27. Hechsher Tzedek for Jewish Non-Profits
This idea is one that manifested during the course of a breakout brainstorming session at the recent Jumpstart/JESNA/UJA Toronto confab. As a participant, I had only a hand in seeding the idea and cannot take anywhere near full credit for it — it was a group process. Yet it’s one that will probably go unknown and forgotten unless I mention it here.
In his State of the Union Address this evening, President Obama called upon this nation’s leadership to reflect upon the impact of their behavior on the nation’s psyche:
Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions — our corporations, our media, and, yes, our government — still reflect [our] values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people’s doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.
No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there. No wonder there’s so much disappointment.
I could say the same of our Jewish institutions. Every time an employee is paid less than half of what they’re worth, or a qualified woman is passed over for an executive position, or a foundation invests in a Ponzi scheme, or a school protects a child abuser, or a senior executive misappropriates funds, or a charity takes a significant donation from a crook, or it spends $1,000,000 on a gala dinner, or it fails to deliver services, Jewish professionals and Jewish community members become cynical, disappointed, disillusioned, and demoralized.
Jewish leaders so often bemoan the fact that we’re losing talent, respect and public interest but they never quite seem to accept the real reason why: It is because, as exemplars to the rest of the community, we have often failed to live up to the values that our we and our tradition profess.
Last year’s Agriprocessors scandal generated a great deal of introspection within the Jewish community, as we witnessed the downfall of a preeminent ultra-Orthodox family, renown in Chabad circles for their charitableness. As most American Jews experienced it, the Jewish archetype — which we connect to piety and righteousness — was thrust into the spotlight in connection with the biggest illegal immigrant labor raid in U.S. history. The working conditions were appalling, the ethical infractions overwhelming, questions loomed about the kashrut, and the non-Jewish community was tsk-tsking from the sidelines.
As a result of much debate and soul searching, a number of Jewish organizations came forward to propose a hechsher tzedek — an ethical standard for kosher food products, so as to prevent future incidents and to restore the public trust in kashrut. This standard, as proposed by the Conservative movement, the progressive Orthodox community and even the mainstream Orthodox, would, among other things, require kosher food producers to deal legally and respectfully with their employees.
As a long-time Jewish communal professional with quite literally hundreds of friends working in Jewish professional trades, all of whom love to bitch about their jobs, it occurs to me — and, as evidenced by the fact that this idea arose from a rather diverse group’s dialogue, I am most certainly not alone — that the Jewish non-profit sector could itself benefit from a similar ethical standard.
I would therefore like to propose a hechsher tzedek for Jewish community organizations.
Unfair and illegal labor practices; gender, sexual, racial and religious discrimination; sexual impropriety; wasteful spending, financial mismanagement and irresponsible investing; lack of transparency and oversight… These are just a few issues that could be addressed through the implementation of such an ethical standard.
Bring together a consortium to investigate Jewish and secular business ethics and to fashion a standard of conduct for our communal institutions. Organizations that fit the guidelines can apply to receive official certification and a seal to display on their Web sites, print collateral and front windows, so as to let the public know, it’s safe to put your trust and your dollars there.
Think of it like a Charity Navigator for institutional accountability.
I can only imagine what it might do to restore the damaged credibility of our values, leadership and institutions.