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  • Andres Spokoiny

El Silencio es Salud: Andrés Spokoiny's Address to the 2017 JFN Conference

Andrés Spokoiny, President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network, addressed the 2017 JFN conference on March 20, 2017.


When I was growing up, the military government of Argentina launched a very effective propaganda campaign. It was called “El Silencio es Salud” – “Silence is Health.”

The city appeared plastered with banners, and, for good measure, the obelisk – the central monument of the city, which is seen by millions of people every day – sported a huge rotating sign with the same message.

Ostensibly, the campaign warned against too many honking car horns in traffic, but the broader message wasn’t subtle at all. It said, keeping silent is healthy; speaking your mind is dangerous.

That slogan of “El Silencio es Salud” came to my mind while I was preparing my remarks for today.

I found myself thinking, “If I talk about politics, I’ll get in trouble with one part of the room for being partisan. But if I stand up here and talk about the state of Jewish philanthropy today without saying anything about politics, I’ll get in trouble with other parts of the room for not dealing with the elephant in the room.

The message that the generals had seared into my young brain kept coming back: “El Silencio es Salud.” Better for me, at this moment, if I don’t even open my mouth.

And then I realized that I’m not alone in this predicament. Most of my colleagues in the Jewish philanthropic world perceive more and more that speaking your mind is dangerous.

The saddest piece of data I’ve seen lately was from the results of a survey that said that 32% of rabbis in America avoid speaking about Israel from the pulpit. They fear – with reason – that the thought police on both sides of the spectrum will come after them if they say something they don’t like, and at the end of the day they have families to feed and mortgages to pay.

In the last couple of weeks I saw the surreal spectacle of Jewish leaders agonizing about whether or not to sign a statement against antisemitism – let me repeat that: a statement against antisemitism – for fear of it being interpreted as political.

Federation leaders have to go to work every day worrying about who will get offended today; who will call them to threaten withdrawing donations for the position they take, or the position they don’t take. The less they say altogether, the fewer donors will be offended. El silencio es salud.

But silence is not actually healthy. Silence is what cemeteries are known for. Silence is what the generals wanted; silence is what the Soviet Union wanted.

A silent Jewish community is not a vibrant one. The Jews were never a silent people, and the Jewish communities that we remember from history, and that we see today, as our models for thriving and lively communities are those in which speaking up is seen as healthy, and, most importantly, in which listening is seen as healthy. Speaking up, and listening, are now more important than ever.

When thinking about the times in which we live, I’m reminded of probably the best Irish joke: Two men are sitting next to each other at a bar. After a while, one guy looks at the other and says, “I can’t help but think, from listening to you, that you’re from Ireland.”

The other guy responds proudly, “Yes, that I am!”

“So am I! Where in Ireland?”

“Dublin.”

“Oh my God, so am I! And what street did you live on in Dublin?”

“I lived on McCleary Street in the old central part of town.”

“What a small world, so did I! And to what school did you go?”

“I went to St. Mary’s of course.”

The first guy gets really excited, and says, “And so did I! Tell me, what year did you graduate?”

The other guy answers, “1964.”

The first guy exclaims, “I can hardly believe our good luck at winding up in the same bar tonight. Can you believe it, I graduated from St. Mary’s in 1964 myself!”

The bartender shakes his head and mutters: “It’s going to be a long night! The Murphy twins are drunk again.”

It’s going to be a long night… For a few years already, we, too, the Jewish community, feel like we are living in a long night.

Not a night anything like the kind of night that Elie Wiesel wrote about, God forbid.

And no, this is not related to our recent elections. Whatever our politics, it’s easy to have the feeling that we’ve been living in darkening times for a while now.

For years, we have lived in times of polarization, intolerance, and fear. The paroxysm of antisemitism that we see now in America has been foreshadowed by the ugly reality of BDS and campus antisemitism. The viciousness in our communal debates today is no different from what we’ve been experiencing in the recent past. We seem to live in an age of anxiety, in what Rabbi Lord Sacks called “A low serotonin society.”

For a while already, we have felt that we are approaching the future like swimmers doing the backstroke towards a waterfall. We live in times of upheaval and change – times of great uncertainty and lack of control over what’s happening.

And we may be all different in our political and religious beliefs, but we can all agree on this: all around us, there are new realities on the ground that require reassessment. All around us, there’s unpredictability and all around us there’s a feeling that the old models don’t respond to the new challenges we face.

So the question for us – as funders, communal leaders, and individual Jews – is: how do we move through this night of uncertainty and change; how do we emerge at the other side, not only unscathed but stronger and better? From our place of relative power and privilege, how do we shepherd the community through this uncertain period? What are the strategies that we, as funders, need to deploy? What of our basic assumptions need to change?

I want to offer five thoughts that may help us:

The first way to get through the night is to remember this: when it’s too dark to see, stop and listen. In times of change and uncertainty, learning to listen is critical.

All of us agree that there has to be more listening in communal discourse, but what we many times mean by that is that we want other people listening to us while we talk.

