There is nothing wrong with being a mutt. No, I definitely do not mean a mamzer, which is an incredibly painful halachic category; I mean a mutt. A mutt (yes, I am testing your sense of humor, so don’t go all PC and defensive on me here!) is more of an intellectual and cultural category – someone who grew up in one culture, then moved and “acculturated” into another, and maybe incorporated elements of a third somewhere along the way. Or fourth. Life is fluid in the XXI century, we move around and across the oceans; the impact of such changes on our identities and the way we express them are profound. We just need to spend some time figuring out how big such an impact is, and how it informs the perspectives one has developed along the way. So, for the working purposes of this article, I confess to being a complete mutt – and proud of it, too!
A mutt is the ultimate outsider. It has a bit of this, a bit of that, lots of curiosity, usually an intense personality, and an ongoing need to analyze, evaluate, be alert, and figure out what is happening around (and most importantly – why), because a mutt cannot really fully claim any place as “his/hers” – due to, you know… being a mutt. A mixed bag, at times painful, but it definitely has its advantages. The opportunity to gain and employ the aforementioned unique perspective being one of them. Such a “permanent outsider’s” view of things can be a great tool when you spend your life doing community work, if used wisely, or it can become a curse and an undoing. Depends on the circumstances, the person’s self-awareness, and a few other things we won’t get into here.
Since I have had my share of “blessings and curses,” and I am free of formal attachments to any particular set of organizational priorities or agendas, allow me to share the most dangerous pitfalls I have l encountered in my personal and professional practice while transitioning among quite a wide range of communities.
- You enter a given community with a set of strong presuppositions, however well founded they might seem.
- You discard (or don’t possess one) your own curiosity and willingness to learn or be challenged at every moment.
- You get tripped up by your own subconscious fear of “otherness.”
- You become defensive when the facts on the ground challenge the experience you have acquired to date, or your deeply and dearly held convictions.
- You bring issues from your base (or previous) community with you, and superimpose them over the new environment. Sometimes up to a point of seeking to replicate a particular set of dynamics in another place, for the noblest of reasons.
- You don’t actively listen to, or not to a wide enough range of, individual and communal stories.
- After a short while – you think you actually understand “them” and their way of thinking. This is usually when the proverbial wheels come off the wagon and you make the most painful mistakes.
- You think you know what “they” need most and when they need it.
- And my pet peeve, especially when dealing with European Jewish communities at the moment (yes, this one is very personal for me – I am a European-born mutt, and back in Europe for now). You keep asking the wrong question, which is “Is there a future for Jewish life in XYZ?”
On the last point. Please stop deliberating “Is there a future for Jewish life in Poland/Hungary/France/Europe/Israel/Ethiopia/Tunisia,” but instead pose a different question: “How can I/we ensure that what still/already is there, continues to develop?” According to our tradition, the age of prophecy ended with the destruction of the First Temple, so let us not pretend we are the modern-day nevi’im , only with scientific tools. Let’s not hide our anxiety and obsessive need to decrease uncertainty behind the veil of never-ending statistics, prognoses, employing data-based decision making without exceptions, sticking to pre-determined organizational priorities. We speak, and rightfully so, of “fiduciary responsibility that requires of us making sure that we spend our philanthropic dollars in the most efficient way.” It’s all well and good, but it is time to take another hard look at how we “do” our community support/charitable investment business.
We must again ask: what should be the chief guiding principle of our communal tzedakah? When we are blessed with financial resources, aren’t we obligated to do whatever we can for the existing communities simply out of the love for the other Jew (ahavat Yisrael), instead of trying to second-guess historical, political, social, economic – and yes, for some of us Divine – processes? Can you honestly say that one geographic community is more worthy of support than another, especially when you see they do their part, too? On what basis? What gives us the right, the chutzpah, to make such a final determination? As a “community of communities,” K’lal Yisrael, it is high time that we take our philanthropy out of the realm of strict business yet a bit more. More vision, more “ahavat Yisrael,” a little less bean counting, please, and we will all be fine. The rest is in Divine hands.