By David Bernstein
During my first nine months as President of JCPA, I traveled to more than 30 Federations and JCRCs around the country. During these visits, I have seen renewed enthusiasm and support among many Federations for the community relations agenda. Community relations councils – or JCRCs – are the department or independent affiliate of a Federation that engage in public affairs and external relationship building on behalf of a local community. Some Federations that had previously cut back on their JCRCs are now reinvesting. They recognize that in today’s political environment, the Jewish community needs to reinforce its public profile, build new and stronger ties to other religious and ethnic communities, and promote involvement in social justice causes.
Here are four reasons why Federations should ratchet up their support for community relations:
1. Need to manage our place in a diversifying and polarizing society
If the recent stormy presidential elections tell us anything, it’s that our external environment has become increasingly volatile. America is becoming more and more diverse and interconnected. Such economic and social transitions can be profoundly destabilizing, providing fertile ground for the growth of the far right and the far left, while hollowing out the political middle. Both extremes of the spectrum are, as we’ve witnessed, hospitable to anti-Semitism. In this environment, the mainstream Jewish community must become even more adept at building strong ties to moderates on both the left and the right so as to immunize them against radical ideological currents. That is the work of JCRCs.
2. Need to combat de-legitimization of Israel
So much of the work being done to combat BDS is taking place in the proverbial emergency room, where BDS supporters have already built their coalitions and marshaled their forces. Israel’s supporters are forced to respond to crises that would have been avoidable had they laid the groundwork and built relationships with progressive groups. Indeed, the mainstream Jewish community has not spent nearly enough time building relationships to important segments of society, particularly those most susceptible to BDS.
Done strategically, community relations is the preventative medicine of BDS. When Jews get involved in larger communal work and build bridges to other ethnic and religious communities, they create allies. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” The role of JCRCs is to be and have friends.
3. Need to bring in younger Jews
The Jewish community faces unprecedented challenges in reaching and engaging young Jews. Millennials, in particular, do not follow traditional affiliation patterns. Experience and market research does, however, tell us that millennials are highly attracted to social justice. Many would be more drawn to a Jewish community similarly devoted to making the world a better place. JCRCs can provide this venue for young Jews. Moreover, JCRC activities themselves can enrich the Federation brand among young Jews, who will perceive the Federation as engaging in high value work worthy of their support.
4. Need to build up an irreplaceable asset
In numerous smaller and mid-sized communities, the local JCRC is the lone organized Jewish advocacy asset. They are often the only one building relationships, engaging in advocacy, and fighting de-legitimization of Israel. Some of these locales face all of the ideological challenges of, say, a San Francisco Bay area, but have a fraction of the resources and expertise to deal with them. These communities are particularly vulnerable to BDS campaigns. And what happens in a smaller community never stays in a smaller community. It is precisely in such places that we need a robust community relations presence, capable of fending off challenges from the extremes.
Even, however, in larger metropolitan areas where there are other Jewish advocacy organizations, there is no substitute for a strong, Federation backed JCRC. By virtue of their relationships with and representation of Federations, JCRCs derive a positioning and power that allows them to take on the big issues of the day. The closer the collaboration with the Federation, the stronger the voice.
With all of its prosperity and promises, the 1990s gave the Jewish world a false sense of security. The Twenty-first century reminds us of the need to advocate for ourselves, and, with it, the need to sustain strong JCRCs capable of doing the heavy lifting.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.