On Schaudenfreude

Originally posted on

I work in the Jewish community, at a school in Boston, Massachusetts that has a robust relationship with a sister school in our sister city of Haifa, Israel. Every year, we host a delegation of tenth-graders who spend a week-and-a-half living with our students, learning about what it’s like to be a Jew in the diaspora. While most of the visit takes place during one of our students’ school vacation week, the Israelis usually arrive a few days before school gets out in the states. During these first few days, we (the administrators of the Boston) school spend our days showing the Israeli students and their teachers around town. Our time is split between Jewish sites, from the Federation to the old neighborhoods, and more touristy fare.

A couple of years ago, when it fell to me to plan the tourism segments of the week, someone suggested to me that I take the group to the Mapparium. I have lived in Boston nearly my entire life but had never heard of the Mapparium, much less visited, but it sounded fine, so I booked tickets. When we visited, we had extra time on our hands, so we were also able to work in a tour of the Christian Science Monitor newsroom. I didn’t really know anything about the paper beforehand, but having worked in journalism for a time, I was really struck by the core values of the CSM. In the words of Mary Baker Eddy, the paper’s aim was “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” Or, in the words of the paper’s current administration, “our aim is to embrace the human family, shedding light and understanding with the conviction that truth is the beginning to solutions.”

Since I started blogging for Jewschool, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Monitor’s mission statement. As someone who works (and socializes) in the Jewish community, a lot of inside information comes my way. These days, that information is often bad — which organization will be the next to lay off its workforce, which rabbi is schtupping his congregants, which executive director’s organization is falling apart around her. And there’s a real human instinct towards schadenfreude, taking delight in the misfortune of others. In tought times like these, when any job in the nonprofit sector is as shaky as a fiddler on the roof, the urge to blow off steam by taking down others can be huge.

But Mary Baker Eddy’s vision of journalism gives us another option. It says that we’re all in this together, so rather than rejoicing in the downfall of others, we can look for opportunities to build. Rather than air dirty laundry, we can look for opportunities to collaborate.

Today, the board of trustees of the Unior for Reform Judaism approved a massive restructuring plan that involves shutting down all regional offices (except for four “Congregational Support Centers” in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles), laying off a large number of employees and eliminating program departments. I’ll admit that while I’ve had some off-the-record conversations with friends in the movement, I don’t know a whole lot more about what this will look like in practice than what’s outlined in the press released linked to above. It’s important to note that this isn’t an economic cutback being disguised as a restructure plan — the Union freely admits that it is both cutback and restructure in one.

What I do know is that this could easily be the jumping-off point for a lot of gloating in the blogosphere about the death of the movements, the obselesence of old forms, or what-have-you. But that’s not helpful, nor do I suspect it’s accurate, since I’m unaware of any non-profit institutions that aren’t suffering to some extent in this climate. I think the more interesting discussion is what this means going forward, for the largest synagogue association in the country to drastically cut programming. Can an office in New York support a synagogue in Bangor, ME? Can an international youth group flourish without full-time staff? And if lacunae open up in the services provided to the Jewish community, who will step forward to fill them?

I’m not going to pretend I’m more righteous than I am. I have sent my share of e-mails to friends of the “can you believe this?” variety, and on a couple of occasions have suggested stories to other Jewschoolers that would be impolitic for me to write myself. After all, I’m blogging under my own name, and on principle I am trying to only write things I would be proud to have associated with my name. This means I won’t write about verboten topics pseudonymously simply to avoid conflict. But there’s an aspirational aspect to what I’m writing now as well. As a writer, as a Jewish professional, and hell, as a Jewish person, I want to do better. I want to take the Christian Science Monitor’s vision of writing towards solutions and apply it to the Jewish problems of today. I hope I won’t be alone.

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