It’s critical to listen because as a community we need to give people space and a time to wrestle freely with what bothers and scares them; with their hopes, dreams, and frustrations. In times of change, silence is unhealthy.

But developing a culture of listening is also important because in times of uncertainty, the community needs cognitive diversity.

The fact that many of us were surprised by the election results shows to what extent we work and live in echo chambers that lack a diversity of viewpoints. And that happens to us in many aspects of our work.

As funders, to a great degree, we set the tone. If we welcome cognitive diversity; the community will follow. Like in any ecosystem, lack of diversity creates entropy, and entropy is the harbinger of death.

My friends, in these times of polarization and divisiveness, we will disagree. I wish I had a dollar for every time that somebody mentioned the phrase ‘existential threat’. Because we believe that so many issues pose existential threats, we treat many disagreements, even minor ones, as life-or-death fights. So in this context of polarization and fear, the question is not whether we will disagree, but whether those disagreements are going to destroy the fabric of the Jewish community.

And the answer to that lies, to a great degree, in our hands. We can surrender to the heckler’s veto or we can learn – and push the community – to listen with love, tolerance, and compassion.

We can understand that those who don’t think like us are wrestling with the issues as best they can, and are, in many cases, hurting.

We can choose to give them the benefit of the doubt (dan et kol adam lekhaf zekhut) and assume that they ultimately want the same things we do, but that their take on how to get there is different.

We can use the “power of the purse” in a positive way: to generate spaces of dialogue and tolerance. We can make communities into havens of respect or we can surrender to the general ugliness that surrounds us.

Second: to find your way in the dark, you need a beacon. And the lights that help you navigate uncertainty and change, are your values. In times of upheaval, when everything seems unhinged, you need the moral clarity that only your values can give you.

And Jewish values aren’t liberal or conservative; no party or ideology that is defined by the politics of our moment can claim ownership of them. Precisely the opposite: the conversation around values takes us away from the current political struggles and gives us a transcendent view of our work, framed in centuries rather than days and weeks.

So, precisely now, when everybody is obsessed with technology and management buzzwords, I encourage all of us to devote time and efforts – and funding – to clarifying our bedrock values: in our families, in our foundations, and in our communities.

And if we find that a situation brings our values into conflict, then let’s wrestle with that tension without pretending it’s easy. Let’s have real conversations with our colleagues, our children, and our grantees about values. And let’s live by the beautiful phrase of the physicist Neil Bohr, who said that while the opposite of a trivial truth is a falsehood, “profound truths are recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth.”

Third: to get through the night, it helps if you don’t convince yourself that it’s high noon.

We must recognize how hard is to see clearly. We need to remember the Danish proverb often misattributed to Yogi Berra: it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

In our era the only thing that one can say about predictions, forecasts, and prognostications is that they are consistently wrong.

But our philanthropic strategies are largely built as if the world was predictable and stable. They assume that the future is an extrapolation of the past and not a radical new reality. We lack the strategic flexibility and, most importantly, we lack comfort with the ambiguities that characterize today’s world.

Imagine how different your strategy would look if you asked yourself not what outcome is probable, but what range of outcomes is plausible.

Imagine how resilient our community would be if we helped our grantees to be prepared for different scenarios and atypical realities.

In these times, having built-in flexibility is critical; learning to fail and work through trial and error is key. Nobody has ever yet lived in these uncharted territories called the present moment. Nobody can tell for sure how the future will look and nobody can tell you what will and won’t work. We are all together in the same darkness, so we need the courage to dare and the humility to fail – paraphrasing Samuel Beckett, to ever try, ever fail, try again, fail again, fail better.

Fourth: in times of crisis and change, we need to look to the fringes of society, to look beyond our usual scope of attention. If we asked someone in the mid-15th century, “What’s the most important thing that has happened in the last few years?”, he might say, “The death of Tamerlane,” or “The culmination of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England,” or “The fall of Constantinople.” Yet the most consequential thing that happened in the mid-15th century was taking place in a dark workshop in the town of Mainz, where Johannes Gutenberg was inventing the printing press.

Very few knew of this as it was happening, and those that did could never foresee that the printing press would launch a revolution in literacy, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and, by extension, the industrial revolution and everything else we call modern, from the atom bomb to the iPhone.

That should give us pause. We need to be aware that our vision of the world is partial and that while we look forward with a horizon of four or five years, some events happening at this moment are going to change the coming centuries.

Fifth: in these times of uncertainty it’s important to have the right type of leadership. The temptation is for leadership to go backwards, toward the familiar territory of command and control. But In these troubled, uncertain times, we don’t need more command and control; we need better means to engage everyone’s intelligence in solving challenges and crises as they arise.

I think a major act of leadership right now, a radical act of leadership, is to create the places and processes in which people can actually learn together, using our diverse experiences. A leader is somebody who can guide us to facing the hard questions instead of providing us with easy answers.

*******

My friends, what is happening today around us – in America, in Israel, in JCCs, on campuses, everywhere – will determine the future of our community for decades to come.

