Keith Kahn Harris

Metal Jew

Tag Archive: Jewish community
  1. What does being Jewish mean to me?

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    The Jewish Community Centre London and the Jewish Chronicle are running a project called What Does Being Jewish Mean To You? It asks for 100 word submissions (or photos, sounds or videos) that will collectively form a time capsule of contemporary British Jewish identity. Here’s my submission:

    An itch that must be scratched, the grit in the oyster, a constant feeling that something should be somehow different…describing what being Jewish feels like to me is to search through metaphors and never be entirely satisfied with any of them. And that is entirely appropriate, as for me being Jewish is  to never be entirely satisfied, to always be pushing  on towards an endlessly deferred goal. Theologically and sociologically, Jews like me always fall short. Our constant failure is our greatest success, the source of our limitless yearning and wandering. I love my inadequate Jewishness.


  2. Community Lovers Guide to the Jewish Community

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    The Community Lover’s Guide to the Jewish Community is a wonderful book, part of a series of similar guides, that features a number of short chapters on interesting Jewish community projects. I have a chapter in it on the dinners I’ve organised to nurture a more civil Jewish communal discussion about Israel. You can download the book here or order a hard copy here.

    My own chapter can be downloaded here and I’ve also embedded it below:



  3. Innovative ideas from Dan Sieradski

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    Dan Sieradski, the American serial Jewish social entrepeneur, is currently blogging a series of ‘ideas to tranform the Jewish future’. He is posting one idea a day for 31 days here. So far, most of them deal with innovation in Judaism on the web. It’s probably less important though what he is posting than the fact that he is publicising and producing such a rich seam of innovative ideas. We could do with more creative people like Sieradski in the UK.

  4. New survey on Israel

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    The Institute for Jewish Policy Research is running a major survey on UK Jewish opinions about Israel.  Here’s the details from the JPR website:

    The Institute for Jewish Policy Research has been commissioned by the Pears Foundation to carry out a groundbreaking national survey of Jewish opinion about Israel.  The research is being administered by Ipsos MORI.

    This important online survey only takes 15 minutes to complete and does not require any special interest or knowledge about Israel. We want to hear your views, whatever they may be.

    The results of the survey will help us better understand the feelings, attitudes and attachments Jews in Britain have towards Israel.

    To be eligible to participate, you must be Jewish, live in Britain and be aged 18 or over.

    Take part now by clicking  If this link doesn’t take you directly to the website of Ipsos MORI when you click on it, then please copy and paste the link into your internet browser.

  5. New Jewish Thought Policy Paper 1: Shalom @ Schul

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    This paper can be  downloaded as a pdf by clicking here.

    By Jonathan Hoffman

    Rabbi David Soetendorp

    Professor Ruth Soetendorp


    1. The three authors of “Shalom@Shul” came together as a result of a letter published in the JC on 20 December 2007, written by David and Ruth Soetendorp.  Jonathan Hoffman is a lay member of Woodside Park United Synagogue where he led the “SaveOurRabbi” campaign. Publication of the letter in the JC came shortly before the departure of Rabbi Rader from Woodside Park. Rabbi David Soetendorp was Rabbi of Bournemouth Reform Synagogue for 33 years. His father, Rabbi Jacob Soetendorp, was Rabbi of Amsterdam LJG from 1954 to 1973. Rabbi David Soetendorp served as Chair of the Movement for Reform Judaism’s Rabbis’ Assembly from 1993 to 1995, during which time he dealt with cases involving employment of community Rabbis. Professor Ruth Soetendorp married David Soetendorp in the penultimate year of his rabbinic studies. She has been a community Rebbetzin since 1972.  During that time she has been a member of a UK support group for partners of progressive Rabbis and continues to be a member of HUCspouse – the USA online support group for partners of progressive Rabbis.

    2. What emerged from our initial informal meetings was that we had been involved in a number of cases where attempts (sometimes successful) had been made to oust Rabbis, by a small but powerful group of congregants, often operating undemocratically.   We agreed that when this happens the process is inevitably divisive and costly.  We knew that it deters good candidates from wanting to be communal Rabbis.  For example, for at least some of these candidates, Aish and the Jewish Learning Exchange are the employers of choice. We had personal and anecdotal evidence that it damages the social fabric of the community, and deters people from seeking synagogue membership and engaging in lay leadership.  We understand that it is very costly, in severance packages, expenditure on training Rabbis who seek careers beyond the pulpit, and in loss of synagogue membership revenue.

