Democracy 4.0, Taught by Yitro

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That Jewish communal organizations are not currently in crisis is a blessing, a fortuitous gift, because they are not immune to some of the problems plaguing both Washington and the declining denominations of Judaism. I refer particularly to our central institutions’ difficulties holding the interest and affection of their members, which could prove disastrous if left unattended. In this essay, I aim to show that a simple but significant switch in how we construct our central communal institutions could go far toward solving this problem.

Losing Our Linkage

I have met Jews from many types and locations of communities who express a distressingly tenuous connection to their schools and shuls. They need to pray and to educate their children, but they have no deep fondness for the places in which they do that. It is, often, a marriage of convenience, with all the dearth of passion implied.

I propose that one reason for this is that these institutions fail to identify and respond to their constituents’ concerns. This isn’t because they’re not interested in those concerns, it’s because they have not yet found mechanisms to stay in touch with those constituents. They may take formal or informal polls, but those are limited by who is asked, who responds, what questions are asked, and how those questions are asked. Often, they hear only from the active or vocal members, not the broad membership.

Those are the same people who rise to the top of these institutions. They are the joiners, who like to become involved, to volunteer, to show up to events, to express opinions. The existing leadership takes note, and taps those they deem most appropriate, effective, and beneficial as the ones who will be invited to take up the reins when they step down.

It’s not always a politics-free process, but often enough it is. It’s still not representative, which is a problem. Even in institutions that have elections, like shuls, the slate is set ahead of time. The leaders who emerge not only haven’t been chosen by the community, they often do not have effective ways to ascertain the concerns of the broad sweep of the community.

That lack of representation hurts these same institutions and communities in at least three ways.

What is Lost By Members Becoming Disaffected

The first is creeping alienation. In a non-representative system, some people will make their voice heard regardless of the price in time or money, but many won’t. Those who don’t will become distanced; the sense that the community doesn’t know them eventually translates into the sense that the community doesn’t care about them (there is an Hasidic story of two drunks talking to each other, with one repeatedly asking, “Do you know what’s bothering me?” and the other one saying “No, what?” The first finally says, “If you cared about me, you’d know what was bothering me”).

I don’t mean the community or its leadership doesn’t care, I mean it’s how the less involved will experience it. To feel unheard is to feel unloved is to feel distanced, disaffected, alienated.

That forfeits vital resources. For one, James Surowiecki has pointed out that groups as a whole often have better ideas than any individual among them. To take advantage of what he called the wisdom of crowds requires as wide a range of ideas as possible. Without a way to learn those ideas, communities are bound to miss good ones that come along.

I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that leaders need to do a better job of being in contact with each member of the community. The way these communities are currently structured, the leaders are more than busy doing their best for those communities. It is why we need structural change.

Losing touch with members also makes finding volunteers and fundraising more difficult than it needs to be. Members who feel good about their institution are more likely to contribute their time, skills, and money. When we’re convinced we are helping improve our small or large piece of the world, our schedules and wallets open willingly instead of grudgingly. I’ve seen shuls and schools whose stakeholders feel part of something dynamic, exciting, and meaningful, but they are becoming rare.

Yitro’s Solution

Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law showed us what I believe to be the linchpin of the answer, a way to identify leaders that fosters greater connection throughout the community. It seems relevant that Yitro offers the idea as the fruit of his experience, a piece of common sense, not as a revelation, a divine idea that we have to accept on faith.

The occasion for his sharing it was his watching Moshe Rabbenu attempt to judge the nation. He tells his son-in-law that even he can’t do that over the long term, and advises him to set up a system of communal officers, for as few as ten people and as many as a thousand (although larger communities might have officers for ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million).

A superficial reading would limit Yitro’s idea to judges, but, as Rashi tells us, Moshe Rabbenu wasn’t only judging, he was teaching. Additionally, Yitro calls these people sarim, officers, a bigger role than judges. Also, how many court cases do ten people have, that Yitro would think they needed an officer of their own?

Rashi and Chizkuni note that Moshe Rabbenu lists qualities for these officers in Devarim 1;13 that didn’t appear earlier. In Devarim, he says that they needed to be known to their tribes, which points to leadership, not just judicial functions. Also, in Devarim Moshe says he told the people to select these leaders, whom he would then authorize. While Yitro’s version might sound like top-down appointments, Devarim makes clear that the community nominated the leaders for Moshe’s stamp of approval.

We Have Seen Our Leaders and They Are Us

Our current form of democracy pretends we can evaluate and elect leaders from a distance. Yitro saw the process as requiring greater closeness, even intimacy. Communities need leaders who know their followers and followers who know their leaders.

