Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Another word on Savitsky

As soon as I wrote my last post, I thought "man, am I glad I'm not the president of the Orthodox Union. I'd probably take only two hours to put my foot in my mouth. And then people like . . . me . . . would pounce on me and write biting criticism of me on their blogs. That would ruin my day. That would suck."

As I've said before, my number one piece of advice, as a journalist, to anyone who speaks to reporters is: don't do it!

But Savitsky must do it. The leaders of high-profile organizations have to speak to the press, or their organizations will no longer be high-profile and may even become irrelevant.

So here is this businessman, Stephen Savitsky, who takes on the responsibility of leading the Orthodox Union. That takes guts, and chutzpah, and an ego, and a true passion for Orthodox Judaism.

It also, apparently, takes a few lessons in PR and media relations. Someone should have told him, before he talked to the Jerusalem Post, my second rule for speaking to reporters: If you absolutely must talk to a reporter, do so slowly and carefully. Think about what you are going to say before you will say it. If you don't want it printed, don't say it to begin with. If you are afraid that something will come out wrong, then ask the reporter, before you start talking, to agree to read your words back to you before the interview ends so that you can review them and check for inaccuracies, either on your own part or the part of the reporter.

Here is my advice for Mr. Savitsky:

Look, you screwed up. Your intentions were in the right place - you were trying to say how great it is that young professionals are making aliyah in ever-increasing numbers - but you had no media savvy about how to say it. And so, in trying to do something nice, you inadvertantly showed not only gross ignorance about the history of American aliyah, but also more than a hint of condescension toward people who are not as educated, wealthy, or emotionally stable as you see yourself as being. Since many of your constituents are not as educated, wealthy, or "together" as you see yourself, you've marred your reputation.

But all hope is not lost. People want to be able to forgive you and move on to more productive things. We - well, I, at least- want you to be a strong leader who learns fast and will get things in the OU moving in positive directions.

So, I suggest that you apologize. Release an apology- a sincere, effusive, yet professional and carefully-worded apology. Admit that you obviously have things to learn about American aliyah, and say that you look forward to meeting with American olim, including "vatikim," so that you can be educated. Say that your intention was not to imply that people without degrees, or people with failed relationships, cannot be role models - that, on the contrary, every Jew has something unique and priceless to contribute to Israel and to the Jewish world. Say that you know that your comments, worded as they were, were offensive, and that you are truly sorry that you worded your original statement the way that you did. Say that what you really meant to communicate is how proud you are that Americans are emigrating to Israel in ever-increasing numbers and making positive contributions to Israeli society - to build on what their predecessors started before them.

Apologize from a position of strength. Apologize as a man does when he knows wholeheartedly that he deserves his position, that he is capable of handling the load of his many responsibilities, but that he also made a mistake. Apologize as a man does when he knows that making a mistake does not diminish his status as a strong leader.

A leader who cannot apologize is not a man. Apologizing takes courage - it takes guts. An inability to apologize suggests that one is all chutzpah, all ego. If Mr. Savitsky truly has a passion for Orthodox Judaism, I suggest that he take responsibility for having offended Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and in America.

Mr. Savitsky now has an opportunity to show his true colors. Is he a strong person who takes responsibility for his own words and actions and will demand that other OU employees do the same? Or will he hide, as his predecessors have done, behind the idea that "if we say nothing, this will all blow over"?

Part of me thinks I'm wasting too much space on this. His hurtful comments were one part of a larger interview. So, my feelings were hurt. Big deal. Don't I have other things to do than worry about some offhand comments someone made to a reporter? Why am I so stuck on this? And the answer is that I'm sick of OU leaders who don't get that we Orthodox people are out here. That it's not about the egos in the boardrooms of 11 Broadway. It's not even about the shules, or the rabbis. It's about hundreds of thousands of people who are doing their best to serve God through Torah and mitzvot in a modern world, and are trying to figure out how to do that. It's about people who need strong leaders.

We want to forgive. We want a real leader. We're sick of what's come before. And I want to know: In Mr. Savitsky, which will it be?

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