An Open Letter to Richard Sandler on “Not Losing Our Focus”


Dear Richard,

Firstly, I want to say thank you. As a volunteer and contributor to my local federation I am both aware and so thoroughly appreciative of the time and financial contribution that you have committed to the well being of the Jewish people. I also want to apologize, because I was one of the folks responsible for faxing thousands of petitions to the offices of JFNA and your firm just before Thanksgiving asking you not stand idly by while the President-elect appoints an individual who has empowered white nationalists as White House chief strategist and senior counselor.

We are not alone. One-third of the membership of the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations, along with local Jewish Federations and JCRCs representing a wide spectrum of sizes and geographic diversity, have come out forcefully to say that this is not ok. Thursday you finally responded, reminding us to “not lose our focus,” and that “it is possible to be at odds on some matters yet still work together on others.”

To be fair, this approach has been embraced previously by the “organized Jewish Community.” The Zionist Federation engaged in this behavior in 1933 when they penned the Havaara Deal with the Nazis, essentially paying them ransom to save 60,000 German Jews in order to strengthen the development of the Yishuv. It was on display by the Federation System in the ’70’s when they preferred to arrest students advocating for the freeing of Soviet Jewry, in the hope that the quiet diplomacy of shtadlanus would give them more influence and access to power in the U.S. and Soviet Governments to care for Jews in need.

But the truth is, history has judged these and similar deals with the devil quite poorly.

Richard, I have no doubt that your silence on this issue is done with the best of intentions. Perhaps you and the rest of the JFNA leadership are concerned that speaking out too loudly could shut us out of the decision making process for the next four years, leaving our kehillah and those we care for in worse shape. But Richard, if you really want people (especially millennials like myself) to give to Federation out of enthusiasm, and not obligation as you say you do, and if JFNA’s primary mission really is “to care for the most vulnerable around us and perpetuate a value system that has sustained us and greatly contributed to the world at large for more than 3,000 years” then now is the time to prove it.

And Richard, the truth is, we need your help. Without the Federation’s eventual about-face on the importance of activism to help Soviet Jews, 250,000 people would have never made it to Freedom Sunday in 1987. Without the support of the organized Jewish world and the free busses that departed from Federations around the country, 100,000 Jews would never have made it to DC to support Israel at the national rally in 2002. And without the Federation’s support, a man who has proudly proclaimed that the website he ran was “the platform” for white nationalists and actual Nazis will be a senior advisor to the President.

Your letter cites the platitudes of tikkun olam and Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh in justifying your view. I’d like to end with a more esoteric concept from the Gemara in Yevamos 87b. The Talmud, in an extended conversation about determining culpability ends by saying: Silence is consent.

Richard, what you refuse to say speaks just as loudly as what you give voice to. I will not remain silent. I only hope that you and the rest of the JFNA board can find your way forward as well.

Chazak v’Amatz,
Russel Neiss
St. Louis

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, activist, and the coding monkey behind PocketTorah, and a myriad of other Jewish educational technology initiatives.