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.