In his column one week ago, the brilliant Bret Stephens, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quoted Eric Hoffer, commenting on the fallacies of "true believers:" they assert their ideas "...by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside of it...it is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible." For these "true believers" in some settings, no harm no foul; in a consensual environment, however, the refusal to entertain others' ideas or criticism is a fatal flaw. And that, my friends, is where UJC is today -- in the hands of a sorry few "true believers."
This is not how it had to be. When Howard Rieger went to work as UJC's CEO, he held out the promise of being a different chief professional officer than he would turn out to be. In a JTA interview with reporter Rachel Pomerance, upon his hiring, it was asserted that "...one of Rieger's key attributes is humility which makes it easy for him to share credit with others." She wrote: "Rieger says that lay leaders aren't meant to be 'window dressing' in federation decisions' and, remarkably in light of his history from that day forward: "[W]ith lay leaders and employees, his management strategy revolves around empowerment, openness and rewards for good work." "'I love to give people the authority and respect to do their thing and take their risks,' he says. "If they make a mistake. You know what. I've made a few mistakes in my life.'" Continuing, as Howard is wont to do: "As for openness.'We live in a world now where you can get 90% of what you need to know out there anyway.' Rieger says. 'Why act as though there's anything that's incapable of seeing the light of day." And, then, that Howard Rieger disappeared.
In an environment with the checks and balances demanded of the lay-professional partnership, with lay leaders inculcated in the core values of our federation-driven lay-professional partnership, perhaps the best of Howard Rieger's intentions might have been realized. But, with the void created, first by Sonny Plant's, z'l, untimely and tragic death followed by the election of Chairs from inside UJC but essentially outside the federation consensus-building experience, it was everyone in leadership, every man and woman, for himself/herself. No checks or balances. Howard always behind closed doors at 111; Akron's Kanfer pursuing an inappropriate corporate model apparently based on his Purell family-owned business; Greenboro's Kathy Manning asking the right questions but never pursuing the answers; Michael Gelman, ever the good soldier; Delaware's Toni Young not bothering to learn much about things which don't interest her -- like JAFI or JDC pointing UJC's Israel work toward Arab-Israeli relations (a mini-New Israel Fund). And, that was it -- that was leadership. The senior professionals driven out were those who pushed back, those who questioned; those that replaced them, fine men and women of integrity, predisposed to taking Howard's (or Joe's) orders as Torah.
This was to prove to be the perfect storm for UJC's deconstruction. And, the storm is predicted by these weathermen to continue -- one of Rieger's acolytes told JTA Reporter Jacob Berkman (who has started a terrific Blog on the JTA website -- The Fundermentalist) "...now he going to get even tougher." Does that mean he might fire someone himself m-- face to face, or is it macho posturing to avoid the stigma of being a lame duck? Or, most likely, both?
I have written before about the cut in UJC's Budget (and, thereby Dues) to $37 Million for the Fiscal Year accompanied by anguished cries from UJC's leaders without regard for the pain of those fired as an alleged "consequence" but with no plan for "what's next." While the UJC lay leaders frolic in their individual sandboxes, with no prior discussion about priorities with the federations, and quite possibly without consultation with their own "leaders," UJC has made a series of financial "asks" that now exceed on an annual basis the $3.2 Million Budget cut. Worse, it appears to this writer that a decision had been reached by staff with not even consideration of lay involvement, that the Ethiopian National Project has been elevated as the highest priority among all of the "asks." Great program, a population most in need -- but, who makes these decisions...and where...and when?
That's the way the Absolutists operate -- no discussion among anyone but themselves, if that. No priority-setting process with the owners of the corporation. L'etat c'est moi. Let them eat cake. And all of that and more.
And we continue to let it happen.