A major sociological characteristic and consequence of modernity is the tendency for people to join together in associations that express a common goal or interest or a shared experience. The United States has been a nation of joiners from day one and perhaps even before independence was declared. Alexis de Tocqueville described this tendency in Democracy in America, the epic prophetic work published a century and three-quarters ago.
The impulse to join is dynamic, meaning that the instinct feeds on itself, so that the number of organizations continues to grow. This instinct is further fed by the extraordinary complexity of our society and the expanded involvement by government into nearly all aspects of contemporary life. More government means more organizations that attempt to influence what governments do. By now, we have hundreds of thousands of organizations, nearly all of them identified as nonprofit, a description that doubtlessly defines their status under the tax code but often does not appropriately describe how these entities function, as in many instances well-paid officials with matching benefits and expense accounts go about their self-important work.
We Jews have known for a long while that what happens outside of our four cubits in the societies where we dwell powerfully affects how we conduct our lives, the upshot being that we are no slouches at organization building. To the contrary, we seem to outdo everyone else, so that there may be more Jewish organizations in the U.S. than there are for any combination of several or more other major ethnic groups.
Years ago I posited that while there are fewer Jews on American soil when the sun goes down each day than there were when the sun rose, each day when the sun sets there are more Jewish organizations than there were when the day began.
The situation hasn’t improved, although it is my impression that the severe recession we have experienced since 2008 has put a damper on organization building. In fact, some nonprofits have closed their doors. Even so, it’s a good bet that the long list of American Jewish organizations includes more than a few nonprofits that have come into being during the past half-decade.
Many of our organizations focus on chesed activities, helping the poor or those who are otherwise needy. They rely mainly or entirely on voluntary work and they deserve our gratitude and support. These organizations are in sharp contrast to the mountain of organizations with high-salaried executives who have a remarkable penchant for travel, conferencing and sundry activities that invariably take place in luxurious settings and do not strike me as being invested with much altruism. They are, for sure, invested with strong doses of public relations.
I shall continue to speak out against this phenomenon as long as God grants me the ability to do so, although I recognize that the winds continue to blow strongly in the other direction and that our chosen people will continue to choose to create additional organizations. They are our false gods.
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There are, inevitably, organizations whose mission involves Jewish education. Whatever we may think of their particular orientation, as, for example, whether they promote a diluted brand of what they generously refer to as Jewish education, a case can be made that they are functional. They have work to do, a role to play in curriculum development and the training and recruitment of faculty, as well as much else that directly relates to what occurs inside schools and classrooms.
Just the same, all organizations tend to have a life of their own and even with a legitimate sense of mission there are always the seeds of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. As time goes on, often the primary mission of a group is relegated to the background. Keeping the organization in business, including marketing and fundraising, becomes the activity that receives the greatest attention and a large share of the available resources. This is a slow process that may reach maturity before the organization or people associated with it recognize what has happened. By then it is too late.
From my observation point, the Jewish day school world long avoided this tendency, perhaps because day schools have not been much favored in our community and funding was scarcely available for schools and certainly not for organizational activities. There were just a handful of Jewish educational organizations, apart from the boards of education attached to local Federations, and the organizations that existed had plenty on their plate as they attempted to assist the schools with which they were associated. This was evident in the important work of the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools – Torah Umesorah, by far the largest day school organization.
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