The Temple de Hirsch Sinai synagogue in Seattle was hit with anti-Semitic spraypaint. Photo courtesy of YouTube.

Standing Together Against Anti-Semitism

There is a midrash that, when standing at Sinai to receive the Torah, each person received their own personal revelation but responded in one voice, saying, “Na’aseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear.” It is in that exquisite moment that we became one People. Each of us is an individual, but we — and our fate — are inextricably linked, and we are each responsible for one another.

 The Jewish community today is under attack, with more than 148 terrorist threats to our institutions in more than 30 different communities. Hate-filled vandalism and desecration of our sacred places are being perpetrated to wreak havoc and instill fear. Whenever the Jewish community is threatened in such a vile and insidious way, na’aseh v’nishma — we must stand together to face the challenges of the day in a decisive and powerful way. We may come from different vantage points, denominations, walks of life — we may differ from each other in a thousand ways — but nothing compares to that which unites us. This has been true throughout our history as a Jewish People. 

Now we are putting that shared bond to work on behalf of the entire community. As Jewish organizations of all stripes, we will not stand idly by where there is need, and we will certainly not stand idly by while our people and institutions are terrorized. We are all stronger when we work together. 

In the past few weeks since these threats have magnified in number and scope, Jewish Federations have been active on several fronts:

1)  Local Federations are serving as conveners to bring institutions and leadership together to respond to specific threats and attacks, develop plans to expand security resources and mobilize gatherings where appropriate to demonstrate solidarity. Our JCCs have faced significant challenges with calm and determination, and we salute all of their efforts as well.

 2) Through our Secure Community Network (SCN), we are working with federal officials in law enforcement and homeland security to aid investigations of bomb threats and cemetery desecrations. We are grateful to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement, all of whom have been our partners in facing this challenge.

3) Working with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and other coalition partners, JFNA is working toward a dramatic expansion of funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which helps nonprofit groups in religious and ethnic communities targeted by hate crimes.

4) Within the next few weeks we will be enabling every Federation to implement a new, powerful and cost-efficient emergency notification system to link them with the leadership of local Jewish institutions and organizations to enable immediate response to crisis situations.

5) We are working in lock-step collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations, communicating daily and leveraging our shared resources and vast reach.

6) JFNA will be convening with the JCC Association of North America, Hillel International, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools and the Foundation for Jewish Camp to ensure coordination of efforts and best practices among these critical national organizations, which serve the widest spectrum of communal agencies affected by these threats and attacks.

 We will not be deterred or distracted by infighting or petty grievances. We will stay the course and guarantee that when our family, friends and neighbors participate in the wonderful mosaic that is Jewish life, they will find the meaning, community and security they seek.

 Na’aseh v’nishma — standing together as one.

 Richard Sandler is chair of the Board of Trustees and Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America

U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Representative Greg Walden hold a news conference on the American Health Care Act. March 7. Photo by Eric Thayer/REUTERS.

Jewish elderly advocates take aim at GOP’s proposed changes to health care

Two Jewish agencies charged with elderly care sharply criticized the new Republican health care bill.

B’nai B’rith International, which sponsors low-income housing for the elderly, and the Jewish Federations of North America, which advocates for funds for the poor and the elderly, took aim changes contained in the American Health Care Act, the bill Republican leaders hope to pass as a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

“Congress and the Trump Administration appear to be moving quickly to pass potentially devastating cuts to Medicaid,” JFNA said in an action alert sent this week to its constituent groups, urging them to lobby Congress against the cuts.

The organization said the cuts “would greatly impact Jewish federation partner agencies that provide health, long-term care and home and community-based care,” noting that federation partner agencies get about $6 billion from Medicaid each year.

Medicaid is the government program that supports health care for the poor. The bill proposes to cap Medicaid funding to each state according to the number of eligible participants at the beginning of the fiscal year. B’nai B’rith and JFNA said such caps would not take into account changes in enrollment numbers and other unexpected health care cost increases.

