Seventy-Five Years Later, National-Local Jewish Community Relations Still Key to Jewish Wellbeing

Larry Rubin, JCPA chief professional, 1990-2000
Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA chief professional, 2000-2004
Steve Gutow, JCPA chief professional, 2004-2015
David Bernstein, JCPA chief professional, 2016-Present

Marking the 75th Anniversary of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an organization each of us has had the honor of serving as the chief executive, it’s a good a time to reflect on an American Jewish success story. Built in the aftermath of the Holocaust and at the dawn of the civil rights era, a national-local community relations infrastructure was deployed to ensure America lived up to its own high ideals of fairness and justice. The founders understood then as we do now that the wellbeing of the American Jewish community is inextricably linked to that of other minorities and the health of America’s pluralistic democracy.

A cornerstone of the community relations approach is a multi-issue agenda, animated both by the Jewish value of social justice and Jewish communal interests. Criticized by some for being universalist and, hence, insufficiently focused on “Jewish issues,” it is precisely because community relations engages a spectrum of social issues that it so effectively addresses anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. Failure to be engaged on domestic policy would give the American Jewish community little influence among constituencies susceptible to misperceptions about Jews.

Moreover, issues that affect the broader society also affect Jews. Polarization in America impacts Jews. Environmental degradation, lack of economic opportunity, and mass incarceration all adversely impact Jews and should be addressed, in coalition with other groups, by the organized Jewish community.

Experience tells us that we can’t be for ourselves if we are only for ourselves. Social justice and self-preservation, it turns out, go hand and hand.

In the early days of the community relations field, national organizations and local Jewish community relations councils banded together to ensure that the Jewish community coordinated its external relations and advocacy work on issues of importance to Jews and other minorities.

Over the next seven and a half decades, the community relations strategy paid off in spades. This national-local system has been paramount in many of the big issues of the day, from the playing a leading role in the civil rights movement to advocating for the freedom for Soviet Jewry to preserving freedom of speech and church-state separation to combatting poverty to stopping genocide in Darfur (and today against the Rohingyas) to fighting anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel. In each of these efforts, the national-local system exercised thought leadership, developed strategy, convened the Jewish community and built coalitions with other groups.

The power in the community relations network lies in the symbiosis between the national system and the local councils, undertaking the work in a coordinated fashion. Local JCRCs from across the country take stock of their political and social conditions, enter coalitions with like-minded groups, build connections to the power structure in the community, and leverage those connections to benefit the Jewish community and the broader society. The national system, with JCPA as its primary network hub, builds parallel connections with the national ethnic, religious and civic groups and political leadership, undertakes trend analysis, provides support for local efforts, and highlights and scales best practices. The stronger the local affiliates the stronger the national system, and vice versa.

In today’s world, the challenges are no less momentous. And this tried-and-true approach, augmented by modern social technologies and organizing techniques, is no less necessary. Indeed, at a time when anti-Semitism and bigotry have emerged with alarming frequency on both sides of the political spectrum, when our society is so very polarized, when economic inequality tears at the fabric of society, we need a national-local system that’s both reactive – responds to crises as they emerge – and proactive –  builds relationships before a crisis occurs. As one of us is fond of saying: “At a moment of need, you can’t cross a bridge you didn’t build.”

We are gratified that the importance of the community relations field was recently validated by two separate studies: a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Community Relations, commissioned by the Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and one by the Reut Institute, a well-respected Israel-based think tank. Both of these reports affirmed that effective community relations work is to critical to the interests of American Jewry.

We urge that the national Jewish community  – federations and philanthropists – take these findings seriously and do everything in their power to bolster the national-local system and devote the necessary resources so it’s fully capable of responding to the moment. The next set of challenges and opportunities are already upon us.