As part of the current debate over the Jewish support or opposition to the Iran deal, another chasm has been exposed.
This chasm is about Jewish leadership and the answer to the questions of “Who speaks for the American Jews?” and “Who is a Jewish leader?” The polls have been divided over American Jewish support for the Iran deal. Some polls show that a slight majority support it and others show that a slight majority oppose it.
What is not in dispute, however, is that the vast majority of Jewish organizations, from AIPAC to the AJC to most Jewish federations, oppose the deal, although the opposition ranges from tepid to strong. Moreover, the polls show that the more someone knows about the Iran deal the more likely he or she is to oppose it. So this brings us to the questions of who American Jews are. Who does speak for American Jews?
These questions are politically charged and lead to the accusation that the major Jewish organizations do not speak for the American Jewish community (who many are claiming approve this deal by a decent margin). The answers to the questions are relatively simple. But by their simplicity, the answers lead to further introspection and reflection. Jewish leaders are those members of the Jewish community who care enough about the viability of the Jewish people to devote significant amounts of time and effort to this purpose. Viability includes meeting such basic needs as food, clothing, health, shelter, and safety through Jewish Family Service organizations, JCCS, and a myriad of other institutions; religious life through synagogues; and support for the State of Israel. It includes organizations from the most conservative to the most liberal, like J Street.
Both paid staff and volunteers at all these organizations devote significant amounts of time to attend to the needs of the Jewish people. By the nature of their involvement, the lay leaders voluntarily have taken on leadership roles as they think about and then actually do the work for the Jewish people. Their decisions aren’t always perfect — they aren’t even always right. But they always are made with a deep degree of thought, research, and concern.
Decisions also come about through strong consensus building. That’s because in any Jewish organization, no matter how clear its mission statement might be, if there are two Jews there will always be three opinions. These lay leaders are in touch with the local, state and national leaders as well as with those Jewish people who have access to the top leadership in our country, Israel, and abroad.
That is what leaders do. They lead. They don’t wait to be told what has to be done. They just look into it, get involved, and start to make a difference. That is leadership in the secular world and it is leadership in the Jewish world. And through the years, Jewish organizations have gained knowledge and insight into the issues affecting the Jewish people. They also have institutional knowledge about what works and what does not.
So who are the Jewish leaders? They are just people, like you and me. But they are like you and me only if you take the time to give of yourself in some way to advance the cause of your people. This cause could be the Jewish people in general, through federations or similar social organizations; through synagogues, day schools, or JCCs. They could work for some particular group of Jewish people, as the late Rochelle Shoretz of Teaneck did for Jewish women with breast cancer when she created Sharsheret. This is a big tent, and there are no invitations needed to enter. But in order to join, you have to walk through the door.
If you want to be considered a Jewish leader, then you are welcome to take up the mantle of leadership. But if you do, you will have to do some heavy lifting for our people, and you will have to get your hands dirty.
If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. Just remember that you have made that decision — and with that decision, you have allowed others to fill the void.
The others — the lay leaders — are able to speak for the Jewish people because of their involvement and their access to information. So when those who have chosen to be Jewish leaders and have taken on the yoke of leadership to ensure the viability of Jewish life in the United States, Israel, and abroad — a yoke that most American Jews have rejected, as is made clear by their silence — those who have not made that choice should think long and hard before questioning the decisions of their leaders or the nature of their leadership. Consequently, when a majority of these organizations, whose members are overwhelmingly liberal and politically Democratic (though more conservative than younger Jews by the nature of their age and experience), overwhelmingly oppose the Iran deal, it is time to listen.
It is also time to note that when 70 percent of those under the age of 30 did not support last summer’s Gaza war, we cannot yet allow those who do not have the maturity or the understanding of the facts of this deal to dictate the position of the Jewish people.
As the old saying goes, “Leadership Leads.” And American Jewish organizations are showing strong leadership and taking political (and likely financial) risks by opposing the deal. I welcome all of you to become leaders. But until you are ready to do so, I strongly suggest that you follow those who already are leaders, and who oppose the Iran deal, by doing the same.