“Changing any portion of the Medicaid funding to a per capita cap proposal would have a significant negative impact on seniors, because capping federal funding for Medicaid would add an additional layer of pressure to state budgets, and put the health care and financial security of millions of older adults at risk,” B’nai B’rith said in its March 8 statement.

B’nai B’rith also took aim at a component of the bill that would reduce premiums for younger, healthier Americans, citing studies predicting “low-income adults in their 60s could see dramatic increases in premiums.”

Richard Sandler at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington D.C. in 2015.

JFNA’s Sandler taking heat for support of David Friedman

The chairman of one of America’s largest Jewish membership organizations is facing criticism for publicly supporting President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for ambassador to Israel.

Appearing in Tel Aviv on a panel about Israeli-American relations under Trump, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) board of trustees chair Richard Sandler spoke highly of David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and Trump confidante.

“I believe he’s a very intelligent individual, and I think he’ll be a good representative if he is confirmed,” Sandler said, according to Haaretz. “My expectations of him are very positive.”

Friedman has made headlines for inflammatory comments about liberal Jews, for instance, comparing members of the left-wing group J Street to Jews who collaborated with the Nazi regime. Sandler’s support for Friedman came as a shock to some who feel those comments are disqualifying.

“Unless one really represents the majority view of the organization, sometimes it’s better just to keep your mouth shut — and this is one of those times,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and national chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Israel arm of the American Reform movement. “And I’m sorry that he did it.”

Meanwhile, Sandler, a Santa Monica-based attorney and former chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was quick to frame his comments as a personal opinion, rather than the view of JFNA, the umbrella group for Federations across the continent.

“The comments reported in the press were in response to a question directed to me about David Friedman and reflected my personal view, based upon my analysis of the situation and my personal contact with Mr. Friedman,” Sandler wrote in an email to JFNA trustees. He declined to comment for this story.

At the panel, Sandler cited Friedman’s apology before the Senate as grounds to move beyond the nominee’s past statements.

“These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them,” Friedman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a confirmation hearing last month. “They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.”

But Rosove of ARZA, who is also a member of the executive rabbinic cabinet of J Street, was less than convinced.

“I’m surprised that a distinguished leader of the Los Angeles Jewish community would believe anything that David Friedman says,” he told the Journal.

He said that ARZA’s board voted unanimously to oppose Friedman’s appointment. He called Sandler’s support for Friedman wrongheaded and inappropriate, saying he hoped the Federations leader would recant his view.

Others in the community were more disappointed than angry about Sandler’s comments.

“He’s done a lot for both the L.A. as well as the national Jewish community,” Adam Wergeles, a co-founder of the West L.A. congregation IKAR, told the Journal. “And on the other hand, you have a guy like Friedman who has said some horribly divisive things about progressive Jewry. And it is upsetting to see someone like Sandler — who’s kind of using his stature — to support what felt to me like Friedman’s very convenient and self-serving retraction.”

Yet Sandler is only one of a number of mainstream Jewish leaders now expressing support for Friedman. On Feb. 19, Stephen Greenberg, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said Friedman has “all the makings” of a successful diplomat and spoke highly of his performance before the Senate.

Greenberg stopped short of issuing an endorsement, while others felt it necessary to go further.

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, which represents more than 100 synagogues and 25,000 members nationwide, said he felt compelled to speak out in favor of Friedman after hearing criticism from the left. He said he took Friedman for his word when the nominee apologized for past comments.

“These people who come out against him are not really people who know him,” he said, citing multiple conversations he’d had with Young Israel members who knew Friedman personally and spoke highly of him.

Sandler’s comments come on the heels of a public debate on whether Federations should take political stances at all. The L.A. Federation came under fire last month after an email from its president and CEO addressed – but did not denounce – Trump’s executive actions on refugees and immigration.