The future will not just happen to us; it will be the consequence of our choices. As G. K. Chesterton said: “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” But our sages go further: they note in the Midrash that every time that a verse in the Bible starts with “It came to pass,” tragedy ensues. When we just let thing happens, calamity follows; inaction breeds disaster.

You’ve indulged me in a metaphor about a long, dark night, and the best biblical example of somebody who had to undergo a long night was Jacob. And what did he do? Two things: he dreamt and he fought.

Dreams are basic building blocks of life. Without dreams we don’t live, we just exist.

And dreams have the capacity to heal and offer us new beginnings; in Hebrew, the word for dream, chalom, has the same root as lehachlim, to heal.

Philanthropy is about dreams and about helping others achieve their dreams.

Dreaming is about igniting stars that will guide us through even the darkest nights.

But, as Jacob’s story teaches, dreaming is not enough. You have to act, and make personal commitments and difficult personal choices.

Jacob fights with an angel, and many rabbis wonder what that angel represents. The interpretation I like the most is that Jacob was not fighting an external enemy – he was fighting himself: his own fears and insecurities, his own lack of courage to transforms his dreams into realities. And it’s not surprising that of all our patriarchs, we are named after him. We are Israel, the one who fights with God, the one who surmounts unsurmountable odds and prevails, even when everything seems lost.

Stubborn optimism is hardwired into our character as a people. Stubbornness is not a bug, it’s a feature. After the golden calf, when God threatens to destroy the Israelites, Moses intercedes and says: forgive them, because they are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. It’s generally understood as a deprecatory comment about the people, but I think he meant it as a compliment. “You’ll see, God,” Moses might be saying, “Others will try to convert them, but they are a stubborn and stiff necked people. Others will say that they won’t survive, but they are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. Others will tell them they can’t have a state, but they are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. Others will try to boycott them, but they are stubborn and stiff necked people. Others will threaten us with bombs, but we are a stubborn and stiff-necked people and we won’t be scared. We won’t cease seeing the world with optimism and love, with hope and courage.

Philanthropy is about being stubbornly hopeful, about believing that the world can be healed, that wrongs can be righted, that the future can and will be better than the past. And you can achieve anything if, as a funder and as a person, you risk more than others think is safe, love more than others think is wise, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.

That’s why we’re all here together at JFN. We are here to discover that our dreams are better and sweeter when we dream together with others. We are here to prove that we will go further when we walk together, each conserving her own individuality, but realizing that sharing and learning is the key to impact and success in these uncertain times. In the last few years we have grown enormously as a network; we have stepped up the game of Jewish philanthropy and many of the conversations we are having today would have been unthinkable in the past. That speaks to maturity of the Jewish philanthropic community. But we are only scratching the surface. What we can achieve together is unimaginable if we challenge our limits instead of limiting our challenges.

I want to finish with a story I love. I don’t know if it’s true, but if it’s not, it deserves to be, and it’s about how the Nobel Prize was created. As you probably know, in his time, Alfred Nobel was known as the inventor of dynamite. His brother, Ludvig, died suddenly, but a famous newspaper thought the one who died was Alfred, and wrote an obituary for him. (You see, fake news is not just a new thing.) In his premature obituary, Nobel was called a “merchant of death” for his invention of a deadly explosive that was transforming the face of warfare. When he read that, he realized with horror how history was going to remember him, and he decided to devote the rest of his life to changing that. He wanted to leave a different legacy, and that’s how the Nobel Prize was born.

Nobel had the benefit of an obituary dry run, but we can all ask ourselves the same question: how do we want to be remembered? Or, as I saw on a church sign the other day: “What are you going to do so that folks don’t have to lie at your funeral?”

My teacher and mentor was an American rabbi called Marshall Meyer, who spoke Spanish with a funny accent and served in Argentina during the dark years of the dictatorship. What I remember of him is that during the years of “El Silencio es Salud” he encouraged us to speak up, to debate, and to listen to one another with respect, love, and understanding. He showed that Judaism is the absolute opposite of that horrible phrase. And, above all, he made the Jewish community into a shelter and a refuge – a place where everybody could feel at home. The choices he made in March 1976 resonate still today, and an entire generation was transformed by them. So when I remember those years, I remember the cold and the violence of the outside, but those bitter memories can’t be separated from the sweet ones, of a loving and caring community that represented the exact opposite of the dystopian vision of the generals.

For the last few years, we’ve been living in historic times, and the most important question we need to ask ourselves is how we want to be remembered. What do we want history to say about our times, about our community, and about our own contributions as philanthropists?

The children of today are looking at us from the future and asking us to weigh carefully our choices, because they matter. They mattered for me in the 1970s and they’ll matter enormously for the kids that are growing up in this strange and unsettling early 21st century. Our choices impact real lives of real people, they shape reality, and they’ll determine the community that our children will have. In these troubled times, we are the ones who can make bad things bearable and good things wonderful.

Yes, the future is unpredictable, and yes, we may fail to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the future is just an infinite succession of present moments. So the best – the only – thing we can do, as Jews and as funders, is to live now as we think human beings should live. Doing that, in defiance of all that is bad and scary around us, is in itself a marvelous victory.

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