June 6th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

According to Simon Sinek, the bestselling British-American author and organizational consultant renowned for his leadership expertise, “Leadership is not about being in charge… it is about taking care of those in your charge.” While his insight is spot-on, many modern leaders have yet to embrace and implement this crucial philosophy fully.

This week, as if the world hasn’t got enough to deal with right now, a yearbook photo controversy is rocking a New Jersey high school and the surrounding community after the names of those belonging to a Jewish student group were deliberately omitted from the East Brunswick High School yearbook — and their group photo was replaced with one showing Muslim students instead.

The local mayor, Brad Cohen, called the incident a “blatant antisemitic” act and demanded answers. “Hate has no place in East Brunswick and antisemitism will not be tolerated,” he said in a Facebook post.

Superintendent of Schools Victor Valeski announced that the district will investigate how this could have occurred. Valeski was compelled to admit that the page did not look “like any of the others” in the yearbook. In an email to Valeski within hours of the incident coming to light, I expressed my outrage at the deliberate removal of the names and photograph of the Jewish Student Union members.

“Are you an outpost of Hamas?” I asked him. “Do you condone obliterating Jews? Is your school some kind of Stalinist North Korean-style authoritarian regime, where ‘enemies of the state’ are airbrushed away? Is this the ethos of your school? Adolf Hitler would be proud. So would Yahya Sinwar.”

In a subsequent update, Valeski did express both his remorse and frustration. “Above all, I personally, along with the entire East Brunswick Board of Education, sincerely apologize for the hurt, pain and anguish this event has caused our Jewish students, their families, and the impact this continues to have on the entire EB community,” he said. “East Brunswick Public Schools has been a pillar educational organization, thriving on our diversity. We do not tolerate bias and we investigate all reported antisemitism.”

But for Mayor Cohen, this was not enough – and he is absolutely right. He emphasized the need to determine how the incident had occurred in the first place, and who was responsible. He also demanded accountability. “Who signed off on this page? Did this act occur at the publisher end? How will perpetrators be held accountable?” He also assured the public that new yearbooks will be ordered and distributed with the correct pictures and names.

In the meantime, though, no one has taken responsibility. According to Valeski, the investigation is ongoing. “We do not have all the facts, but I will report to the community once I do,” he said. “I urge the East Brunswick community, the one I have a decade-long relationship with, to give me the opportunity to determine the cause and I simply ask individuals and organizations to slow their rush to judgment.”

But truthfully, Valeski’s response, and that of the school’s administration, is woefully inadequate. There is a critical need for true leadership, which is clearly lacking. The tragedy is that in today’s world, an admission of wrongdoing and an apology is often seen as the epitome of accountability. But in situations like this, where a marginalized group has been wronged, leadership must extend far beyond mere words of regret.

And let’s be honest – if this had happened to any other community, such as African Americans or Muslims, the response would undoubtedly be much more than just a mealy-mouthed apology.

True leadership requires preempting incidents like this from happening in the first place. Erasing names and changing a photo was not a mistake, it was deliberate. And if leadership did not foresee this possibility, it indicates a significant failure in their ability to serve their community effectively.

Parshat Bamidbar, the first portion of the Book of Numbers, provides profound insights into the nature of leadership and responsibility. The detailed census and the meticulous arrangement of the Israelite tribes around the Tabernacle highlight several themes, but one sticks out above all: leadership and responsibility. The thorough census included assigning roles to each Israelite tribe, and particularly the Levites, who took the responsibility of overseeing the religious needs of the Israelite nation.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch emphasizes that the organization and structure illustrate the importance of every individual knowing their role and the value they bring to the community. Each person’s contribution is essential to the overall functioning and holiness of the nation. Rav Hirsch argues that true leadership involves recognizing the unique potential of each individual and fostering an environment where everyone can contribute to the community’s collective mission.

Rav Hirsch also highlights that leaders must proactively organize and prepare their communities to face challenges, ensuring that no one is marginalized or overlooked. In today’s overheated environment, it has become increasingly obvious that for some people, Jews have no place in their world, unless they bow to an anti-Israel stance – and the tragedy is that leadership has simply allowed this attitude to flourish and proliferate.

True leadership involves taking proactive steps to address wrongs and ensure they do not happen again. This means going beyond an apology, to implement measures that prevent future occurrences and foster an environment of respect and inclusivity. In East Brunswick, it means recognizing that what happened in the yearbook was not a mistake — it was deliberate. Effective leadership requires preempting such incidents and taking responsibility when they occur. And if something like this happens on your watch, it means you are not fit for purpose.

For the East Brunswick school community in the wake of this controversy, true leadership would involve a thorough investigation, transparency in findings, and concrete actions to prevent such mistakes in the future. It requires engaging with the affected community, acknowledging their hurt, and making systemic changes to ensure every student group is fairly represented and respected. And it almost certainly needs resignations, or for people to be fired. Otherwise, it will mean this incident getting airbrushed away, just as the perpetrators airbrushed the Jews from the yearbook.

The lessons from Parshat Bamidbar, as interpreted by Rav Hirsch, remind us that leadership is about more than just words. It is about responsibility, planning, anticipating all possibilities, and creating a community where everyone knows their place and contributes to the collective good.

The East Brunswick incident is a stark reminder of the need for such leadership today – leadership that does not just offer apologies but takes definitive action to uphold the values of inclusivity, respect, and justice.

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