Instead of those already in power doing it, Yitro suggests that the community should choose their leaders. In our terms, that might translate into a rule that any ten members of an organization have the right to select one from among them to the Board as their representative. For those who join mid-term, existing Board members similar geographically or demographically to the new members would be deputized to welcome them, and offer their services as representative until the next election, when they could choose which group of ten to join.

A Representative Board

In so doing, we would be changing their job description as well as their method of selection. Board members would be responsible for staying in touch with constituents, so as to come to meetings with a good grasp of their members’ interests, needs, and goals. That would convey to those making decisions for the community of the feelings of all its members, not just those who found the leadership’s ear.

At the same time, Board members would be the ones to convey those decisions to the community. The principal of a school cannot (probably should not) speak to every parent about what’s going on, and I can attest from personal experience that not every parent will read the school’s emails. But every parent should have regular personal contact from the school or shul in which they’re investing so much money and to which they are entrusting their children’s education or their own religious development.

If It Gets Too Large

For most schools and shuls, each ten membership units sending a member to the Board will not make a Board of more than eighty members, a large but workable number. If the Board gets too large (such as by adding positions for extraordinary volunteers or large donors, as I discuss below), it can form an Executive Board, as already happens in many nonprofits, by a similar process.

The numbers need not be exact, but for example the rule could be that five Board members choose one among them to be their representative to the Executive Board, with the same arrangement as on the regular one. Executive Board members would communicate with, know, and understand their Board members’ concerns (as well as those of their original ten lay members), and represent those to the Executive Board.

This Executive Board would either be the institution’s officers or, if that was also too large, they would choose the officers by a similar process, small groups of Executive Board members each selecting “their” officer. At that level, they might then offer the proposed slate back to the general membership for comment and a vote, but making clear that these were people who rose to their position through the selection of the members of the community itself.

The Necessity of Politics

There will likely be a political element to all of this. Even as some groups of ten will only have one member who wants to be that involved, and those set on joining the Board can look for ten people who want him or her to represent them, there will certainly also be contentious situations. It would be nice if we could all find the way to resolve our differences and select our leaders without that, but that’s not how life works.

It is still, I maintain, better than what we have now, which is that those unwilling or unable to get on or be heard by the Board recede into a bitter silence (except at their Shabbat tables). Better that we are all forced to confront and work out our differences—politely and civilly, however passionately—than that some cede the floor to those naturally more wealthy, popular, giving, friendly, forceful, loud, abrasive, fawning, manipulative, or whatever else it takes to move up in each particular institution.

Democracy isn’t perfect, because people aren’t perfect. But we speak of its great advantages, and then fail to set up systems where those advantages are in effect. I say it’s time to return to true representative democracy. We have nothing better and we are already losing a great deal by our failure to achieve representation in our institutions.

Staying Within Our Competence

One last reason for adopting this way of choosing our leaders is that it allows us to make choices for which we’re qualified. Most of us know who among ten of our close friends should represent us. Without defining the exact line above ten where we stop being able to assess that, it’s not far off.

As groups become larger, our knowledge of the people in the group becomes less intimate, so we are more likely to err in choosing someone to lead us. In addition, our understanding of the group becomes less certain—we’re less aware of all the views and ideas within that group, and therefore less able to judge who’d be best to represent us. Letting leadership emerge from a series of small decisions, each small group making the kind of choice still within its capabilities, seems to me more likely to bring the right person or people to the top.

Room for the Wealthy

Institutions also need to recognize those who give more of their time or money. These people identifiably contribute to the institution’s health in a way others don’t or can’t, and it would be unreasonable to restrict them to the same level of influence as those who only show up and pay their tiny percentage of the institution’s budget.

Fortunately, Jewish law has long offered a solution, חצי לנפשות וחצי לממון, half by wealth and half by population. Some of the Board might be selected as I outlined above, and some chosen from among the largest donors (or those who give the most time, or a mix). That might make it more likely that the institution will need an Executive Board, chosen the same way as I outlined above.

I don’t mean it as an exact formula, but as a reminder that the leadership of our institutions must reflect the institution—the people who participate at the base level, the more involved volunteers, and the donors who foot an outsized proportion of the bill. All need to be heard in some reasonable proportion to their contribution, or the institution’s health will weaken and fail.

Not Wasting a Non-Crisis

The problem with raising an issue that’s not yet a crisis is making it urgent enough to be worth responding, and taking the sometimes daunting step of making significant changes. How do we have the foresight to address problems before they reach crisis proportions? It takes each of us deciding that our shuls and schools deserve better, and then pushing for it, better representation, better communication, better understanding of our responsibility to each other as members of complex communities, in which each voice needs to be heard, to enrich us all.

About Gidon Rothstein

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