At the time, Sandler told the Journal that he supported the L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from taking a position, saying political statements invariably upset some donors.

“Federations really should not get involved in making statements one way or another, because they need not get distracted from the work Federations are supposed to do,” he said at the time.

JFNA has previously shied away from commenting on political appointees. In November, the group came under pressure to condemn the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist for his role at the helm of Breitbart News, but declined to take a position.

A protest against President Donald Trump's immigration policy in New York City on Feb. 12. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Federation stays neutral on Trump refugee order, despite pressure

In the days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting refugee admissions to the United States, a long list of Jewish organizations authored fiery statements condemning the new measures. Notably missing from their ranks was The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from taking a clear position on the executive order raised questions about whether it should make any political statements at all, hearkening to a similarly bitter debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. And while disagreements on that point simmered behind closed doors, the Federation has signaled that it would continue to abstain from taking sides on the day’s issues.

In a Feb. 2 email titled “Our Commitment to Immigration and Resettlement,” Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson addressed the executive order without criticizing it: “I want you to know that we have heard your concerns and feel the anxiety of our community,” he wrote.

For some, Sanderson’s email fell short, failing to express solidarity with impacted communities and carrying a fundraising pitch some saw as tone deaf. Within the organization’s circle of stakeholders, volunteers and employees, many raised concerns privately over whether Federation should take a stronger stand on the issue.

In a private letter obtained by the Journal, 36 alumni of Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project strongly criticized Sanderson’s email for being too passive it its approach.

“We must express our profound disappointment — for some of us, even anger and shame — at ‘Our Commitment to Immigration and Resettlement,’ ” they wrote, adding their voice to a chorus of donors and community members airing their grievances internally.

Addressing themselves Feb. 6 to Sanderson and Julie Platt, chair of Federation’s board of directors, the young leaders asked Sanderson to reconsider his statement. His email, they wrote, “neither specifies the policies against which so many Jewish leaders are battling, nor identifies by name the Muslim and immigrant communities with which we are standing together. In standing silently by, the communication betrays our values as Jews, as Americans, as Angelenos, and as civic ambassadors for the Jewish Federation.”

The authors noted that their “continued voluntary and philanthropic involvement” in Federation programs would be impacted by the response they received.

The letter prompted a Feb. 13 meeting between more than a dozen young leaders and top Federation officials, including Sanderson, Platt and Richard Sandler, chair of the board of trustees for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and former L.A. Federation board chairman.

Jay Sanderson

Jay Sanderson

The following day, the letter’s signatories and Federation leadership issued a joint statement to the Journal.

“While we don’t agree on everything, we all believe that we must continue to engage with each other honestly and openly and to find more ways to help those in need,” they said in the statement. “Working together in ways that reflect our shared Jewish values, we will find new and meaningful opportunities to stand with our community and with all Angelenos.”

According to those present, the meeting was a productive and cordial one.

“We had a group of very committed passionate leaders come, and we listened, and we talked about how we can be proactive,” Sanderson told the Journal on Feb. 14. Unlike other Jewish organizations, he said, “we’re not in the statement business.”

He stood by his Feb. 2 email, saying, “We’re a mission-driven organization that lets our work make the statement.” He made this point in the original note to the community: “Our Federation’s statement on immigration was made 104 years ago when we made the rescue and resettlement of immigrants — like our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — a top priority,” he wrote.

He said that of the people who have responded to the email, the vast majority were positive responses.

“Oftentimes people in the community get fixated on statements,” he said, “and what I’ve learned in my career is the most successful advocacy oftentimes happens quietly, oftentimes happens behind closed doors.”

Sandler told the Journal he supported the L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from issuing a statement on the executive order.

“Federations really should not get involved in making statements one way or another, because they need not get distracted from the work Federations are supposed to do,” he said, adding that political statements inevitably upset some Federation donors.

Some Jewish Federations decided to weigh in anyway, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which submitted an amicus brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking it to uphold a lower court’s ruling that blocked Trump’s executive order. But JFNA, the umbrella organization for all North American Federations, remained silent on the issue.