    3. We therefore resolved to see if we could contribute to thinking how better to manage the employment of Rabbis (though we recognised – see Boxes below – that some tension between Rabbis and their congregations is an age old integral part of the fabric of Jewish Life dating from the time Jews first lived in communities — and that it can even be ‘creative tension’).

    A recent opinion survey of members of UK synagogues indicates that the preferred length of a Rabbi’s sermon is exactly fifteen minutes. He must condemn sins but must never upset anyone. He must work from 8:00am until midnight and is also a caretaker. He earns £30 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives Tsedakah of about £30 weekly. He must be no more than 28 years old (to bond with the Youth) but must have been giving sermons for 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 phone calls a day to families within the community – especially to those confined to home and the hospitalised, and is always in his office when needed.

    If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this Job Description to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and post him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Please have faith in this procedure.

    “The rabbi whose congregation doesn’t try to get rid of him isn’t a rabbi, and a rabbi who lets them get away with it isn’t a man” (after Rabbi Israel Salanter, on the walls of the Museum of the Diaspora, Bet Hat’futsot, Tel Aviv)


    1. In case of breach of contract, the legal route to dismissal for communal rabbis should be no different to that for any other vocational employee.
    2. But in cases where there is no breach of contract, there are rarely governance procedures in place to assess whether severance of a Rabbi’s employment reflects the views of the wider congregation.  Nor are they in place to assess, and minimise, the risk to both the Rabbi and congregation.

    3. We are aware of a number of cases where factions of congregations have attempted to terminate the employment of Rabbis who, by objective measures, are performing their duties perfectly satisfactorily.  The cases invariably involve terminations which take the form of undemocratic ‘dawn raids’ by a powerful faction of congregants which has planned the event in secret. Where a democratic vote is not required they cannot risk one, since typically they would lose it, because their negative view of the Rabbi is usually unrepresentative.

    4. Any resistance to the ‘dawn raid’ is hampered by ‘confidentiality agreements’. These make the reason for the termination impossible to ascertain, and so virtually impossible to challenge.

    5. Often those plotting against a Rabbi have succeeded in being elected to office, possibly unopposed. Their subsequent conduct exemplifies the phenomenon described in management literature as ‘toxic leadership’ .   This may be the result of inexperience, lack of training, or a desire to transplant expectations from the commercial world to the synagogue context.

    6. When news of the attempt to oust the Rabbi breaks, it is inevitably divisive. It is costly, both in terms of the time spent fighting the attempt and in legal and other fees – even if the attempt to oust the Rabbi is unsuccessful. We were told of one unsuccessful case in the United Synagogue where the legal bill met by the congregation amounted to £10,000. We were also told of a case where £50,000 was spent to defend a Rabbi. If the attempt is successful then there is a severance fee to be found as well as the overlap costs of housing both the outgoing Rabbi and the incoming one.

    7. Furthermore when a Rabbi begins to be targeted by a hostile group of congregants, a ‘downward spiral’ is often triggered.  The Rabbi loses confidence in the face of the hostility. his performance suffers, and the hostility deepens and widens. As things stand, the departure of the Rabbi is inevitable.

    8. In some cases when a Rabbi has been targeted, he (or she, in the Progressive movement) stands alone to face the attack from the congregational group.  The group can support each other, while the Rabbi stands alone. Often he faces “heavy legal battalions” who are members of the congregation, whereas he has no legal expertise and is expected to pay for his own legal advice (see section on “trade union membership” below).

    9. The costs of attempts to oust Rabbis are imposed far beyond the synagogue itself (‘externalities’). For one thing, the frequency with which these attempts are occurring is having a definite deterrent effect on the supply of communal Rabbis. Not only are communal Rabbis faced with unpredictable and frequent changes of lay leadership, they must also be constantly vigilant for signs of an impending ‘dawn raid’.

    10. We have anecdotal evidence that this problem is deterring people from joining synagogues and taking leadership positions. It encourages apathy (“I had no say in the departure of Rabbi X – whom I liked – so why should I take an interest in the synagogue?”). It is expensive in terms of expenditure on training Rabbis who then seek careers away from the pulpit, and in loss of synagogue membership revenue.  And it gives the Jewish Community a bad name. As a community we promote democracy, and expect to be treated democratically.  We will be seen as practising double standards if we continue to act undemocratically in a fundamental area of communal life, namely the termination of rabbinic engagement contracts.

    11. There is emotional damage done to the Rabbis (and their families) who are the targets of the “dawn raids”. They are left traumatised (this word was used by one such victim to us). Most serious still was a Rabbi who suffered a heart attack soon after failing to repel a ‘dawn raid’.  Even for Rabbis who do successfully repel the attack, effectiveness is impaired. For the rest of their career, part of their energies will be devoted to watching for the signs of another attack. The Rabbis who do not manage to repel the attack are left not only traumatised but also stigmatised.


