A Close Look at Jewish Organisational Culture

Posted on September 2, 2008 in Default

The story that broke recently about former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s use of political ties for personal business use is not a mere technicality. This is not about legal loopholes or trivial regulations. At stake here is no less than the soul of the Jewish people.

Over the past two years, the morale of the people of Israel has been in a spiraling freefall. Prime Minister Olmert has brought the nation to a new low in idealism, collective pride and ethics. He has been the epitome of a leader who is in it for the good of himself, at the expense of the good of the people – arguably among the most detestable forms of evil. He may not have killed anyone (though that depends on how one interprets the findings of the Winograd commission.). But what Olmert has done is killed the country’s soul. The idea of being motivated by the greater good rather than personal gain is dead and buried.

Now, as elections are looking more and more imminent, we learn that Barak’s misconduct may dwarf that of Olmert. According to Ha’aretz, Barak made tens of millions of dollars since his exit from politics in 1999, not from any particular expertise, skill, or know-how, but simply on the basis of his willingness to connect businesses to world power-holders, prompting a nice little cash flow for all involved. And unlike other democratic countries, Israel does not require its candidates for public office to disclose their finances. So how rich Barak got, we may never know.

With these leaders seemingly governed by nothing other than the size of their own bank accounts, it should hardly be surprising to find a similar conscience-lacking ethic governing Jewish organizations. After all, who could blame the leaders of Jewish community organizations for similarly seeking personal gain at the expense of the people? It is clearly the way of the world, or at least of the Jewish world.

Over the past 15 years, working in a variety of Jewish organizations, in Israel, Australia and New York, I have found myself shocked (naively?) time and again by the basic lack of morality governing Jewish organizational life.

There is the issue of money. Salaries of top professionals are at times more than ten times the amount of administrative employees. Seven-figure incomes for heads of federations are not unheard of. That is money meant to be spent bettering the world – issues like, I don’t know, minor issues like poverty, hunger and education. Then there are vast amounts spent on publicity, marketing, or “strategic planning,” while people doing the everyday guts work of an institution struggle. Organizations that magically find budgets for “experts” – will claim tightening of the belt for items such as employee dental plans.

Then, there is the entire ethic of decision-making. Sometimes, these same overpriced consultants will give advice that directly affects how people live and work, and with a flick of a hand, lives are ruined. Recently, a former government minister visiting one institution passed by a teacher training session in progress and whispered to the director, “This workshop in not helping your brand, and your brand is already so weak, that you need to get rid of this workshop.” There, in a split second remark by someone who knows nothing about an institution but has political clout, a woman who had been giving Jewish film workshops for two decades was mercilessly let go. Just like that. Because some somebody with a suit and a title said so. She did not help the “brand.” Decisions are made about people’s lives that have no consideration of the fact that there are people involved, often dedicated, working people, not just a budget line-item. But the Jewish world is a place that more and more cares for image and impression over real work.

I’ll never forget the time a multi-million dollar foundation I was working for decided to do a superfluous renovation of their luxury premises, took all the perfectly useful furniture and piled it outside, ready to be taken to the rubbish tip. I rang a woman I know who was tirelessly building a new school with scant government funds. “Can you use a few desks and cupboards?” I asked her excitedly. She was thrilled. We quickly arranged for a mover to come the next morning to pick up the furniture. But when I walked into work the next morning, the furniture was gone. “I had the tip people come early,” the director told me, barely looking up. “I couldn’t stand seeing that junk outside anymore.” There, with the flick of a hand and the callous impatience of landed gentry, the director of a supposedly education-minded foundation ignored basic human decency – and had no understanding whatsoever that the principal was actually working. Her inability to stomach the sight of, what, her furniture leftovers, deprived a good institution of what could have been an amazing gift. But that was irrelevant to the director. It didn’t even register.

The irreverence and lack of appreciation for people doing real good work takes many different forms, but the gravest of all is a culture of discourse and interpersonal communication that promotes shaming and humiliation. The same foundation that did not acknowledge real needs of working people regularly mistreated its administrative staff, not only in terms of low salaries, but more painfully, in terms of the way the senior management felt free to speak to them. Staff members would regularly be found crying or cowering in bathrooms, having been screamed at and humiliated for sins such as using the wrong type of sticky tape on the little tabs in loose-leaf binders. Or if the wrong brand of juice was purchased prior to the arrival of some wealthy VIP. Or heaven forbid if there were excess papers or clips on a desk where someone might see. People were fired for these sorts of offenses.

I remember my first day of work there, an institution where I stayed for nearly four years. I walked in the door and cheerily said to the office manager, “Good morning!” All eyes turned to me in horror, as the office manager put her finger to her lips and said, “Shhhh!!!” I couldn’t imagine what I had done. Well, they took me into a side room, where one said to another, “Why haven’t you given her the talk yet?” The “talk” was as follows: When the boss is in the building, everyone must be perfectly silent. I kid you not. Perfectly silent. No good morning, no laughter, not a word. Sit still and pretend you’re not there.

Shaming and humiliation are, I believe, rampant. I’ve been to places where an entire room of sincere, intelligent people were told off for walking too slowly into a meeting with a professor. It was 8:59 AM, the meeting was called for 9AM, but the group was yelled out, reprimanded and shamed in front of the guest – intelligent, adult people treated like naughty six year olds or worse. Or when a director called someone a “boor” in front of a room of colleagues. Or when a donor screamed at the CFO for being “stupid” and everyone sat silently and didn’t say a word.

I’ve watched people be fired for not fitting in, for not towing the party line, for thinking for themselves, for expressing opinions, and trying to promote creative programming. People who are creative and independent minded struggle and are often punished, humiliated or fired. If you cannot be easily controlled and manipulated, you’re a threat.

Some of this abuse is reserved specifically for women. Like when a pregnant woman was mocked and likened to a “cow”. Or when a nursing mother was told she could not stay in the building to breastfeed, because it was too “disruptive”. Or when women are pressured to stay at work late, when meetings are purposely scheduled late and long, forcing women to publicly announce that they are due for child pick up. Once, in a meeting, the principal of a Jewish day school referred to the JNF educational coordinator, a woman with a decade of experience in informal Jewish education, as a “pretty young thing,” as the men in the room smiled knowingly. Did he see her as the professional educator that she is? Not a chance.

I will never forget the three-hour meeting I attended on the first night of Hanukah (a Jewish holiday in a Jewish institution, you would think it would matter), when I left at 4:15 – past my scheduled time for that day and after having sat in for most of the meeting – because everyone in Israel knows that this is the night of kindergarten Hanukah parties. As I apologetically got up to leave, the facilitator mocked me for being “such a serious parent”, to the guffaws of all those present, and later told me off. “I told you when I hired you,” he said, “that I never want to hear that you have somewhere else to be.” That is how workers are treated: like they never, ever have anywhere else to be. Robots without a life, without a soul, and heaven help you if you dare to challenge that assumption.

There are two types of leaders – those who want to do good for the world, and those who want the world to do good for them. Put differently, there are those who want to work, and there are those who want to look good. It makes me very sad to say that the latter, unfortunately dominate. The culture of Jewish organizational life is in dire need of a proper expose, and a major overhaul.

Elana Sztokman is a Jewish educator and writer. She lives in Modi’in, Israel. Her blog and website can be found at