Sandler praised Sanderson’s Feb. 2 email as “very measured” adding that “it talks about what Federations do: that we don’t ignore these issues but we’re not going to get involved in the debate.”

The conversation around Sanderson’s letter mirrored an earlier one, from July 2015, when a Federation statement opposing the Iran nuclear agreement met with backlash from community members who supported it. The Iran deal statement raised similar questions over when, if at all, it is appropriate for a body catering to the entire L.A. Jewish community to make political pronouncements.

“That statement was a learning process for us.… It made us look at who we are and what our role in the community is, and our role in the community is to be out front and doing the work,” Sanderson told the Journal.

Protocols in place now require a statement to be reviewed by the L.A. Federation’s board prior to being released. Since Sanderson’s email was not a statement, but rather a regular bi-weekly update to community members, those protocols did not apply, he said.

But one notable difference has been the full-throated opposition with which the organized Jewish community met the refugee order, while opinions on the Iran deal straddled both sides. The letter from young Federation leaders noted “the broad consensus we have already seen from Reform and Orthodox Jews” on the refugee order and which, in theory, would have given Sanderson political cover to come out in opposition.

“This was a case where I thought you’d have fairly strong unanimity of thinking here,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and an expert on Jewish political life.

Sanderson said the L.A. Federation will continue to abstain from political debates.

“We’ve been asked to make public policy statements in the last month five times, including positions from the right and positions from the left,” he said. “We would be a whirling dervish if we reacted to all those things.”

Jewish Federations board approves first-ever West Bank trip

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) for the first time has approved travel to the West Bank for an Israel trip falling under its jurisdiction.

Six months ago, the JFNA absorbed an organization called the Israel Action Network (IAN), which leads trips to Israel that include visits to the West Bank. During an Oct. 26 conference call, the JFNA board of trustees voted to alter its travel policies to allow these trips to continue.

“The JFNA Board of Trustees approved a number of appropriate and necessary protocols to support the advocacy and education trips of the IAN,” JFNA associate vice president Rebecca Dinar wrote in a statement emailed to the Journal. “This vote ensures that IAN will continue to travel to Israel and the surrounding areas not historically visited by JFNA staff.”

IAN was created in 2010 as a collaboration between JFNA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs as a response to anti-Israel sentiment, but before this year it operated outside JFNA’s organizational structure.

Though the recent vote was called specifically to address IAN missions, it raises the question of whether other trips organized under the JFNA umbrella could soon visit the West Bank. 

The vote came immediately after two festival days — Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — when observant Jews disconnected from their phones and emails. The urgency seems to have been due to an upcoming IAN trip that was set to depart from New York on Oct. 30. Trustees were informed about an upcoming conference call and vote the day before it took place in an email from JFNA President Jerry Silverman.

Silverman wrote in the email, “The call will center on a proposed adjustment to JFNA’s historic policy which prohibits mission travel to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority [PA].”

The email made specific reference to the IAN’s Interfaith Partners for Peace trip, which takes non-Jewish clergy to PA areas such as Bethlehem.

After a review, Silverman wrote, JFNA staff determined “authorizing the entry of IAN missions into the PA is in the best interest of the federation system.”

But the email seemed to suggest the vote would reach further than just the IAN missions.

“The Board will also be asked to authorize the entry of JFNA missions, including federation community missions planned through JFNA, into Israeli-controlled territories beyond the Green Line (e.g., Ariel or Gush Etzion, etc.),” Silverman wrote.

Because the discussion was “deemed privileged information,” according to the email, JFNA officials wouldn’t say if the board took action on the type of broad policy change suggested by Silverman’s message. However, the issue could arise at JFNA’s upcoming General Assembly in November. 

Along with trips organized by its local affiliates like the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, JFNA leads regular trips to Israel, such as one from young leaders and another for LGBT individuals.

