Polarizing conversations

Why Jewish community relations is distinctive and essential: Framing the current debate

This is the moment for our communal system to creatively respond

American Jewry and its institutional actors are today in a different operational place. No doubt, conversations about the future of various agencies, services and programs are essential.  

Where does community relations policy-making belong within the Jewish communal orbit? Should such national instruments as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, (JCPA) be incorporated into the federation system or should it be permitted to remain an independent entity? At a time of such deep polarization around politics and policies, is there room for a communal public policy agency to articulate its independent message, when at times its viewpoints are seen as not reflective of the community’s power base?

This conversation is a natural fit in this moment, as we see a significant realignment taking place within the American economy as a whole, and most certainly within the Jewish communal system. 

We should not lose sight of the impressive contributions that this network of agencies provided over the past 75 years, both on a national scale and within our communities.  In such areas as inter-faith relations, civil and human rights, and advocacy for both domestic and foreign policy interests. Beyond policy considerations, the caliber and scope of relationships with civic, racial, ethnic, governmental and educational leaders represent a distinctive value-added for our community.

In the short term, constructing efficiencies of services and reconfiguring the management of the communal agenda may make sense. But here, we need to be careful about what we may wish for. At the moment, we may want to acknowledge that the JCPA/CRC agenda may not be in alignment with the federation’s priorities and interests. The drive to close down this national community relations enterprise may result in a short-term gain, with serious and challenging long-term implications. The federation system for years embraced supporting a stand-alone national policy structure, precisely because it could act to advance Jewish policy interests and that it could also bring together its partner agencies in pursuit of a collective agenda, even as federations had other distinctive priorities and interests.

Indeed, there may well be reasons to consolidate at the moment certain communal functions. But we must be clear, a time in the future will most certainly come, when such an independent instrument of public policy will serve our collective interests, and where the federated system will benefit from the presence of a separate public policy network to serve our community.

We must also remind ourselves that not all communities are the same. Here, uniformity overlooks the value of geo-political differences. Our communities, reflect the cultural and civic diversities of this nation. Should we close down a system in order to construct some monolithic communal model?

Similarly, if the Pew Study suggests anything to us, American Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal. If we wish to further drive some of these activists, potential donors and supporters away, creating a one size fits all communal response will not be the answer.

All of this should remind us of “learning to read the tea leaves.”  Our nation is undergoing significant demographic, cultural and social changes. Tomorrow will bring a fundamentally different society of how Jews and Judaism will be seen and understood and will require the energies and talents of the Jewish communal relations enterprise. We no doubt will face new challenges as well as opportunities in working with the realities of such transitions.

Yet, even within our community, even as we are divided, Jews are collectively troubled by an increase in antisemitic behavior and anti-Israel rhetoric. Many are concerned about the issues of racial justice and are unsettled by the deep political divisions within our society. It is also a time in which we find politically disaffected Jews, uncertain and uncomfortable about Israel, as well as a new Jewish generation who is seeking answers to their myriad of questions about our community, Israel and our nation.

This is the moment for our communal system to creatively respond!

Framing a Different National Response:

What may be a more beneficial approach than the absorption of JCPA into the JFNA network, is redesigning the existing model where the federation enterprise joins in partnership with Jewish foundations and funders to create a reconstituted national system. A community relations structure that includes the participation of the numerous single-issue organizations and the myriad of Jewish social justice entities may best enhance this model. Here, the short-term operating principle ought to be, “let many flowers bloom.” In this scenario, we acknowledge the diversity of viewpoints that today define our communal political platform but also the essential value of maintaining an umbrella network of Jewish advocacy agencies.

Divisions and disagreements point to the robust nature of the political environment. Indeed, while some may desire a level of uniformity, it is about the passion and power of the discussions around Israel, Black Lives Matter, and other considerations through which we both educate and engage Jews. The power of dissent has its own value. At the moment, complexity defines the end-game! 

With the engagement of Jewish funders and our federations, a message would be conveyed to the Jewish communal field of the essential importance of this work. This galvanizes these independent agencies, including the AJC which has withdrawn from JCPA, in realizing the centrality of being a partner in the collective work of community relations practice. Bringing to the table the multiple advocacy organizations, sends a defining and coherent message. The Jewish community is committed to being inclusive, bringing the disparate and countervailing political voices into the room. Where we find consensus, we move to build upon it, and where we agree to disagree, we frame those disagreements around some common markers or guidelines. A new national model will hopefully stimulate local initiatives as well as to construct a different organizing scheme in framing a communal dialogue around these complex and divisive issues.

While we acknowledge our internal differences, we claim the value of civil and responsible debate and dialogue. Further, we can confirm the essential importance of building relationships with our civic and religious partners, even at this time when we may find limited room for agreement or mutual action. We note the value of these significant and sustained civic relationships and partnerships, a central tenet in this work, in providing essential and strategic connections of importance to our communities. By employing this organizing strategy, it is still possible for our umbrella apparatus to remain outside of specific disputes or contentious issues, while its partner agencies hold space for particular causes, maintaining relationships and access with controversial actors.

We need to avoid here the trap of “quick fixes” in the name of expediency and cost-efficiencies or employing all or none solutions. Instead, we must consider investing for the long-term, especially in partnership with a discipline that has a distinctive track record and requires its own lane to define its presence and serve the interests of the community.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.