Beltway buzz

JCRC of Greater Washington raising money, staffing up in wake of Oct. 7 and rising antisemitism

Executive Director Ron Halber tells eJP that responses to the attacks and the war have been a wake-up call: ‘If we don't learn from this, shame on us’

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has been “quietly” raising money in order to hire new staff and expand its activities in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, the ensuing war and the concurrent rise in antisemitism in the United States and around the world, the organization’s executive director told eJewishPhilanthropy this week.

So far, the JCRC has raised several hundred thousand dollars from a small number of major donors who were contacted directly, not as part of a large fundraising effort. Ron Halber, who has led the organization for the past 22 years, said he made clear to the funders that he only wanted them to contribute if it would be in addition to what they planned to give to the JCRC or the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and not instead of those donations. So far, he said, the JCRC’s donors have been willing to make those contributions, with “three successful calls for every one” refusal. 

With that money — Halber refrained from saying precisely how much has been raised so far or who donated it — the JCRC has already hired one additional employee, with plans to hire another.

“We just hired a second individual to work in our Israel departments and do political organizing. We hired a PR firm, and more is coming,” he said, adding that the organization is looking to hire a second rabbi to do interfaith work for the JCRC.

For now, Halber said the fundraising has been limited and focused on pressing needs, but if the war continues and antisemitism continues to be a major issue, the JCRC may need to expand those efforts.

“We have no idea how much longer this is going to go on for. These were one-off donations. But if it turns out this is a long-term situation, we may need to go back to donors and ask them to increase their donations or we may need to go into a deficit, which we would have to pay off in the future,” Halber said.

One area where the JCRC of Greater Washington was already prepared was in responding to rising antisemitism in K-12 schools, having hired another employee to focus on that area shortly before the war.

“We’re glad that it was only about three months ago that we brought on a second person to deal with education, with antisemitism and other sorts of offenses in our schools. And little did we know that a war would break out and make the decision of that second staff incredibly paramount in our efforts to combat this scourge that our students are facing,” he said.

Normally, the JCRC works with school districts to “make sure that Judaism, Israel and the Holocaust are being taught properly” or help teachers understand the needs of Jewish students.

“What’s happened is that all of our efforts that we’ve had have magnified and exploded,” Halber said. “Right now, we’re getting 25 phone calls a day to our office about antisemitism in schools… We have kids complaining about feeling ostracized because they’re Jewish and unsafe and uncomfortable, and it’s a terrible thing. Never in my 26 years at JCRC have I witnessed any surge of antisemitism like this, even at the elementary school level… We’re facing it in every direction, and it’s happening at all levels.”

Halber said the children of Israelis — those working in the Israeli Embassy or in the U.S. as part of a government exchange — have been particularly affected in public schools. “Their kids have the double burden of not only being Israeli, but also being Jewish and Israeli,” he said. “We do know that there is tremendous discomfort, and it’s affecting social relationships.”

He stressed that the JCRC is responsible for 10 school districts, and not all of them are responding poorly to antisemitism. 

“Some are doing a great job, some are doing a poor job. We cover 10 school districts, so I don’t want to paint them all with a broad stroke,” he said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as getting in and helping the principal write an appropriate message to the student body. Sometimes it’s critiquing them. Sometimes we comment as friends. Sometimes we have to slam them.”

Regarding universities, Halber warned that while the immediate effects of antisemitism on campus — Jewish students feeling unsafe and getting attacked — are bad, the long-term consequences are potentially more severe, particularly as it relates to Ivy League schools and other leading universities.

“Students are actually making decisions for the first time in years not to attend some of these top universities, because they don’t want to be exposed to antisemitism,” Halber said.

If that happens, he said, young American Jews won’t make the “social connections and the relationships” with the future leaders of the United States.

“If American Jewish students are not in that mix, that poses a long-term threat to the influence of American Jewry on American society,” Halber said.

“After the war, American Jewry has to make a concerted effort to stamp out this anti-Israel nonsense at American universities, or at least bring it to a point of equilibrium, so that Jewish students can feel that they can go to them, and that some professors have got their back.”

On the political side, Halber said his organization is and will be primarily focused on young Democrats, the group in which support for Israel is lowest.

“Most Americans still support Israel. We know that it’s strong on the Republican side, it’s strong on the independent side, and it’s stronger among older Democrats. It divides younger Democrats, and we know that among moderate Democrats, it’s strong, and even among progressives, it’s sometimes not tilting against Israel,” he said. “That’s the greatest political challenge we have since the war [started] and once it’s over, is to educate progressives — especially young progressives — who have grown up in this binary system of oppressed and oppressor, to understand that that’s not the way the world works.”

In terms of the JCRC’s relationships with other communities and organizations, Halber — like many JCRC directors — said that he was disappointed by some of the responses to the Oct. 7 attacks, either by statements condemning Israel or by silence on the issue, but that he was rarely surprised.  

In general, he said, groups with which the JCRC has a close, long-standing relationship were likely to release statements of support for Israel and the Jewish community, while groups that were part of broader, more superficial coalitions were not.

Halber said that he planned to be “more strategic” and focus on developing “deeper and stronger relationships with fewer groups than casting a wider net” and encouraged other JCRCs and Jewish communities to do the same.

In particular, Halber said the Black community, both locally and nationally, stood by the Jewish community. “But there are other groups — I’m not going to get into different names — who we are very disappointed in. People on the radical left who think that Hamas’ [massacres] were a natural outcry of subjugation — we have no use for you,” he said.

“I think the American Jewish community has to wake up, it has to take a hard look at the reaction of others and take that into account in its new calculus moving forward and realize that it’s going to acquire a readjustment. And if we don’t learn from this, shame on us. I’ve learned from this.”