There are a lot of great reasons to become a Jewish communal professional, but money is not one of them. Aspiring young communal service professionals tend to be an idealistic bunch, hoping to have a positive impact on the world through their service of the Jewish community. The altruism at the beginning of this career is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stay that way.
Jewish communal life is chock-full of territorialism, competitiveness, and tension. There is a sense amongst some organizational leaders that their programs are being undermined by “the competition”, and they treat that competition as a dangerous threat.
For the community, this is a dangerous and counter-productive mindset. It results in a waste of financial resources due to duplication of services (“if he’s running a program at that time, then I need to run one too!”), and it builds walls of animosity between the very communal leaders who ought to be coming together to build Jewish communal life cooperatively.
For the individual leaders involved in these turf wars, however, they are even more tragic. Careers that were initially rooted in altruism and idealism can degenerate into battles over funding, prestige, and ego. Watching that transformation on the individual level is heartbreaking.
So why does this tension exist? Why are so many communal leaders caught up in this battle? Can you imagine a similar fight existing between two volunteers visiting sick patients in the hospital? “Hey, Frank, you’re on my turf! I’m the only person around here who visits hospital patients! There isn’t room in this hospital for both of us!” Such a conversation would be absurd! If someone cares deeply about the well-being of patients in the hospital, then they would certainly be deeply satisfied to see that there are other idealistic volunteers who are also looking out for the well-being of those patients. Those two volunteers are not enemies – they are allies!
The same is true with respect to all areas of Jewish communal life. Ottawa is fortunate enough to have a variety of Jewish communal institutions that provide for the social, educational, cultural, and financial wellbeing of the members of our community, and it’s true that there is some overlap between the services provided by these organizations. Nonetheless, even in areas where that overlap exists, the leadership of these organizations ought to remember that they are all allies in addressing these communal needs, and that the more hands on deck to address those needs the more effectively those needs will be met. And that is a good thing.
Furthermore, regarding the various Jewish educational organizations, having several sources of Jewish education is ideal. Interacting with different teachers with different points of view is a critical component in developing a healthy and mature perspective on Jewish thought and practice. Personally, I have weekly study sessions with several Rabbis here in Ottawa, including Rabbi Ben-Porat (Dean of the Ottawa Torah Institute), Rabbi Burr (Rosh Kollel of the Kollel of Ottawa), and Rabbi Galandauer (Rabbi of the Young Israel of Ottawa). If you also consider the special relationship that I have had with Rabbi Bulka throughout my life, and the numerous Rabbis in yeshivot in Israel, New York, and Baltimore with whom I have studied, there is a long list of Rabbis who have impacted and who continue to impact my Jewish worldview. And it is thanks to the cross-pollination of these different viewpoints that I am able to enjoy such a rich Jewish experience.
Bringing this back to the Glebe Shul community, I think that it is essential that members of our community interact with Jewish teachers and have Jewish experiences outside of what Stacy and I are providing. To attempt to limit those other interactions would be doing a disservice to the Jewish life of the members of our community. In short, the Glebe Shul community is richer because of the other complementary Jewish organizations in Ottawa, and we are grateful for their work in strengthening our community.
Furthermore, there is another dangerous result of this organizational territorialism that is often overlooked. If we would hear reports of a charismatic religious leader vying for control of the religious life of his followers, and interfering in their attempts to interact with other religious influences, we would label this as manipulative, cult-like behavior, and we would be right. And when a Rabbi engages in this type of behavior, we must be wary of the dangerous implications that it carries.
Unfortunately, I have seen behavior like this. I have seen Rabbis confrontationally question individuals about why they attended a program run by a different organization. I have seen Rabbis pressure individuals to cut off ties with other Rabbis. I have seen Rabbis engage in what can only be described as manipulative behavior, and I am deeply concerned about what I have seen.
Moving forward, we need to foster a culture of cooperation, collaboration, and respect between communal organizations and leaders. Ultimately, that respect needs to come from the leadership directly. However, there are also steps that can be taken by the participants to foster this culture. Primarily, participants ought to respectfully challenge statements or attitudes that reinforce this culture of territorialism. Remind those individuals that attending one program is not a rejection of the other, but rather a reflection of the richness of Jewish life being practiced by the attendees. Remind them that other organizations are allies, not enemies. And remind them that even if you interact with other organizations, that you deeply respect them and the work that they do.
The individual leaders who have fallen into this competitive mindset didn’t start off there. They started off as pure idealists, not impacted by the pressures of fundraising, ego, and personal pride. By reminding them of what a more idealistic communal vision might look like, you are not only doing a service for the community, you are also doing a service for the leaders themselves. Hopefully hearing that message will enable them to return to where they started.