Our Big Tent: What Do We Do When There Is No Way In?

Our way of doing business as a community is in trouble and our basic institutions are out of step.

by Marty Levine

In 1968 I was learning my trade as a social worker. We were at war in Viet Nam; we were confronting the racism of our own country; and we were recognizing that poverty hurt millions of our neighbors and risked our collective future. We recognized that that many of the institutions that our communities and our society were organized around were out of touch with their constituencies and were more interested in maintaining their positions than in solving real problems.

It seemed that small, often isolated events set off large movements for change. My university wanted to build a new gym on property it owned. This decision angered a small group of neighbors, but their upset enflamed the university community, changing a calm campus to a place of mass protest. The university was shut down and police ringed its campus.

The Conference of Presidents’ decision to reject J Street as a member brought me back to that moment.

For decades we have been seeing the symptoms of our troubled American Jewish landscape. The Pew Research Center’s recent study (A Portrait of American Jews, October 2013) spotlighted an American Jewish community that is anything but monolithic and unified. The structure of the historic American Jewish world had seemingly been rejected by at least half of the population. As shocking as this was for some, it was not the first time we had been given such data about ourselves; studies going back to the 1990 NJPS had told us the same story. And from a larger context, Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” told us that what we were experiencing was part of a larger American phenomenon.

The J Street episode is about more than J Street, as the Morningside Heights gym was about more than a new building and a park. It is symbolic of the overall state of the American Jewish community and the growing distance between the “people” and the institutions which claim to be their leadership. The Conference of Presidents serves as the model of many old line institutions whose very framework is out step.

The Conference of Presidents’ decision to reject J Street upset me. It said that a Jewish organization of size and seriousness was not acceptable because it was different; if I and many others held unpopular opinions, it said, we too were unacceptable and should not be a part of the Jewish conversation. This vote was a symptom of a larger challenge to the American Jewish future.

Following the Conference’s decision many voices raised this concern and not all were those who were J Street supporters. Even the pages of the conservative New Republic featured a protesting article by Leon Wieseltier (New Republic, May 7, 2014). These voices recognized that this action spotlighted a major fault line in American Jewish life.

But after these voices spoke out what, if anything, will change. Can this be a moment where real change can occur in the status quo of the American Jewish scene? Can each of us be a part of making change happen?

During my four decades of service to the Jewish community I’ve always thought it was important to see issues from all perspectives and to recognize that there may be more than one right answer. So I wanted to better understand how this decision had been reached and more about how the Conference functioned.

I examined the Conference’s website. J Street cannot be found. As I write this, two weeks later, there is no notice on the site or explanation for why the Conference chose to keep their doors closed. From the perspective of the Conference, rejecting J Street deserved no public comment or explanation. It is not important to them that those they claim to speak for understand their actions.

By the Conference’s own description “the Conference is the preeminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues. Recognizing that common interests and goals far outweigh differences, the Conference sets policy and priorities, deliberates proactive strategies and takes collective action. Maximizing community resources, expertise, and energy enables the Conference’s remarkable achievements.” But the Conference has no responsibility to share the nature of that deliberation or to explain the positions it takes.

I did learn more about the fifty organizations who, by self definition, are the Major American Jewish Organizations. They range from Alpha Epsilon Pi to the Zionist Organization of America (see http://www.conferenceofpresidents.org/about/members), but what makes each of them “Major” seems more related to their having received the agreement of the other organizations that they are “Major” than any specific measure of their reach or effectiveness!

The Conference’s website provides little if any information about how membership is decided or the criteria for membership. Nor does it provide an insight into how its policy positions are reached. Its members are self-elected. Once inside, they can speak and vote in total secrecy. Once in, they hold the power to admit or keep out “new” voices with no accountability. They operate in secrecy. Their votes are confidential and the rationales for the positions they take are kept hidden.

Their voting mechanism, one organization one vote, makes no consideration for organizational size and reach, nor does their process account for overlapping membership. They operate as if these fifty organizations are representative of American Jewry when their unduplicated membership represents less than half of American Jewry and they have no mechanism to find out what those not at the table actually think or believe. What is being served is the organization, not the voice of the people. And yet they speak loudly on our behalf and claim they are our voice.

The J Street vote would seem to indicate that for a new group to be in this “club” it is more important to be liked than to be organizationally effective, more important to be similar to the other participants than to have a vital interest in the future of the Jewish people. And that the “diverse” segment that they represent is not too diverse.

I tried to go beyond the Conference itself and see what I could learn from its fifty voting member organizations. But this proved to be more of the same. Over the course of the last 10 days I sent to requests for information about this vote to each of the fifty. I had the courtesy of a response from only 14 organizations. And of these 14, only 9 shared information on how they voted. The rest felt they had no obligation to respond in any manner.

So back to 1968. As the protest began, I joined several others in an apartment just off the university campus. Our host was the scholar of movement politics Frances Fox Piven (Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed, How they Fail, Pantheon, 1977). The debate that took place that day was whether having gotten the University’s attention and willingness to let us participate in their ongoing process of governance we should end the strike. That would allow the world of the university to return to normal and allow us to try to make change from within. I thought this was the responsible path to follow.

Fifty years later I am no longer so sure that is the right answer. The J Street episode is about more than J Street, as the Morningside heights gym was about more than a new building and a park. It is symbolic of the state of the American Jewish community which has lost its connection to much of the American Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents serves as just a stand-in for the larger set of institutions which grew up in the early 20th Century, as the great Jewish immigration wave from Europe was arriving and which flourished in the years following the 2nd World War.

The Pew Study told us that much of the American Jewish population has turned away from these organizations and the communal framework they led. What it told us was not new learning, just a stark reminder of what we have been told many times since the 1990 NJPS and the publication of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” Our way of doing business as a community is in trouble and our basic institutions are out of step and at risk. And with them the framework of a unified Jewish community is at risk.

The J Street vote symbolizes much of what is wrong in today’s Jewish world.

The lessons of 1968, of the Civil Rights Movement, of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, of any effort for basic societal change is that change will not come from within a society without continued pressure from the outside. It is that disruption that forces change as organizations and leaders face uncertainty and insecurity.

It now seems foolish to believe that organizations and their leaders will move and change without continued pressure from the outside. The very way that organizations like the Conference operate, secretly and in the shadows, will not be a way that will bring us where we need to go as a community. Members of the Conference who think that change is needed should act to create a new and different framework that includes everyone who wants to be a part of creating that new communal framework and not waste their resources on a process that is antithetical to the ways of the future. Individuals who seek to change the communal status quo need to challenge every organization they are members of to not continue to be “pawns in the game” and act with their feet and wallets when the status quo is more important than our future.

Marty Levine is a life long Jewish communal professional. He served as General Director of JCC Chicago until his retirement in 2013. He now consults to nonprofit organizations.