief operating officer, Larry Blum, made $305,750. Could it be that even at a venerable women’s organization, a man earns more than his female boss? Hadassah declined to explain, noting only that Levin quietly left her position last month and has not yet been replaced. Blum is still there.
Several months ago, the Forward offered to convene a public conversation between Jewish communal leaders and members of the communities they serve. Many readers sent in their questions and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. Precious few leaders waved their hands to respond.
The offer stands, and it’s now more important than ever.