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Transparency in the Jewish world

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By Neal Schindler

When I think about the importance of transparency in faith communities, my thoughts turn quickly to fundamentalist homeschooling and the Catholic Church. This is probably unfair, as media coverage of these two religious institutions has, in recent times, been much more in depth and widely circulated than coverage of, say, the mikvah camera scandal of 2014. Jewish communities have also experienced the occasional kosher meat scandal. A few days ago I received word of some mishegas that allegedly involves Tad Taube and reeks, if true, of too little transparency and accountability.

Then, of course, you’ve got your textbook misuse of discretionary funds by a closeted clergyman who was sleeping with an underage boy. Hey, our scandals aren’t all mikvahs and kashrut! Some of them look a lot like the church-scandal cliches we’re all too familiar with.

Transparency problems, when they occur, may find fertile ground in communities that intentionally and consistently separate themselves from mainstream society: a small minority of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, a few fundamentalist Christian sects, and even occasionally the Amish. This doesn’t mean isolating oneself from secular life is, in and of itself, problematic. Monasteries ask this of their monks and nuns in traditions that include Catholicism, Buddhism, and plenty of others.

A transparency problem is a structural problem. It facilitates abuse of power in an environment where leaders are not held accountable in ways that community members can enforce. It’s hard for me to tell whether Judaism is less scandal prone (per capita) than other religious traditions, or whether its scandals are simply considered less newsworthy by mainstream news outlets.

Because Judaism is a minority faith in America, with a long history of being persecuted here and elsewhere, some Jews fear bad publicity more than the average Episcopalian might. The logic is simple: Plenty of people already hate Jews based on nothing but prejudice. Why give the haters more ammunition by revealing any negative aspects of the Jewish world? In theory, anti-Semites are waiting to pounce on the first sign of weakness, the first morsel of scandal they can find.

I understand wanting to err on the side of self-preservation. To trust someone other than yourself, or a community other than your own, is a leap of faith. We humans can get pretty anxious about taking that risk. The chances of being misunderstood, at least initially, are high. It’s even possible that you’ll be rejected, or attacked, just for being yourself. You can end up thinking that connecting with people different from you is a minefield.

Keeping some things within one’s community is natural, and to be expected in communities of all stripes. However, the vulnerability of reaching out — making things more transparent — can pay profound dividends. Such a moment occurred after someone graffitied a swastika on Spokane’s only synagogue building last Yom Kippur. Soon after the incident, members of the Jewish community met to talk about the matter internally. The next day, Temple Beth Shalom packed its sanctuary with Jewish community members and allies in a solidarity-themed service I won’t soon forget.

The concept of transparency may bring to mind the scandals that can result when it is lacking. Yet an equally important aspect of transparency means daring to be seen, warts and all — individually and as a community. It also means, over time, inviting trusted allies to join you, not in spite but because of your complexities and imperfections.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Transparency within Religious Organizations” at 10 a.m. Sept. 5 at The Gathering House, 733 W Garland Ave. Schindler is a panelist.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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