    1. In the United Synagogue at least, the selection process for Rabbis is much more demanding than the severance process.  Astonishingly therefore, the rules allow the ‘dawn raids’ to happen, even though Rabbis are employed by the United Synagogue, not by local congregations.

    2. In the United Synagogue to appoint a Rabbi requires, first, a 75% majority within the ‘selection committee’. Then the Board of Management and the HOs have to endorse the candidate with a 75% majority. Then there has to be a simple majority of the membership at an EGM. Contrast this with the termination process which can be achieved by just the HOs (who normally number five). If the HOs – as is not unusual – are dominated by a few strong characters, then that puts an inordinate and unreasonable amount of power into their hands.

    3. The selection process in other movements is similar. A search committee makes a choice of one or two candidates for the Rabbinic position and presents that to the Council [or Board of Management, etc] The Council makes a recommendation to be presented to an EGM. A significant vote in favour of the recommended candidate leads to an appointment.

    4. However for a severance, the procedures in some other movements are (in theory though not always in practice) democratic, insofar as they require an EGM (though there is in practice a distinct lack of uniformity). First the Rabbi needs to be advised by the leadership of the synagogue that they are “not satisfied with his/her performance of their Rabbinic duties” and are considering moving a vote of “no confidence” in him/her at the Council.  The Rabbi will usually not be invited to that meeting.  Following the passing of the vote of no confidence, the Rabbi may well be given a chance to make suggested adjustments in the way that Rabbinic duties are carried out.  Whether or not that is the case, when the Council decides that it wants to end the Rabbinic appointment (and they have not been able to secure agreement from the Rabbi) it sometimes is obliged to call an EGM, giving in general at least three weeks notice.  The Rabbi may be given the choice to attend the meeting.  A simple vote in favour of dismissing the Rabbi is sufficient.  However unless there is an overwhelming vote against the dismissal, Rabbis tend to leave.

    5. What selection committee, Board of Management, or congregation is going to vote to employ a Rabbi who has had his contract terminated by another synagogue?   Especially when the reasons for the termination cannot be probed since they are the subject of a confidentiality agreement? The employment problem is made worse by the absence of alternatives to the main movements as employers of communal Rabbis; they are close to ‘monopoly’ employers.


    1. We are strongly of the view that there has to be a better way to manage the relationship between Rabbis and congregations.

    2. In order to assess the scale of the problem, we have carried out a number of interviews with Rabbis and Community professionals. To encourage them to speak freely, these have been on an unattributable basis. No-one has refused to speak to us and we are very grateful to those who have contributed to our findings.

    3. A number of synagogues in the United Synagogue movement have suffered undemocratic ‘dawn raids’ where HOs have put Rabbis under great pressure to sign an agreement to terminate their contract. The most recent example was Woodside Park. In January 2007, the five HOs (reportedly led by a subgroup of two) persuaded Rabbi Rader to sign a resignation letter, with the usual combination of carrots and sticks. The ‘carrot’ was a large sum of money. The synagogue accounts suggest a sum of £80,893 (and this may be seen as a minimum since there will also be costs associated with housing, see above). The sticks are not as clear, but may be may have included a very strict interpretation of terms and conditions.

    4. Other clergy have been subject to similar pressures.  See the Jewish Press for examples. These have included Belmont, Clayhall, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Ilford, Wembley, Marble Arch, Borehamwood and Highgate. (All have now been resolved).

    (a) Trade Union membership

    1. Membership of the trade union Unite! (formerly Amicus) has been identified by a number of Rabbis as being a sensible procedure, whether or not they have had personal experience of ‘toxic leaders’.  Here is a quotation from a Rabbi of the Movement of Reform Judaism (September 2008):

    “The assembly does act as a support in times of crisis, but I do urge colleagues to join a union – I think it is Amicus who have the clergy group though I belong to GMB. A union membership costs very little per month and they give free legal advice and also possibly representation and actually have departments to help in these cases… historically the assembly has never saved anyone’s job or livelihood and the reality is that the movement is always going to care for the congregations first. Rabbis are seen as being able to move away from the problem and they do, often to massive financial and family detriment…”

    1. Yet astonishingly, none of the synagogue movements encourages its Rabbis to join a trade union. Some actively discourage it: Around five years ago, when United Synagogue Rabbis were considering joining Amicus (now Unite!), we were told that the US said it would not recognise Amicus and we were told of verbal suasion to deter Rabbis from joining the Union.

