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Of Standing and Sitting

Of Standing and Sitting


It's our pleasure to share this response to piece to the "Statement on Jewish Vitality,” published in eJewishPhilanthropy.com on October 15, 2015. This piece is written by Spertus President and CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis.

Those who lead — academics, clergy, activists, and philanthropists — those who aspire to vitality in Jewish life, and who yearn to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our day, cannot afford to surround themselves by like-minded colleagues alone, even when those individuals bring an unimpeachable gravitas to the process.

Steinberg View of the WorldIt is hard to believe that regular readers of these pages have any desire to see even one more response to, or analysis of, the Statement on Jewish Vitality. So I will be brief. Rufus Miles was an assistant secretary under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. He coined what has come to be called Miles’ Law, the somewhat obvious dictum that: Where you stand depends on where you sit.

I am reminded of Miles’ Law each time the discussion returns to the Vitality Statement and its signers. Lost among all the commentary is the simple fact that of the 74 signatories, nearly three-quarters (73%) are currently associated with an organization or institution located in the Northeast Megalopolis, the so-called Washington-Boston corridor. (55% are from the New York-New Jersey area alone.) I would suggest that however else we read this statement and its recommendations, we cannot overlook the impact of this fact. It may not explain everything, but it sheds light on many things. To peruse the list of 74 is to see American Jewish life as its own version of the iconic illustration The View of the World From 9th Avenue, which graced the cover of a March 1976 New Yorker magazine, depicting Manhattan as the center of the world.

I do not know how to explain the striking geographic disproportionality among the signers. Perhaps, many Jewish leaders and thinkers outside the East Coast could not in good conscious assent to the conclusions of the document. Or perchance — and I fear this is far more likely — the organizers of the Vitality effort did not think enough of those outside the bubble, save a precious few, to include their names, thoughts and input, ab initio.

This, of course, is an old story. The fact is that overwhelming numbers of U.S. Jews reside in the Northeast corridor, and this has naturally led many American Jewish luminaries to embrace a myopic view of communal needs and activities. This is hardly surprising. For years, scholars have described the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with those who share their worldview, even giving it a name, “homophily,” love of the same.

Widespread and even understandable as this tendency is, it is a bad way to lead and to problem solve. When it comes to innovation, vision, and creativity, to solving adaptive, not technical challenges, a willingness to build diverse (including geographically diverse) teams is essential.

Those who lead — academics, clergy, activists, and philanthropists — those who aspire to vitality in Jewish life, and who yearn to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our day, cannot afford to surround themselves by like-minded colleagues alone, even when those individuals bring an unimpeachable gravitas to the process.

This is neither personal nor a critique of the Statement’s content. The reality is that difficult problems get solved and wise decisions get made when those around the table represent a diversity of perspectives and world-views. As the late Peter Drucker taught, “carbon copies are weak.” I do not suggest that just because people live on the East Coast they think and feel alike; that would be insulting and untrue. It is true, however, that living beyond the Megalopolis brings with it it’s own Weltanschauung. Though often marginalized or overlooked entirely by those who live along the shores of the Atlantic, America Jewry’s “diaspora” communities (where Diaspora here is tefutzot — dispersion, not galut — exile) are often the source of many of the most creative, impassioned, energetic, and yes, “vital” responses to the opportunities facing contemporary American Jews and those who love them.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.” He can be reached at presidentsOffice@spertus.edu.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. He can be reached at PresidentsOffice@spertus.edu.

Image caption: Saul Steinberg’s March 29, 1976 “View of the World from Ninth Avenue” cover of The New Yorker; screen shot Wikipedia.