The Decline of Lay Leadership

Lay leadership or askanos is a term that can be translated as the nearly all-consuming commitment to communal activity. An askan is someone whose primary life mission is service to the klal. In my youth, these terms – askanos and askan – were part of the ordinary religious Jewish lexicon. But no more. What has changed is more than usage, but the role of lay people in communal affairs.

Nowadays, we glorify check-writers and, at times, persons who devote themselves occasionally to good causes. We do not celebrate askanim because the breed is nearly extinct. There is, of course, merit to giving tzedakah or to spending a bit of time here and there on community needs. Unfortunately, our institutions and especially yeshivas and day schools require more. They need the involvement of lay people who eat, drink and sleep the needs of the community, people for whom other work is secondary.

The nature of communal activity has changed because our community has changed. Most of us are always busy. Family size has grown significantly and this inevitably brings additional responsibilities and time pressure. There are too many events to go to and too many tasks to get to. Nearly every day is a balancing act, a challenge to squeeze in more activity than we have time for. Mothers, so many of whom work, must find the time and energy to devote to their children and fathers want to find time for Torah study. Were it not for Shabbos, we would all be lost.

There is yet another factor. We do not value askanos, certainly not like we once did and certainly not to the extent that we value check-writing. What isn’t highly valued does not attract. Apart from the good reasons why our schools (and other causes) put so much effort into fundraising and the wooing of check-writers, there is an attitude that the notion of lay leadership is something like an alien belief. For things large and small, including matters that are not halachic or hashkafic, the attitude is that Torah leaders alone can decide and the rest of us should be followers and workers, but not leaders.

There still are pockets of askanos but they are few and they are contracting. This is in contrast to the pattern that prevailed for generations in Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe and the pattern that prevailed during the formative years of American Orthodoxy when great Torah leaders, notably the transcendent Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, worked closely with lay people who had leadership roles. We now are enveloped in a mood or climate which discourages lay leadership, which says in effect that it isn’t appropriate for people who are not Roshei Yeshiva or respected rabbis to make decisions for the community.

These factors contribute to the situation of many, perhaps most, of our institutions – again, primarily yeshivas and day schools – operating without the intensive involvement and commitment of people who can help with important tasks. The administrative staffs of our schools are too thin and often unprepared to deal with the serious financial and legal matters that inevitably arise from time to time. Because askanos is effectively discouraged, schools and institutions have diminished fundraising capacity. More importantly, they do not have available the creativity, experience, knowledge and talent of lay people who can make a huge difference. Far more often than not, the involvement of lay people has become a hit and run affair.

This is a more serious problem than nearly all of us recognize. Our schools are being hurt because they are bereft of effective lay leadership.

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6 Responses

  1. ben meir says:

    You have touched a subject very dear to my heart. My parents and grandparents were/are big askanus types and it is something I truly aspire to.

    Your commentary touched on some of the issues, but busy schedules and desire to “learn”, can’t be the answer. Irving Bunim must have spent considerable time on his learning to write his sefer. The Klein family or the Stone family ran major corporations and I am sure they were busy. I also find that Rabbonim appreciate a laymen that gets involved and supports them (morally not financially) and they even seek advice out and listen to the counsel of their advisers.
    Very few people are willing to make decisions and stand by the consequence. One outcome of this communal reticence is that the only people who are FREE to make mistakes (and confident enough to make decisions) are the Rabbonim, b/c they are perceived as beyond reproach or infallible. Daas Torah cuts both ways, I am more likely to agree to an idea just b/c the Rav/Rosh Yeshiva says so than earlier generations.

    Let me give you an example. Reb Moshe Sherer – I didn’t know the man, but I do not believe he asked Reb Moishe or Rav Hutner on every decision he faced. Reb Moishe didn’t decide between the Felt Forum or MSG main arena as a venue for the Siyum HaShas – he was asked if Aguda can stage an Event and then Reb Moshe Sherer ran with it – and lived or died by what HE produced.

    Most laymen like to fall back on Das Torah – it makes them feel like frum yidden and respecful of Torah, they also like that they will never be blamed for any issues that crop up.

  2. Leapa says:

    The ‘klei kodesh’ attitude today is ‘what benefit can I have from a layman except money?’, so why on earth would lay askanim want to be involved. Did R’ Aharon Kotler have a different attitude?

  3. Moshe says:

    Great topic! Askounus tziburis is indeed lost on the current generation.

  4. ari says:

    “there is an attitude that the notion of lay leadership is something like an alien belief. For things large and small, including matters that are not halachic or hashkafic, the attitude is that Torah leaders alone can decide and the rest of us should be followers and workers, but not leaders.”

    This is so true. Another casualty of overemphasis on da’as torah ideology.

    I also think that the sort of people that used to get involved in community affair are likely today to feel that contemporary Orthodox society contains much good and bad, and that they need to devote much effort to insulating their own families from the negatives – it’s almost as though they feel that if they can raise their own family successfully, their major battle is won. Back when most laymen raised their families – the society as a whole didn’t rely on schools and society-wide da’as torah values to produce children and everyone thought the primary influence was the home – there was less effort involved in countering school and society pressures and more energy left to devote to the klal.

  5. David Brand says:

    I would argue on two things here:
    First, I do not believe that any alleged over-reliance on daas Torah has anything to do with the reduction of askonus (if you buy into the idea that there is a reduction). Those who are closer followers of daas Torah (yes, it’s a matter of degrees rather than all-in or all-out) tend toward the Agudah camp. From my experience, all of our local askanus is centered within Agudah itself. My religious Zionist friends were not there when it was time to work on important community issues, such as our continuing effort to bring school bussing to our children. Furthermore, I am not aware of how fealty to daas Torah held us up or stymied our effort in any way. Dr. Schick did not make the argument about daas Torah getting in the way of askonus, but others did, so I am responding to them.

    Second, regarding Dr. Schick’s point that askonus seems to be “lost”, he seems to be making a valid point. However, in my activities, I have found some hope. In mosdos that I’m involved with, there seems to be a complete lack of people that are 40-50 years old. That group has been lost, for whatever reason. Nevertheless, there is a growing group of younger people around 25-37 that is becoming more and more engaged in community affairs. So, there is hope.

    In terms of a solution, my read is that whatever decline Dr. Schick observed is not really because people feel that only Rabbonim can make decisions. Rather, it’s because many do not have examples to follow. I have heard people refer to R’ Moshe Sherrer as their Rebbe in askonus. Who are the Rebbes today? Therefore, people have to look harder for Rebbeim/mentors in askonus. They’re out there. If one is interested in doing more, one can find a mentor and get going.

    Gut Shabbos to all!

  6. Mordechai says:

    Maybe many of the type of people who became askonim in the past, have become klei kodesh now ?

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