    2. Membership of Unite! among Rabbis is growing and we feel that if the Rabbis want Unite! to represent them, it would be wrong for Synagogue movements to discourage this in any way.  On the contrary, it would be beneficial for Student Rabbis to be introduced to what trade union membership can offer during the practical stage of rabbinic training.

    3. Unite! has much to offer both Rabbis and employers.  It can bring its experience of other faith groups to bear to enable ‘best practice’ to be adopted to employment terms. For the Rabbis, Unite! brings the expertise, detachment and support that are so important in negotiations with the employer. It provides Rabbis with legal advice, redressing some of the imbalance noted above. We recommend that the employers of Rabbis (both centrally and locally) should recognise the trade union, if that is what Rabbis want.

    (b) Synagogue Leadership Training

    1. All synagogue movements should provide appropriate training for lay leaders in matters of rabbinic employment. Some training is provided but the shortfalls are widely evident. They can be seen in some of the practices that give rise to the kind of criticism that can be the catalyst for a “dawn raid”. Examples that have been shared with us in the preparation of this report include such diverse practices as (i) the appropriateness of timesheets for a Rabbi involved in confidential pastoral work (ii) responsibility for halachic authority within the community (iii) the appropriate extent of ‘deference’ to be shown a rabbinic incumbent.


    1. We recommend that each Synagogue movement, in consultation with the President of the Board of Deputies, appoint an ‘Ombudsman’ (a man or a woman). The Ombudsman would be a respected communal figure who is transparently independent of the Synagogue movement.  HOs who wish to terminate a Rabbi’s contract would then be encouraged to approach the Ombudsman with the grounds for their action. S/he would then take soundings among the Congregation and produce a Report. If the Rabbi agreed, that Report will be made available to the membership. We recommend that in the United Synagogue a vote of the Board of Management is held on an HO proposal to terminate a Rabbi’s contract, with the requirement of a 75% majority to proceed to the next step, an EGM. A 75% majority (of those present) at the EGM would also be needed for termination to proceed. At the EGM, if the Rabbi agrees, confidentiality should be lifted. If he does not agree, there should be a discussion as far as is practical (given confidentiality) and then a vote.

    2. If the HOs refuse to go to the Ombudsman, we recommend that that fact should be made public by the Ombudsman and the President of the Board of Deputies. (Note that there is no compulsion for the government to consent to the Parliamentary Ombudsman investigating cases of alleged maladministration; but it knows the opprobrium which would follow if it refused. We would hope that the same would apply in the case of Synagogue movements).

    3. We believe that these recommendations would significantly improve the employment relationship of Rabbis and congregations while preserving the ability to terminate their employment in cases where duties are not being performed.

    4. We believe they will increase the confidence in the Jewish Community as a professional employer which in turn will increase the pool of candidates for communal jobs.

    5. We believe they will lead to improved performance of Rabbis and give community members a far greater sense of involvement in – and ownership of – their synagogue communities.

    6. Our final recommendation is that our Report should form the springboard for a deeper communal study of these issues, ideally led by the Board of Deputies.

    Jonathan Hoffman

    Rabbi David Soetendorp

    Professor Ruth Soetendorp

    November 2008

    Appendix: The United Synagogue: Other Recommendations

    1. We have four additional proposals to improve governance of the US, designed to improve democracy and thereby the sense of ‘ownership’ of US Members. We believe that none of these proposals requires a change in the by-laws; they could all be implemented now.

    2. The US Trustees are elected by the US Council, comprising mainly nominees from the synagogue Boards. We see no reason for this degree of separation from the membership of the US. We recommend that the US Trustees should be directly elected by the members and that candidates should be able to send to the electorate a description of themselves and their aims, if elected. We recommend that there should be a ‘hustings’ meeting, where members can question the candidates. We recommend that some of the Trustee places should be reserved for women. (Note that direct election of the Trustees would need an amendment to the US Statutes but the Council has the power to make this happen).

    Whicker, Marcia Lynn (1996): Toxic leaders: When Organisations Go Bad. Westport, CT. Quorum Books.

    A detailed Grievance Procedure has been in use for many years in the Reform Movement.  This procedure involves the Movement from the onset of the problems deemed to be considered serious enough by a synagogue Council for actions to be taken. When the Rabbi is notified that the shul council is considering dismissing him he will be expected to contact the chair of the professional organisation: the Assembly of Rabbis, who would henceforth be involved in both the Grievance Procedure and any subsequent meetings in the position of the Rabbi’s ally if he so chooses.

