David A, Harris (photo by www.thejewishweek.com)
Letter from a Bar Mitzvah Employee
David A. Harris
Thirteen years ago this month, I accepted an offer to become the American Jewish Committee's executive director.
At the time, I was working in AJC's Washington office as director of government and international affairs. It was a happy period in my professional and family life. I enjoyed the front-line work and loved the city. That made the decision to uproot my family-not for the first time, I might add-all the more difficult.
Was I cut out to manage a large, complex organization? Would I have to forfeit my interest in hands-on analysis and advocacy in the new job? Could I raise money, something I hadn't previously done?
And how would my family and I cope with New York, which, at the time, looked as if it was in a free fall, the butt of endless jokes in the nation's capital, especially from those who had only recently fled Gotham and insisted the city had no chance of stabilizing itself?
I wavered for some time, losing much sleep in the process, before informing Sholom Comay, AJC's president at the time, that I would take the job. And even after saying yes, I remained plagued by lingering doubts for weeks.
In hindsight, it was the best professional decision I've ever made. These past thirteen years have been the most stimulating and fulfilling of my life.
During a Bar Mitzvah, it is customary to express appreciation to those rabbis and teachers, family and friends, who helped make the day possible.
I couldn't even begin to list all the individuals-both lay leaders and staff colleagues-to whom I'm indebted. That would fill pages and, in the end, no doubt, I would have offended some by inadvertent acts of omission. Suffice it to say that I've collaborated with, and learned from, some rather extraordinary people during my tenure.
Instead, let me say a few things about the institution itself, beginning with the bottom line.
The longer I know the American Jewish Committee, the more in awe I am. The longer I work in Jewish communal life, the more I understand AJC's uniqueness. And the longer I live, the more I grasp how essential it is that AJC be there for the generations of Jews to come.
Some will accuse me of idealizing the organization. After all, I'm not exactly the world's most objective person on the subject. And it's true that a Bar Mitzvah is not normally the time to stand up and reveal everything that's wrong with life. Even so, while acknowledging that AJC is an imperfect entity with room for improvement, I can't help but sing its praises. I've been around the working world long enough to recognize something special when I see it.
I have to confess, though, that when I first began working at AJC, back in 1979, I wasn't sure I had made the right choice.
I was still rather new to the Jewish world, having spent just a few years with HIAS in their refugee operations in Rome and Vienna. That work exposed me to only one aspect of the Jewish public affairs agenda-the remarkable migration and resettlement efforts of agencies like HIAS, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World ORT Union, and the Federation system in the United States.
When I first encountered an AJC delegation in Vienna, I was impressed with their level of interest, even if I knew next to nothing about the organization. The Jewish organizational world beyond my narrow stratum seemed to the newly initiated like a tangled web whose component parts were difficult to separate out.
The AJC group didn't come looking for photo-ops with the refugees. Rather, they wanted to hear first-hand from the refugees about the situation in the Soviet Union and the emigration process; from us they wanted to know what help they could provide in Washington with admissions procedures.
One result of the AJC's visit to Vienna was a job offer. I did my due diligence before accepting and moving to New York. Those who knew the organizational landscape were almost unanimous in describing the agency to me as the community's "class act." But, truth be told, my first years at AJC weren't the easiest.
I went from life on the edge, dealing with the pulsating movement of Jewish refugees who were heavily dependent on our assistance, to a windowless office in a remote part of the third floor. I used to joke that when I worked in Rome and Vienna, just getting from my office to the men's room was a Herculean feat. The refugees crowded the hallways, and many had questions or requests that just couldn't, or wouldn't, wait. In AJC, by contrast, there were no such challenges in getting from here to there.
Over time, as my job assignments changed and I came to understand the larger communal lay of the land, I was increasingly able to grasp-and admire-AJC's distinctive culture. Today it provides for me a model of what a non-governmental organization should be. Several features, in particular, stand out. In the spirit of the David Letterman Show-but without the humor, I'm afraid-let me mention my list of the top ten (in no special order).
First, like a truly great sports team, AJC seeks to attract the best professionals for every position.
Each professional is an acknowledged leader in his or her field, both within and beyond the Jewish community. There aren't many wallflowers among my staff colleagues, nor are there many yes-men-or yes-women-and thankfully so. Among other things, I should point out, this can make for exciting, even memorable, staff discussions. And it certainly guarantees good sounding boards and reality checks for all of us.
Second, AJC draws to its lay ranks accomplished and dedicated individuals who have achieved standing both in their professional and civic lives.
