By David Bernstein
During the civil rights era and in the years in its immediate wake, Jewish community relations was widely considered very high priority work. Jewish leaders and funders believed that the fate of the Jewish community was inextricably tied to the ascendency of other minorities and a more just American society. Buoyed by the promise of full equality, Jews set out to build connections and advocate for full equality.
Beginning in the 1990s, with waning discrimination against American Jews, Soviet Jewry set free, and Israel seemingly on the verge of peace, many Jewish communities scaled back their community relations operations. The community had bigger fish to fry, such as addressing the decline in affiliation.
But times have changed, necessitating that the Jewish community reconsider its priorities.
Here are seven reasons Jewish community relations work is crucial to the wellbeing of the Jewish community and the broader society. This part of the article was crowd sourced to and received input from Jewish community relations professionals from across America.
#1 We are getting smaller
The Jewish community is small – about two percent of the country – and shrinking relative to a growing population. We cannot adequately address critical issues – from Israel to equality – without partnering with other faith communities, ethnic groups and civic leaders. This work becomes even more important as waves of immigrants continually transform the political and cultural landscape.
#2 There is growing economic and social disparity
The world is changing rapidly. Computers, robots and lower paid workers abroad are increasingly performing work once done by Americans. Such trends might eventually render large swaths of Americans unemployable, exacerbating the already staggering gap between rich and poor. The Jewish commitment to repairing the world, borne out of our prophetic sense of justice, must become even more central to our collective identity and community agenda. Leading the way, among others, will be Jewish community relations councils across the country. Social justice efforts also serve as a magnet for younger Jews.
#3 Israel is becoming more isolated
As BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel) pops up seemingly out of nowhere in community after community, building connections to key segments of civic society, particularly progressives, takes on a new sense of urgency. In order to engender true allegiance among other groups, the Jewish community must engage them on their core issues as well as ours. The Jewish community relations field is uniquely poised to do such outreach as it is well-versed on the perspectives of diverse communal groups, conversant with discussing Israel in a nuanced and constructive manner, and well positioned to follow up and build long-term ties. Done right, community relations is, without a doubt, the most potent antidote to delegitimization of Israel.
#4 American civil society is more fractured
As Robert Putnam compellingly argued in Bowling Alone more than 15 years ago, America has experienced a decline in social capital. Americans are spending less time in face-to-face engagements, civic involvement, and, of course, bowling leagues. Aggravating this sense of isolation and alienation is the impact of the Internet. People can now cherry pick their news, reading and listening to only those they already agree with.
Armed with big email lists and Twitter, the most extreme forces have often seized the day, pressuring elected officials and candidates to fall in line. Community relations plays an integral role in stitching together this tattered communal fabric and polarized discourse, setting a powerful example for the rest of society.
#5 Jews are more polarized
If it wasn’t already apparent that Jews, too, are increasingly polarized, the noxious discord over the Iran deal in Jewish communities across the country was a painful reminder. The consensus model used by many community relations councils can mitigate if not alleviate tensions. Numerous JCRCs are comprised of a varied array of Jewish organizations, providing a forum for internal dialogue. Efforts promoting civil dialogue, such as “Resetting the Table,” can also bridge the gaps.
#6 There are threats to pluralism
While America has undoubtedly made strides in the battle for equality, our country still has, as we’ve seen in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Baltimore, a long way to go. Moreover, as America becomes more ethnically diverse, some, insecure in their own place in society, are lashing out. The Presidential primaries have laid bare the ugly nativism that still exists in the American body politic. A calling card of the community relations movement, fighting against discrimination and hatred of all forms, benefits society and protects American Jews.
#7 It’s becoming harder to be heard
Amid all the turbulence generated by hundreds of TV channels and social media, we will be heard by those with whom we have a relationship. One JCRC director related that a prominent Christian minister friend reached out to her after the Pastor participated in a one-sided trip to the West Bank. The Pastor wanted to hear another narrative. The JCRC director helped the Pastor arrange a series of meetings, leading to a trip to Israel and a much more balanced view of the Jewish state. That only happens when we make relationship building a priority.
With these challenges and opportunities before us, it’s time that the Jewish community redouble its commitment to community relations.
David Bernstein is the President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the representative voice of the Jewish community relations movement. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein