The Forward newspaper has done a service to the American Jewish community by publishing the salaries of major executives of American Jewish organizations. They are essentially Jewish communal civil servants, and, as do all civil servants, they sacrifice a measure of privacy — and what is more private in the United States than the amount of money one earns? — for two very important goals: transparency and accountability.
As first glance, these salaries may seem quite high for civil servants and higher than for comparable non-Jewish organizations. Many of the top-tier organizational heads earn significantly more than the president of the United States, whose job, even in the best of times, is far more arduous. And yet, they work for lay leaders who earn far more and who, quite frankly, do not understand how these men and women live on so little.
American Jewish life is funded to a great degree by generous philanthropists, very wealthy men and women who often see the value of things in the price that is paid for them. And if an executive does not command a high salary, seemingly he or she gets little respect. So let us say it candidly: Some are paid so well not because they deserve it, but because if they were not, the donors would not regard them as worthy of their time, their concern or even their support.
It has been my sad — and repeated — experience in Jewish life that when I undertake a pro bono project, I find my time abused and my advice disregarded, but when I charge substantially for my time, I find my advice is taken seriously and my time well respected. Would that it was otherwise, but it is not.
So, part of the reason employers pay American Jewish leaders as well as they do is because the employers don’t believe the leaders are well paid, and if they paid the leaders any less, would treat them as gofers — as the hired help.
Furthermore, high-ranking Jewish executives hang around with multimillionaires and, increasingly, with billionaires. They often believe themselves to be smarter and harder-working than the men and women who employ them, and gradually they get exposed to a lifestyle that includes first-class travel, more often than not in private planes; luxurious suites; expensive restaurants in fabulous locales; and they come to expect such treatment even when they are traveling on their own, when their employers — the nonprofit charities they represent — are not footing the bill. If you look at the corruption among top executives that has become public knowledge over the past several years, one senses that such corruption is the result of class envy on the part of paid employees for the lifestyle of the very rich.
I remember some two decades ago when I spoke at Purdue University, at a symposium with a prominent Jewish billionaire who was impressed with my talk and offered me a ride home on his plane.
"But I live in Washington," I said.
"So come with me to New York, and I will have my plane then take you down to Washington."
While on the plane, I met a high-ranking dedicated Jewish professional from a humble background who had come along for the ride, to get important face time with the philanthropist. He said to me: "You know, I could get used to this." I responded, "I can’t, because I have chosen a career that will not allow me such luxuries, and I would not choose otherwise."
I recently attended the board meeting of a charity. On the agenda was the forced, premature, retirement of a 67-year-old rabbi who had done a terrific job and was continuing to do a terrific job after 37 years with the organization. He was earning $120,000 a year and could be replaced by someone earning $75,000, thus saving the organization some $45,000 annually. Men and women who earned that much each week were willing to send him off to pasture for a fairly modest savings.
And, yet, we must ask some very important questions as we look at these salaries:
Are these professionals worth the money they are being paid? Do they really make that much of a difference?
Those of us in Los Angeles understand that the Simon Wiesenthal Center would not be what it is without the unique skills of Rabbi Marvin Hier. He created the center, he invented it. He could earn triple his salary and more in any public relations agency in the country. In fact, whatever his salary and those of his family who are also employed at the Wiesenthal, he is paid less than he is worth to the organization. Will the same be true of his successor some day?
What would the Anti-Defamation League be without Abraham Foxman, one of the most visible Jewish leaders, one of the few who is more than a legend within his own office? But his prominence, for which he is well compensated — and deservedly so — may come at the expense of his organization, which is overshadowed by his presence and has yet to develop a viable succession plan.
There are clear rewards for success, but are there consequences for failure? Leaders have presided over failures. We need not name names, but the United Jewish Communities took the brand name of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and joined with the Council of Jewish Federations and ran the organization into the ground, so much so that its name had to be changed, and not one in 25 — perhaps not even one in 100 — donors now can tell you the name of the organization and its functions. Many still believe that they are giving to UJA.
Or take other leaders who have followed the nasty American corporate model of downsizing staff and then increasing the salary of their executives as a reward for the “difficult task they had to perform.” It is startling to see how few have taken a salary cut despite the fact that their organizational income is considerably reduced and they have added Jewish professionals — dedicated and competent Jewish professionals — to the roster of the unemployed.
With transparency and accountability, we must ask, agency by agency, executive by executive: Are they worth the money they are being paid? Or are we paying more and getting less?
One final note: A half century after the launch of the women’s movement and the first shattering of the glass ceiling, at a time when Jewish women are Supreme Court justices and Ivy League presidents, corporate executives and some of the most significant philanthropists in the United States, we should have more women leaders.
Our record is shameful. The Jewish people cannot make do with but 50 percent of its talent pool. We need an affirmative action program, and if we Jews are reticent to impose quotas, we should at least impose goals and timetables.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. His blog, A Jew, is at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.