At a time when some major not-for-profit agencies are dominated by one leader, who by dint of wealth or prominence becomes the sun around which the organization revolves, AJC stands out for the team culture of its volunteers. To be sure, there are strong personalities among them, but they see other strong personalities in the ranks as an asset, not a liability, because together they substantially enhance the overall institution.
Third, AJC's leadership paradigm is embodied in the concept of a genuine lay-staff partnership.
Close collaboration and mutual respect are the hallmarks of that partnership, whether on the national or chapter level. Each side understands the vital-and irreplaceable-role the other plays; each makes adequate room for the other. Incidentally, when this partnership collapsed briefly in the 1980s, the agency as a whole suffered severe damage, a sobering reminder of the institutional stakes involved.
Fourth, the organization recognizes that it is grappling with some of the most difficult, complex, and intractable issues known to humankind.
In a world too often seeking a shortcut or easy answer, AJC realizes that there simply are no quick fixes, at least when it comes to attaining our goals-securing the well-being and safety of the Jewish people and universalizing democratic and pluralistic values.
Analysis, research, and deliberation are accorded a central place in the life of the agency, accompanied by the patience, perseverance, and persistence required to fashion an effective advocacy strategy. In other words, AJC's approach is to be armed with the facts and the political savoir faire to get the job done, together with the staying power for the long haul.
This approach has proven its value on many occasions in recent years. Some examples: helping prod the United Nations to admit Israel to one of the five regional blocs in New York after fifty years of exclusion; persuading the Japanese government to drop its longstanding adherence to the Arab economic boycott of Israel; and pressing a reluctant German government to extend financial assistance to thousands of Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.
Fifth, AJC has always put the attainment of the objective above all other considerations.
We live in a cacophonous world in which those who don't make a lot of noise and constantly call attention to themselves can easily be lost in the shuffle. But histrionics, theatrics, and decibel level are not necessarily the best yardsticks for measuring effectiveness. In fact, all that sound, and fury, and self-aggrandizement, while perhaps music to the media's ears, can undermine the attainment of programmatic goals.
AJC's ability time and again to suppress its ego, maintain discretion, and work behind-the-scenes on key issues affecting the Jewish people and the State of Israel-forsaking public recognition in the process-is especially noteworthy.
Whether it was the critical role AJC played in launching the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry, or chairing the community-wide effort to raise the millions of dollars required to support Professor Deborah Lipstadt in her legal victory over Holocaust denier David Irving, or arranging meetings between Israeli statesmen and their counterparts in countries with which Israel has no diplomatic links, AJC knows how to maintain a low profile, or, if necessary, no profile, to serve a larger aim. In each of these cases, public discussion of our role at the time would have been counter-productive.
It helps explain why a retired Jewish professional who spent decades at a sister agency commented to me: "AJC did four times the work we did, yet we claimed four times the credit and got away with it only because we knew you wouldn't go public unless there was reason to."
Moreover, it means we understand the value of cooperation with other agencies. In fact, there are several Jewish organizations with which we enjoy close ties and whose work we particularly respect. Unfortunately, though, competition for turf, philanthropic dollars, and media attention occasionally lead some organizations to put their own narrow interests ahead of the community's, while deceiving themselves into believing that the two sets of interests are identical.
Sixth, AJC blends the values of Jewish ethical teachings with the ideals of American democracy and pluralism.
Not only is the agency deeply involved in seeking to advance both fronts, but it also nourishes the interconnection between the two.
To be a Jew, we believe, is to be engaged in the larger world in which we live. We are the heirs of a tradition with powerful moral injunctions:
Seek justice; relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
God has told you, O mortals, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:6-8)
What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. (Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31A)
To be an American, we believe, means to stand in solidarity with fellow democracies, including Israel, to defend human rights and human dignity at home and abroad, and to build a pluralistic society based on the principles of mutual respect and compassion for the least fortunate among us.
As one of many illustrations, I'll never forget a Jewish interagency mission to Ethiopia in the 1980s. The focus was on the Jewish community on the eve of Operation Moses, the historic effort to help
Ethiopian Jews realize their age-old dream of a return to Zion. But the mission also took place at a time when famine was ravaging sub-Saharan Africa and Ethiopia in particular. Millions of lives were imperiled.
AJC insisted that the mission travel both to the Jewish villages in the Gondar Province and to the feeding stations and offices of international humanitarian groups working to alleviate the famine, such as Catholic Relief Service, Church World Service, and the JDC. To my dismay, there was some strong resistance to our proposal. Not only did we stand our ground, though, but when the group returned, AJC raised close to three hundred thousand dollars and distributed it in equal amounts to the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish agencies coping with the famine.
