New hires

JCPA taps Amy Spitalnick to lead newly independent organization

Spitalnick tells eJP she’ll focus on ‘protecting democracy’ and fighting extremism in new role

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs announced that Amy Spitalnick, who rose to national prominence with a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit against neo-Nazis, will take the helm of the umbrella organization as it charts a new course following its recent pivot away from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Spitalnick’s appointment was widely seen as an indication that the newly independent advocacy group would maintain a more progressive policy agenda.

Speaking to eJewishPhilanthropy, Spitalnick said she planned to focus on two areas in her new position: combatting hate, discrimination, and extremism, and “protecting and expanding democracy.”

“I think the two issues that are going to be at the core of this new chapter for JCPA are direct reflections of what I think the most urgent issues of the moment are for the Jewish community and for so many others. The first being protecting and expanding pluralistic, inclusive democracy,” she said. “And I think that that work will go hand in hand with the other core priority, which is fighting bigotry, hate, discrimination and extremism. And I think those two issues are inextricably linked.”

In December, JCPA announced that it was moving away from JFNA and was undergoing internal restructuring, specifically that it would no longer operate under a “consensus model” of finding common ground among its 125 national Jewish Community Relations Councils and 16 national Jewish organizations.

“In today’s political climate, however, consensus is harder to obtain and assert on an across-the-nation basis. The JCPA is moving from a consensus and general membership model to the coalition model where policy will be driven and overseen by the JCPA Board working closely with coalition members,” the organization said at the time.

Rori Picker-Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and a member of the committee that led the restructuring of JCPA, told eJP that she and her fellow JCRC heads are excited about Spitalnick’s appointment but that it remained to be seen how it would affect the future of the organization.

When JCPA distanced itself from JFNA, it did so with a slight cushion as it got on its feet, receiving a three-year grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, as well as significant gifts from JCPA Chair David Bohm and Lois Frank, the previous JCPA chair and a member of the restructuring team. In addition to any policy objectives, one of Spitalnick’s priorities going forward will also have to be securing funding to sustain JCPA.

“A lot of it is going to be really shaped by Amy in this new role,” Picker-Neiss told eJP. “There’s not really a clear sense of what this is going to be until Amy puts it in motion.”

Citing private conversations and emails with directors of other JCRCs across the country, Picker-Neiss added: “I can just say that the JCRC heads are incredibly excited about the energy that she’s bringing. There’s enthusiasm mixed with curiosity.”

That excitement was on display in the glowing responses from the heads of several prominent JCRCs, including Boston’s Jeremy Burton, who said that “no one is better prepared than Amy to lead this work forward”; Miami’s Josh Sayles, who highlighted Spitalnick’s “entrepreneurial spirit in fighting antisemitism, hate and all forms of bigotry”; and the Bay Area’s Tyler Gregory, who said that with Spitalnick’s leadership “the organization will be strongly positioned to unlock the full potential that coalition building can have to heal our divides and build a more just and democratic society.”

Spitalnick first entered the professional political world in 2008 shortly after graduating from Tufts University, working as the press secretary for the then-newly formed J Street until leaving the organization in 2011. For the next eight years, she served in a variety of roles in New York, in both the Statehouse and in the New York City mayor’s office under Bill DeBlasio.

In 2019, Spitalnick formed Integrity First for America, which initiated a lawsuit against the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., suing them on behalf of a number of people injured in the ensuing violence. In November 2021, a Virginia jury ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, awarding them some $25 million in damages. Late last year, Spitalnick announced that IFA would be closing its doors.

Last year, she was slated to serve as executive director of the social justice group Bend the Arc, but this ultimately fell through, with Spitalnick saying that the two “mutually agree[d] that it’s best for us both not to move forward.”

She is due to enter the new position at JCPA early this summer.

Going forward, Spitalnick said the organization’s focus will be on building coalitions with other, non-Jewish communities, which is in line with the policy priorities that JCPA identified in its restructuring announcement late last year.

“The way that the Jewish community is strongest is when we are in relationship [with other communities],” said Picker-Neiss, who advocated for this aspect of the restructuring. 

This will largely mean coalitions with other minority groups and progressive causes, despite the fact that “many of our Jewish communities have expressed discomfort in some of those spaces,” Picker-Neiss said, but added that it will also include building relationships with conservative groups and causes.

“I don’t think that the goal is to specifically get into progressive spaces. I think that we’re working just as hard to be in conservative spaces as well where we don’t always feel like a Jewish voice is being represented,” Picker-Neiss said.

JCPA’s restructuring was met with criticism from conservative commentators, with Jonathan Tobin writing it off as “redundant” and “another left-wing group.”

“The new JCPA, according to its press release, will promote ‘democracy’ (i.e. Democratic Party talking points opposing election integrity measures); the battle against ‘disinformation’ (i.e. Democratic Party talking points seeking to discredit conservatives or even non-partisan skeptics about a host of left-wing orthodoxies); ‘racial justice’ (i.e. the Black Lives Matter [BLM] agenda rooted in critical race theory that grants a permission slip to antisemitism); immigration rights (i.e. open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants); gay rights; abortion rights; and opposition to gun rights,” Tobin wrote in December.

Speaking to eJP, Spitalnick stressed the need for coalition-building as both an end in itself but also a necessary means of ensuring the safety and representation of the Jewish community.

“We as Jews know, in our kishkes [guts], that we are safest in a society that is inclusive and pluralistic in which people’s fundamental civil rights and human rights are protected,” she said.

Spitalnick told eJP this week that JCPA’s fight against extremism would include combating antisemitism but would not be limited to it. “We’ll be not only fighting antisemitism at a moment when we’ve seen horrific levels across the country, but fighting bigotry and discrimination of all forms, both because that impacts the Jewish community in many ways, in terms of Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, immigrants, and refugee Jews, and also because we know again that Jewish safety requires the safety of every community, much like the safety of those communities requires the safety of the Jewish community,” she said.

Spitalnick, whose background is in fighting white supremacists, said that this would be her focus at JCPA as well and said she wouldn’t give in to “false equivalences” about the threats posed by far-left antisemitism, though she added that she would not turn a blind eye to such instances.

“It means calling out the white supremacist conspiracy theories that have become normalized in our politics. And it means calling out the Mapping Project in Boston, which specifically leaned into anti-Israel criticism as a way to further antisemitism,” she said, referring to an interactive map created by BDS activists identifying different organizations and institutions in the city that it connected to Israel, which was widely seen as antisemitic.

“But it also means recognizing that sometimes there are false equivalences that are going on in those conversations and not falling prey to them. Antisemitism can exist in different forms, it can exist across the political spectrum, it can exist separate from the political spectrum, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are also dealing with a particularly violent threat when it comes to far-right anti-democratic extremism in this country,” she said.