    In practice Council leaders who are not happy with the Rabbi’s conduct tend to complain to the movement quite promptly and not always before telling Rabbis that they are doing so.  That is where problems often emerge because it is has proved hard for Movement leaders to stay unbiased in their appraisal of the situation presented by synagogue Councils. That is where the Grievance Procedure may have fallen short.  On the other hand when Rabbis have approached the Movement leadership with problems, they have risked encountering a “no smoke without fire” response, to their detriment.

  6. A Close Look at Jewish Organisational Culture

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    The story that broke recently about former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s use of political ties for personal business use is not a mere technicality. This is not about legal loopholes or trivial regulations. At stake here is no less than the soul of the Jewish people.

    Over the past two years, the morale of the people of Israel has been in a spiraling freefall. Prime Minister Olmert has brought the nation to a new low in idealism, collective pride and ethics. He has been the epitome of a leader who is in it for the good of himself, at the expense of the good of the people – arguably among the most detestable forms of evil. He may not have killed anyone (though that depends on how one interprets the findings of the Winograd commission.). But what Olmert has done is killed the country’s soul. The idea of being motivated by the greater good rather than personal gain is dead and buried.

    Now, as elections are looking more and more imminent, we learn that Barak’s misconduct may dwarf that of Olmert. According to Ha’aretz, Barak made tens of millions of dollars since his exit from politics in 1999, not from any particular expertise, skill, or know-how, but simply on the basis of his willingness to connect businesses to world power-holders, prompting a nice little cash flow for all involved. And unlike other democratic countries, Israel does not require its candidates for public office to disclose their finances. So how rich Barak got, we may never know.

    With these leaders seemingly governed by nothing other than the size of their own bank accounts, it should hardly be surprising to find a similar conscience-lacking ethic governing Jewish organizations. After all, who could blame the leaders of Jewish community organizations for similarly seeking personal gain at the expense of the people? It is clearly the way of the world, or at least of the Jewish world.

    Over the past 15 years, working in a variety of Jewish organizations, in Israel, Australia and New York, I have found myself shocked (naively?) time and again by the basic lack of morality governing Jewish organizational life.

    There is the issue of money. Salaries of top professionals are at times more than ten times the amount of administrative employees. Seven-figure incomes for heads of federations are not unheard of. That is money meant to be spent bettering the world – issues like, I don’t know, minor issues like poverty, hunger and education. Then there are vast amounts spent on publicity, marketing, or “strategic planning,” while people doing the everyday guts work of an institution struggle. Organizations that magically find budgets for “experts” – will claim tightening of the belt for items such as employee dental plans.

    Then, there is the entire ethic of decision-making. Sometimes, these same overpriced consultants will give advice that directly affects how people live and work, and with a flick of a hand, lives are ruined. Recently, a former government minister visiting one institution passed by a teacher training session in progress and whispered to the director, “This workshop in not helping your brand, and your brand is already so weak, that you need to get rid of this workshop.” There, in a split second remark by someone who knows nothing about an institution but has political clout, a woman who had been giving Jewish film workshops for two decades was mercilessly let go. Just like that. Because some somebody with a suit and a title said so. She did not help the “brand.” Decisions are made about people’s lives that have no consideration of the fact that there are people involved, often dedicated, working people, not just a budget line-item. But the Jewish world is a place that more and more cares for image and impression over real work.

    I’ll never forget the time a multi-million dollar foundation I was working for decided to do a superfluous renovation of their luxury premises, took all the perfectly useful furniture and piled it outside, ready to be taken to the rubbish tip. I rang a woman I know who was tirelessly building a new school with scant government funds. “Can you use a few desks and cupboards?” I asked her excitedly. She was thrilled. We quickly arranged for a mover to come the next morning to pick up the furniture. But when I walked into work the next morning, the furniture was gone. “I had the tip people come early,” the director told me, barely looking up. “I couldn’t stand seeing that junk outside anymore.” There, with the flick of a hand and the callous impatience of landed gentry, the director of a supposedly education-minded foundation ignored basic human decency – and had no understanding whatsoever that the principal was actually working. Her inability to stomach the sight of, what, her furniture leftovers, deprived a good institution of what could have been an amazing gift. But that was irrelevant to the director. It didn’t even register.