We saw no contradiction between helping fellow Jews and identifying with the suffering of fellow human beings-not then, not now.
Grandiose as it may sound, AJC truly aspires to be a model Jewish citizen and a model global citizen.
Seventh, AJC is unafraid of difference. To the contrary, it welcomes the give-and-take of debate.
By deliberately attracting to its large tent a wide array of thoughtful and caring people-with varied political, religious, professional, and social backgrounds-it practically guarantees informed, often impassioned, debate on the main issues of the day. And that's the way it should be.
Organizations of one political hue or another too often miss out on the complexity and nuance of the matters before them. Their mode of thinking and analysis tends to be heavily skewed by their ideological predispositions.
Many of the major public policy issues before us, in my view, defy simplistic precast solutions of, say, the left or right. Instead, these issues need to be examined on their own merits, critical questions must be asked, and the chips should be allowed to fall where they may-sometimes in a liberal or dovish direction, other times in a conservative or hawkish direction, and still other times in the center.
Those who try to pigeonhole AJC usually end up frustrated or just simply off the mark. They select one or two positions and then seek to extrapolate from them, only to discover later that they failed to take into account other information that might have led to a different conclusion.
Maybe in the end we're akin to the singles tennis player, whose most comfortable position is the central point of the base line, ready to move in any direction in anticipation of-or response to-a volley, but sooner or later likely to return to that central point.
Call it a spirit of independence or simply recognition that a one-size-fits-all ideological straightjacket just isn't the answer for us.
Eighth, AJC is an oasis of civility.
In a rough-and-tumble world, AJC manages its disagreements just about as well as it handles its agreements. Differences may be profound on some issues and the debate intense, but anyone who has witnessed these scenes walks away impressed by the manner in which the agency closes ranks after decisions are made. People are respectful of one another. Everyone understands going in that none of us will always get our way. Strikingly, I don't ever recall seeing tempers lost, tables pounded, or doors slammed, much less ad hominem attacks.
Ninth, AJC has an uncanny ability to peek around corners and see the future, perhaps not as clearly as any of us might wish when it comes to our investment portfolios but certainly as it affects the societal trends with which we are most concerned.
I don't think it's by accident, either. The organization draws together insightful people who have the capacity to see the big picture and actively encourages them to think through-and plan for-not just today's challenges, but tomorrow's as well.
Whether it's Israel's quest for lasting peace, the future of Israel-Diaspora ties, the nature of American Jewish identity, the state of intergroup relations and coalition-building, the well-being of overseas Jewish communities, the use and abuse of religion, protection of human rights, or the dangers posed by the marriage of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, AJC is constantly seeking to develop long-term, proactive strategies. In doing so, we don't pretend that we have all the answers, but history has shown that we have a pretty good record of alerting the Jewish community-and, when appropriate, the broader community-to what's coming down the pike.
And finally, AJC has never succumbed to despair.
It is a fundamentally optimistic organization that believes, consistent with our Judaic tradition, that human progress is achievable. Trust me, AJC has no illusions about the dangers that lurk, but we refuse to conclude, as a result, that hope must be thrown to the wind or that we need to retreat inside a shell. We have witnessed enough major steps forward, some the result of our own handiwork, to believe that more are within our grasp.
To sum up this agency with which I've been associated for more than two decades, it is an organization invested with anthropomorphic qualities-a mind that is sharp and quick, a heart that is filled with compassion, a spine that bespeaks moral and intellectual courage, and a soul that links us to past and future generations.
On the occasion of my thirteenth anniversary as AJC's executive director-or, as I sometimes say, chief professional worrier-I'd like to pay tribute to a remarkable institution.
The American Jewish Committee has empowered countless American Jews to have a respected and resonant voice that is heard in councils of power around the world, to have an impact on the sweep of contemporary history, and to leave the world more secure for our children than it was left for us.
Thirteen years have passed and I continue to look forward with excitement to every day in my AJC life. No two days are identical. Each one brings new opportunities. Sure, there are occasional setbacks and disappointments-is there a job without them?-but, believe me, they are relatively few and far between.
In the end, I'm a very lucky person. I am blessed with not one but two precious families-the one I live with at home and the one I live with at work. That's mazel!
Now bring on the chopped liver and cha-cha. Oops, I think that puts me in the Ice Age or, should I say, "Sculptured Ice" Age? How about the sushi and salsa?