Don’t make the same mistake twice

In the early-to-mid 1990s, many Jewish funders determined that the external threats to the Jews had receded and we needed to refocus resources on the internal challenges facing the American Jewish community. As American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna wrote in Commentary Magazine in Oct. 1994:

“Where for three decades the attention of the community had been focused on the dangers faced by Jews in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and on the question of whether ‘they’ would survive, today attention is being paid to the dangers Jews face within their own communities, and the wonder is whether ‘we’ will survive.”   

The shift he referred to represented a sea change in American Jewish priorities, advocated in many quarters based on two assumptions. 

The first was that the “defense agenda” of American Jewry had achieved its goals. Antisemitism was dramatically down; Soviet Jews were generally free to leave after the fall of the Soviet Union; and the Oslo Peace Process begun a year earlier would result in an end to the existential threat against Israel. 

The second assumption was that the latest great threat facing American Jewry was internal, demonstrated by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study that set off alarm bells about intermarriage, Jewish identity and Jewish education. There were calls across the American Jewish community to dedicate massive resources to what became known as the “continuity agenda.” 

As a result, communities experienced a dramatic reduction in funding for core advocacy and community relations work (though this writer’s community was an exception). This pivot ultimately came at a huge cost, as woefully inadequate resources were devoted to building understanding between the Jewish community and other communities and public advocacy on issues of vital concern.

It was a short-sighted approach. Without taking anything away from the legitimate concerns around Jewish identity and education, the decision to devalue Jewish community relations — because the external front was suddenly perceived to be in better shape than the internal front — reflected a misunderstanding of two core principles of American Jewish life: However good things are for the Jews we must always be vigilant, and that our security is and always will be tied to the health of our democratic society. 

This is why, when the community battlefronts proliferated in the wake of Oct. 7, too many of our community-based advocacy organizations, our JCRCs, were woefully under-resourced. The capacity to build bridges with other communities had been severely compromised by the 90s-era shift in priorities

Since Oct. 7, there is evidence of a quick ramping-up of resources in some communities to address the countless fronts where Jews and Israel are under attack. But catch-up takes time. 

Moreover, even amid attempts to make up lost ground, there are once again calls to shift resources away from advocacy and relationship-building and focus inward.   

In his May 3 opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy (“What died at Columbia”), Andrés Spokoiny — the influential president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network and an important voice on many issues — wrote:

“The notion that Jews, historically reliable allies to other minorities in America and around the world, could count on those allies in our time of need also lays dead in Morningside Heights… For now, there is one practical lesson that funders need to take when they see the figurative dead bodies strewn on the Columbia lawn: Focus inward. Invest your resources in strengthening the Jewish community and Israel because Columbia proves, yet again, that we can only count on ourselves.”

I have great respect for Spokoiny, but his call should not go unchallenged. 

Yes, we feel vulnerable in ways we never expected, particularly with respect to our children in schools and on campuses; and there is great disappointment in some of our long-time allies who have developed a case of situational laryngitis, failing to come to our defense. For these and other reasons, it makes sense to revisit relationships and expectations and to determine where our energies are best spent. 

But the reality isn’t that we have devoted too many resources to building bridges with prospective allies. We haven’t devoted nearly enough. 

There are Jewish communities right now with only one or two community relations professionals, and they cannot begin to cover the necessary ground — the university administrators, public school superintendents and school boards, key religious and ethnic leaders and local public officials, law enforcement agencies and media outlets, and labor and LGBTQ leaders. Altogether, there are hundreds of key non-Jewish leaders in each community with whom it would be optimal to have a real relationship.  

If we conclude that we should move even further away from treating external relationship-building as a priority, we will be in much worse shape than after the 90s-era shift. We will be ceding the mainstream Jewish community’s exisiting hard-won seats at key local ethnic, religious, educational and political tables.

Where the relationships have been built, they can have sustained impact. Take Congressman Ritchie Torres, a gay Afro-Latino Democrat from the Bronx and outspoken supporter of Israel and opponent of antisemitism. “There’s a sense in which I am an improbable friend of both the Jewish community and the Jewish state,” Torres said in an April interview in The Times of Israel. “I grew up in a community that was almost exclusively Latino and African-American. I had no real engagement with the Jewish community for most of my childhood.”

“The turning point came in 2014. I had become a member of the New York City Council, and I was invited by the Jewish Community Relations Council to go on a delegation to Israel. When I went to Israel, it was one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life,” he said. 

This writer has personally seen a similar impact on countless non-Jewish leaders he had the privilege to take to Israel over the course of more than 25 years. And yet, only a handful of communities invest in such trips.   

Spokoiny may be right when he points out that “many of our basic assumptions about the Jewish experience in America and its supposed exceptionalism have been proven wrong.” The post-Oct. 7 period has been a wake-up call to reevaluate our standing in American society. But drawing the conclusion that we should focus inward exposes our community to even more risk. Vigilance on behalf of the Jewish community — the idea that Jewish history requires us to stay on alert, even in quieter times — is baked into the mission of every JCRC. To argue in this moment that we should once again move away from investing in seeking allies and building relationships with influential leaders is to take away an essential tool for effective vigilance. 

When this long and painful period of explosive antisemitism dies down — and it will, even though the new normal will likely feature a higher level of antisemitism than in years prior — we will have to take a careful and honest look at how our playbook held up when placed under extraordinary stresses and make necessary course corrections. We must be far more visible and engaged in bridge-building activities even as we are simultaneously more selective in our alliances. 

It is not a time to walk away. It is a time to seriously invest.

Rabbi Doug Kahn is the executive director emeritus of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area.  The views expressed are his own.