    The irreverence and lack of appreciation for people doing real good work takes many different forms, but the gravest of all is a culture of discourse and interpersonal communication that promotes shaming and humiliation. The same foundation that did not acknowledge real needs of working people regularly mistreated its administrative staff, not only in terms of low salaries, but more painfully, in terms of the way the senior management felt free to speak to them. Staff members would regularly be found crying or cowering in bathrooms, having been screamed at and humiliated for sins such as using the wrong type of sticky tape on the little tabs in loose-leaf binders. Or if the wrong brand of juice was purchased prior to the arrival of some wealthy VIP. Or heaven forbid if there were excess papers or clips on a desk where someone might see. People were fired for these sorts of offenses.

    I remember my first day of work there, an institution where I stayed for nearly four years. I walked in the door and cheerily said to the office manager, “Good morning!” All eyes turned to me in horror, as the office manager put her finger to her lips and said, “Shhhh!!!” I couldn’t imagine what I had done. Well, they took me into a side room, where one said to another, “Why haven’t you given her the talk yet?” The “talk” was as follows: When the boss is in the building, everyone must be perfectly silent. I kid you not. Perfectly silent. No good morning, no laughter, not a word. Sit still and pretend you’re not there.

    Shaming and humiliation are, I believe, rampant. I’ve been to places where an entire room of sincere, intelligent people were told off for walking too slowly into a meeting with a professor. It was 8:59 AM, the meeting was called for 9AM, but the group was yelled out, reprimanded and shamed in front of the guest – intelligent, adult people treated like naughty six year olds or worse. Or when a director called someone a “boor” in front of a room of colleagues. Or when a donor screamed at the CFO for being “stupid” and everyone sat silently and didn’t say a word.

    I’ve watched people be fired for not fitting in, for not towing the party line, for thinking for themselves, for expressing opinions, and trying to promote creative programming. People who are creative and independent minded struggle and are often punished, humiliated or fired. If you cannot be easily controlled and manipulated, you’re a threat.

    Some of this abuse is reserved specifically for women. Like when a pregnant woman was mocked and likened to a “cow”. Or when a nursing mother was told she could not stay in the building to breastfeed, because it was too “disruptive”. Or when women are pressured to stay at work late, when meetings are purposely scheduled late and long, forcing women to publicly announce that they are due for child pick up. Once, in a meeting, the principal of a Jewish day school referred to the JNF educational coordinator, a woman with a decade of experience in informal Jewish education, as a “pretty young thing,” as the men in the room smiled knowingly. Did he see her as the professional educator that she is? Not a chance.

    I will never forget the three-hour meeting I attended on the first night of Hanukah (a Jewish holiday in a Jewish institution, you would think it would matter), when I left at 4:15 – past my scheduled time for that day and after having sat in for most of the meeting – because everyone in Israel knows that this is the night of kindergarten Hanukah parties. As I apologetically got up to leave, the facilitator mocked me for being “such a serious parent”, to the guffaws of all those present, and later told me off. “I told you when I hired you,” he said, “that I never want to hear that you have somewhere else to be.” That is how workers are treated: like they never, ever have anywhere else to be. Robots without a life, without a soul, and heaven help you if you dare to challenge that assumption.

    There are two types of leaders – those who want to do good for the world, and those who want the world to do good for them. Put differently, there are those who want to work, and there are those who want to look good. It makes me very sad to say that the latter, unfortunately dominate. The culture of Jewish organizational life is in dire need of a proper expose, and a major overhaul.

    Elana Sztokman is a Jewish educator and writer. She lives in Modi’in, Israel. Her blog and website can be found at

  7. Making Jewish Communities Work

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    By Daniel Anderson

    Whilst reading Andrew Mawson’s recently published, and deeply inspiring, book ‘The Social Entrepreneur – Making Communities Work’, I found myself continually asking how can we apply the lessons of his experiences within our own community?

    The book documents Mawson’s experiences, as an initially wet-behind the ears young reverend, appointed to a run-down parish church in the heart of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London’s East End. Confronted with the harsh realities of his situation, Mawson acknowledged he had 3 options. To simply accept the situation as a dead loss confining himself to the weekly sermon to a handful of elderly regulars; to retreat into his ivory tower and write a theological treatise on poverty; or get off his backside, enter the real world, meet ‘real’ people and seek to find ways of engaging and involving them. Needless to say, he chose the latter and over a 20-year period, set about transforming his parish in Bromley-by-Bow into a modern, active, community-based, healthy living centre. Indeed Mawson was the feature of one of the Chief Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah broadcasts a few years back on the subject of hope against all the odds.

    2 years ago at Limmud I presented my own personal manifesto for creating real change within our community. For too long, I believe that our needs and interests have been delegated, often by default, to the various communal bodies and religious organizations, and in the process, we have abrogated personal responsibility and local community action.

    For sure, these associations are excellent at forming committees and working parties, writing mission statements, talking about the ‘Jewish contribution’, the importance of social action and decrying the growth of intermarriage, but in practice have been poor at addressing the diverse needs of its somewhat disparate community – one which, according to the Board of Deputies own research, over 30% are choosing not to affiliate in the traditional sense, i.e. to belong to any synagogue movement.

    For example, if we take the numerous initiatives that have emanated from the Chief’s Rabbi’s office in recent years, such as ‘the learning hour’? The ‘What will you do?’ project, or the most recent ‘Project Chesed’ they have, in the main, sunk without a trace. That is not to say that these ideas were not worthy in and of themselves, but because there was no attempt to involve real people at the local level, to make tangible the theoretical, to create a true sense of ownership, but rather just an expectation of participation, they failed to make any long-lasting impact.

    And what about the Jewish Leadership Council, a group of self-appointed grandees, made up of luminaries such as Lord Levy, Gerald Ronson and Sir Trevor Chin? They recently set up the Commission on Jewish Schools to determine the future of Jewish educational needs, given the growth in school places and a projected shortfall in take-up. Now since it is parents and the choices that they make, which are the determinant factors as to the likelihood or otherwise of this scenario coming to fruition, you would have thought that they would be at the centre of any such research, but you’d be wrong. Apparently, this was not considered practicable, and so instead they are relying on the views of the various representative bodies. Can this really be the best way of tackling the potential crisis? I don’t think so.

    I suggest that we need to promote an enterprise culture, one that seeks to empower the individual, recognizing and unleashing the untapped, complementary talents across the community and encourage entrepreneurial initiative. It is interesting to note that Mawson himself created a climate whereby people felt comfortable coming forward with ideas and suggestions. More to the point, he supported and nurtured them, acting in the role of a mentor, rather than that of autocrat, creating true empowerment rather than paying synthetic lip service, and in the process made a tangible and long-lasting difference that cut across the age, gender and income divide.

    But for this type of approach to happen within the Jewish community, we need to radically rethink the role of the synagogue. Traditionally, this has been the epicentre of communal life, but to many it has become a place of spiritual stagnation. Parochial, not just in geography, but often also in mindset, it has a dated, unresponsive approach more in tune with the past and not with the challenges of the 21st Century.

    For our synagogues need to be more than just places of prayer, Maleva Malkas, and ad hoc learning programmes. Instead we need to transform them into spiritual activation zones, places where individuals are inspired and encouraged to use their initiative, to take responsibility and play a full contribution in the best way they can, rather than be prevented due to a combination of process, policy and procedure. To that end, our rabbis themselves need to step back and stop believing that they and they alone can or even should determine what is in the best interest of their congregations, particularly since the vast majority are, at best, involved in the periphery, if at all. They need to take a leaf out of Mawson’s book, and start trusting more in people rather than simply in ideology.

    Daniel Anderson is a life coach and aspiring social entrepreneur. He co-runs Tiferet.

  8. Listening to Jews

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    Discussed in this essay: Les Back (2007) The Art of Listening. Oxford: Berg Books.

    Since last May I have been researching Jewish communal leadership in the UK since the early 1990s with Ben Gidley, my colleague at the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College. Part of this project has involved an investigation into how Jewish organisations have used and commissioned social research. I have been impressed at the extent to which, broadly speaking, the Anglo-Jewish community has been research active in the last decade and a half. The Board of Deputies, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and several other major Jewish organisations have commissioned substantial research projects and used their findings to shape policy. I myself owe my own current involvement in the Jewish community to this minor boom in research – in 1995 I was taken on by Jewish Continuity as a part-time research assistant, a position that gradually snowballed into my current level of involvement in Jewish communal life.

    Inasmuch as research is a basic requirement for any community or organisation that seriously desires to understand itself and work better, the commitment to research shown by many communal bodies since the early 90s (and long before that in some cases) is admirable. At the same time though, it’s important to recognise the limitations of the research that has been carried out on Anglo-Jewry. The majority of the projects that have been initiated have been quantitative, based on surveys and statistics. There has been some qualitative research based on in-depth interviews and focus groups, but even these projects have had very specific policy goals. I do not want to disparage these kinds of projects (how could I? I was involved in quite a few of them) but it is striking that more open-ended research projects have been virtually absent in the UK. There has been little or no attempt to undertake observational social research projects that aim first and foremost to paint detailed and finely textured portraits of the way Jews in the UK live.

