By David Bernstein and Rabbi Doug Kahn
For many years, the Jewish community relations field was perceived to be on the decline. Jewish Federations, with some notable exceptions, reduced their community relations budgets and, in a few cases, scrapped their JCRCs altogether. There were many reasons for this trend at the time, not least a general turn inwards to deal with the Jewish continuity crisis and the likelihood of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But it’s hard to argue that in today’s tumultuous political environment, local Jewish communities shouldn’t be maximally externally leveraged and well connected to centers of leadership and power in their broader communities.
Indeed, for the first time in more than two decades, Federations that had previously cut their JCRCs are now re-investing. Some smaller Jewish communities with no history of community relations are also developing a community relations program. Community relations is once again on the rise.
We know of at least ten Jewish communities that are in re-building mode: Oklahoma City; Stamford, Connecticut; Phoenix, Arizona; Seattle, Washington; Orange County, California; York and Reading Pennsylvania; and Atlanta, Georgia. These include Jewish communities ranging in size from 700 to more than 100,000.
We at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) wanted to understand what led to this positive trend and what lessons might be gleaned from the diverse array of Jewish communities that made this decision.
So we asked Rabbi Doug Kahn, Executive Director emeritus of the San Francisco JCRC, to interview the lay and staff leaders of these JCRCs and Federations to put together a portrait of this phenomenon. What we learned is that while there is no single catalyst for the creation or re-establishment of these JCRCs, all are attuned to significant changes in the external environment. The most common rationales are:
- A deep concern about declining cohesion and increased polarization within the Jewish community and a belief that an effective JCRC could build bridges within as well as beyond the Jewish community;
- A sense of urgency about growing anti-Semitism, hate and racism in American society and the need to build coalitions to address these challenges;
- A need generally to have a larger Jewish communal voice on public affairs issues of concern to the community and a collective voice to respond to specific local issues;
- A recognition that no table exists around which to bring together the disparate voices of the organized Jewish community – including to address local issues;
- Growing awareness of the importance of forging closer relations with major minority groups in American society (e.g. African-American and Latino Americans), to find common ground on issues of mutual concern and to forestall increased anti-Israel sentiment;
- Increased awareness about the importance and value of JCRC government relations work in identifying public resources for Jewish social service agencies.
While the form of the JCRCs varies widely (committees of federations, independent, an initiative of a Board of Rabbis, sponsored initially under a JCC), the mission and mandate are generally similar across these new JCRC communities – to advance the public affairs agenda of the Jewish community through consensus, coalitions, civil discourse and high-impact activism. The scope of policy priorities and issues also varies, depending on the nature of challenges faced by and the level of consensus within each community.
JCPA has reached out to each of these communities to help them in their early stages and to build a strong relationship. And we have produced a JCRC starter kit, hosted professional development webinars and in-person training, and created a series of planning resources in order to foster this nascent trend. Our hope is that Federations will take note, and invest in a resurgent community relations field. The Jewish community needs a stronger external presence. And that begins in every Federated community.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Rabbi Doug Kahn is Executive Director emeritus of the San Francisco JCRC.