Preserving your good name

Preserving your good name

Max Kleinman of Fairfield is the CEO emeritus of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.

The 1990 Minnesota Senatorial campaign was among the most contentious in recent state history. The Republican incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, son of refugees from Germany’s Hitler, already had served two terms and was the heavy favorite to win re-election. He had founded a successful business and was active in the Jewish community; he’d served as the UJA chair for the Minneapolis federation’s annual campaign.

His opponent, Paul Wellstone, was a novice. This was his first run for public office. A community organizer, he was on the political science faculty at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota. The late educator and communal leader Jonathan Woocher, then on Carlton’s Judaic studies faculty, also was on the committee that gave Wellstone tenure. Once a collegiate champion wrestler, Wellstone, the Democrat, ran an aggressive, insurgent grassroots campaign, considerably narrowing the electoral gap with Boschwitz.

In fact, in the weekend preceding the election, Wellstone narrowed the gap to three percentage points, within the margin of error. Panicking, the Boschwitz campaign sent a letter to the thousands of Jews on its mailing list, touting Boschwitz’s support for Israel and the Jewish community and saying that he therefore was a better Jew than Wellstone. Boschwitz then criticized Wellstone for marrying a Christian.

Needless to say, Wellstone received a copy of the letter. He went on the airwaves, attacking the Boschwitz campaign for criticizing his marriage to a Gentile. Jews constituted about one percent of Minnesota’s population, so Wellstone’s attack was devastating, and he won the election.

Shortly thereafter, an article by a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota appeared on the first page of the American Jewish World, Minnesota’s Anglo-Jewish weekly. In it, the author claimed that the Minneapolis Jewish federation had used its mailing list to disseminate Boschwitz’s letter. This was a serious charge; the federation was a 501 c(3) tax exempt not-for profit, and as such was prohibited from engaging in any partisan politics. This accusation could jeopardize federation’s tax exempt status, which would devastate its fundraising efforts.

As the CEO of the federation, I received a call from my treasurer, a federation officer. “I know the answer to my question, but did we provide the mailing list?” he asked. “Of course not,” I replied. “I know, but I had to ask, for the record,” he said.

I then called the editor of the American Jewish World and asked why he published the article. He replied that the author was a professor at the university. I replied, “As a journalist, don’t you have a responsibility to check his facts and offer me an opportunity to respond?”. Of course, there were no facts to buttress the absurd accusation. Just blatant “lashon harah.”

I demanded the first page of the next issue, where I condemned the assertions made as not just totally unfounded but also as damaging to the Jewish community’s reputation and to my own good name. This was followed by an open letter from the federation’s past presidents, including supporters of both Boschwitz and Wellstone, certifying that the federation never endorses candidates or is involved in any political campaigns. We take positions on issues and lobby for them, but never in support of particular candidates.

Fortunately, my good name was never in question. I served as the Minneapolis federation’s CEO for another five years, until I assumed my position with Greater MetroWest in 1995.

Now, as H’aaretz and Larry Yudelson of the Jewish Standard reported last week, my name, likeness and affiliations were stolen and used for partisan purposes in the current Israeli election cycle. This was brought to my attention by my longstanding and treasured colleague and friend Amir Shaham, and by Robert Wilson, the MetroWest federation’s head of security. A false Twitter account with 72 followers was established — in reality, I have no Twitter account. Fortunately, Wilson was able to have Twitter terminate the account, and he reported this identity theft to the FBI.

Honoring names is codified when we’re called to the Torah and asked to recite the names of our parents. Our children and grandchildren receive the names of their hallowed ancestors. Buildings and endowments are named after the relatives of generous donors, who seek to perpetuate their good names for all time. The head of the chasidic movement used the nom de plume Bal Shem Tov, which means bearer of the good name.

As Rabbi Shimon reminds us in Ethics of the Forebears, 4:13: “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. However, the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.”

This is a resonant message that we should remember as we endure endless ad hominem attacks in the public arena. In the classes I have taught on fundraising and marketing, I always remind my students never to criticize other competing philanthropies. Just focus on the value of your own cause.

When we end our careers, what will most endure is not the material success we amassed, but the reputation we achieved, for better or worse.

In my case, I want it untarnished by falsehoods or fabrications.

Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.