    In reading Les Back’s new book The Art of Listening, it struck me just what we are missing. Les Back is Professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College and an expert on racism, urbanism and ethnic identity. I must declare a personal interest as he has been very supportive to me personally and a model of what an engaged academic should be. At first glance (hearing?) The Art of Listening is a book of little interest to non-sociologists, being a sustained meditation on sociological methodology and the art of social research. So why am I reviewing the book here? The reason is that Back has important things to say about the way we ‘listen’ to the world that are relevant beyond the sociological community.

    Back makes a powerful case for sociology as ‘listening art’ that is well suited to ‘hear those who are not listened to and challenge the claims placed on the meaning of events in the past and in the present’ (1). Back summarises the importance of listening as follows:

    Our culture is one that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate and gain attention. Consumed and exposed by turns, ‘reality’ is reduced to revelation and voyeurism. The central contention of The Art of Listening is that this phenomenon is having severe and damaging consequences in a world that is increasingly globalized and where time and space are compressed. Listening to the world is not an automatic faculty but a skill that needs to be trained. (7)

    Both sociology and the everyday lives that sociologists study are shot through with both insight and ‘social deafness’ (11). Sociology may offer a systematic form of listening to others, but it is not capable of hearing all and knowing all. It requires a certain humility that ‘prizes patience, commitment to dialogue and careful and reflective claims to truth’ (20). For Back, this ‘commitment to dialogue’ means not only listening but also asking hard questions of the subjects of sociological writing, albeit in a respectful manner. He argues that ‘the political value of sociological work lies in being open to unsettling dialogues with humility’ (162). Above all, sociology offers hope in the possibilities of listening and dialogue.

    The bulk of The Art of Listening consists of demonstrations of the author’s commitment to hearing and to dialogue, with a number of chapters reflecting on particular aspects of his research. Back ‘listens to’ such topics as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon, young people’s feelings of safety and of home in East London, tattooing and the July 7 bombings. Throughout the book he draws on personal experience, particular that of the death of his father, but in a way that is never self-indulgent. Rather, there is a continual attempt to understand to draw connections between personal experiences and that of the other.

    The book brought home to me just what has been lacking in social research on Anglo-Jewry. For all that all research projects since the early 90s have been initiated in order to ‘understand’ British Jews, it is a thin kind of understanding that has been achieved. Most research projects have been tied into very specific policy goals. The desire for ‘data’ in the pursuit of policy can force research into a straightjacket in which the subjects of research are only half-listened to – only that which is ‘relevant’ to the research gets heard. One of the problems of policy-oriented research is that starting with a view of what the subjects of research should be doing can lead to a certain lack of respect for them. This is a real dilemma in, for example, policy-oriented research on Jewish education. In the research on ‘moderately engaged’ British Jews that Steven Cohen and I carried out for the United Jewish Israel Appeal a few years ago (published as Beyond Belonging 2004), I hope that we managed to do justice to the dignity and complexity of our respondents; but I also worry that the desire for a more committed, engaged and educated population of British Jews might have led us to overlook some of the complex textures of peoples’ lives. Attention to what Les Back calls ‘interpretation without legislation’ (1) might have instilled in us a more creative and humanistic attitude to research.

    Perhaps then the value of social research isn’t just its ‘pay offs’ for policy makers, but as a valuable exercise in its own right. Perhaps it can teach us how to listen to others in a more systematic and open way. Perhaps social research should be a more formal version of what we should be doing anyway. It is here that The Art of Listening gave me most pause for thought. It made me realise once again just how poor British Jews are at listening to each other. I’m always struck by this on my visits to Finland and Sweden – countries I love dearly – where it is rare to interrupt anyone when they are talking and listeners usually pause for a second or two before responding. I always find this hard to adapt to and until I adjust I feel crass and rude. The Jewish community (not just in the UK) is full of noise and clamour, we eschew silence. Think of how the standard way of studying Talmud is in a crowded Beth Midrash in which the student and hevrutah partner part-chant, part-talk across and around each other. Our culture of noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it makes for an atmosphere that can be wonderfully warm and vibrant. But the dark side is that the clamour to make oneself heard can lead to frustration and this frustration can lead to an increasing shrillness. The ‘still small voice’ can be drowned out; the voice of the marginalised can be suppressed. The recent controversy over Independent Jewish Voices is an example of how the desire to be heard can erupt in exchanges that are vituperative in their bitterness.

    Perhaps then the major value of research in the UK Jewish community is as an exercise that can, potentially at least, force us to listen more clearly. We do not need to silence ourselves to do this in an illusory attempt at ‘objectivity’, but we do need to leave space for the other to be heard. Anyone with an interest in how to do this would be well advised to consult The Art of Listening as a treasury of good practice.