The Exclusion of J Street and the Denial of Ourselves

Organizations are not simply web sites and platforms – they are also composed of people.

by Robert Hyfler

In a 2012 article I relayed what I described as “a real life midrash”:

  • Early in my career, I worked at the Memphis Jewish Federation. At the time the most beloved community volunteer was Lewis “Red” Kramer, a secular Jew, regional Vice President of the Workman’s Circle and yet the membership chairman of what was then the largest Orthodox congregation in America. Red was fond of telling the following story related to a split that occurred in the 1920’s in his native community of Atlanta between Jewish Socialists and Jewish Communists. Separate self help organizations, separate burial societies and fraternal associations were formed (from what one can only imagine was a pretty small population to begin with.) The only common activity to remain was the Yiddish choir. “After all”, as Red would tell with a big smile and in his best Southern drawl, “there was only so many soprano’s, alto’s and tenors to go around”.

I would never describe myself as a political activist. While my strongly held personal views cohere with that of the Zionist left and center, during my long tenure in Jewish communal life I always believed that my role, and perhaps particular virtue, apart from defender of Zionism and Israel’s legitimacy and safety, was to foster unity, dialogue and mutual respect. Conferences and rallies I played a major role in reflected a diversity of opinion and as a community planner in the 90’s I was meticulous in reaching out and to include in the communal discourse all segments of the Washington DC community, right to left, yeshivish to secular humanist, those in interfaith relationships and members of the GLBT community.

However today we live in difficult and troubling times. To say that consensus has been challenged is an understatement. To say that both the Jewish right and the Jewish left see the issues around what is unfolding as a matter of first principles and life and death is a truism. There may be no easy and obvious intellectual compromise to satisfy either side and the phrase “agreeing to disagree” rings hollow. And that is why I found the decision by the Conference of Presidents to deny membership to J Street a communally bankrupt decision.

Organizations are not simply web sites and platforms – they are also composed of people. When we exclude from our global kehillah organizations we are excluding the flesh and blood human beings who populate its boards and committees, who donate to its treasury and see themselves reflected in the positions and actions taken. When we are rejecting an organization for membership in the Jewish collective we are rejecting Jews.

I went back and looked at the names on the J Streets web site – its board, staff, board of advisors and Israeli supporters. I saw the names of individuals I knew from their young leadership days in Milwaukee and Memphis; philanthropists I worked closely with on wonderful and exciting projects of great import; an individual I worked with to plan the Washington memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin z”l; A fellow graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush and a fellow counselor at the legendary Camp Massad Aleph. I saw friends and past colleagues I have had dinners with over which the full range of Jewish issues and concerns were discussed; academics I have agreed with and some with whom I had crossed swords. I saw people who came to my communities, in their “day jobs”, and ennobled us with their teaching, insights and calls to action on a myriad of issues few of which could be described as “political”. I saw an individual I sat next to at my brother’s seder table and persons who served on boards I had staffed. I saw Rabbis I had davened with and consulted and yes, Rabbis whose shuls “I would never daven at”. In short, I saw a cross section of my life, my Jewish life, and a rather establishment one at that.

When we exclude a J-Street in the conversation and at the decision making table we are denying and diminishing the collective wisdom that will help us get through the coming challenges – with our lives intact, our values intact and our sense of who we are as one people intact. We are denying a piece of ourselves.

Bob Hyfler can be reached at bobhyfler@comcast.net