Jewish Federations to debate travel to West Bank settlements

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) is considering a change to its policy that could allow its missions to Israel to visit Jewish settlements in the West Bank but not areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The proposed policy has some leaders worried that the country’s largest network of Jewish organizations is presenting too narrow a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an Oct. 26 conference call, JFNA’s board of trustees will be asked to “authorize the entry of JFNA missions, including federation community missions planned through JFNA, into Israeli-controlled territories beyond the Green Line (e.g., Ariel or Gush Etzion, etc.),” JFNA president Jerry Silverman wrote in an email to trustees, naming two Jewish settlements.

Interfaith Partners for Peace, a program of JFNA affiliate Israel Action Network (IAN), already takes delegations of faith leaders to Palestinian towns, Silverman said in the email obtained by the Journal.

In the case of the interfaith trips, the email noted, the JFNA believes “authorizing the entry of IAN missions into the PA is in the best interest of the federation system.”

JFNA, the umbrella organization for local Jewish federations across the country, leads annual missions to Israel, for instance for young leaders and LGBT individuals. Local federations lead many more such trips, which are a fundamental way federations engage Jewish philanthropists and leaders in Israel.

It was unclear whether the trustees would be asked to rewrite federation policy or simply lend their approval to the IAN trip. But even if the vote applied only to the IAN trip, it would set precedent, since federation missions currently avoid the West Bank entirely.

The email seems to suggest that JFNA-led trips would be allowed to travel to areas under direct control of the Israeli military and not to Palestinian areas like Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah.

The vote raises concerns that mission participants would be exposed to one side of the story if they visited Jewish settlements in the West Bank while avoiding Palestinian areas.

One philanthropist and Israel activist who was briefed on federation discussions by a trustee told the Jewish Journal the policy would have the effect of “normalizing” Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 Green Line that most countries see as violating international law. She asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the discussion.

She said she believes it best if federation trips simply avoided the West Bank altogether.

But, she said, “If seeing is so important, then I think that we have an equal responsibility to go see Palestinians living over the Green Line.”

The conference call comes the day after Simchat Torah, a holiday when observant Jews don’t answer their phones or emails. The conversation is “deemed privileged information,” according to Silverman’s email, restricted only to voting trustees.

Reached by phone, Leslie Bider, former chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a trustee for the national organization, said the discussion was “confidential to the JFNA board” and declined to comment.

Requests for information from JFNA were not immediately returned.

At Federation’s General Assembly, grappling with less authority and more division

What’s our mission? How will young Jews react? How do we not alienate the growing number of Jews with left-leaning views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In a breakout session Nov. 9 at the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) annual General Assembly (GA) in Washington, D.C., 3,000 Federation professionals and volunteers from across the country grappled with how Federations can handle the changing views of American Jewry vis-à-vis Israel. The session was titled “The Elephant in the Room: Managing Divergent Perspectives on Israel and Beyond.”

Among the questions included on the handout worksheets:

Should someone who supports boycotting “settlement goods” but opposes the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement be allowed in as a speaker? 

If Israel bombed an Iranian nuclear site without coordination with Washington, would your local Federation quickly release a statement in support if donors demand that? 

If a synagogue rabbi calls your Federation and says his congregation is being torn apart by members who want to associate with more groups on the left or the right, such as AIPAC, how could Federation intervene?

“There is growing competition in Washington, D.C., on Israel advocacy, leading to an increased ‘which camp are you in?’ kind of environment,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in the San Francisco Bay Area, told those in the room. “In addition, there is a rapidly deteriorating support for Israel on one side of the aisle. It’s true, according to all of the polls, that Israel is increasingly seen through much more of a partisan lens.”

Managing divisions within Federations — on Israel, Iran and how to handle the growing anti-Israel BDS movement on American campuses — the same divisions that have manifested themselves in so many other areas of American-Jewish life in the past year, was a persistent theme at this year’s GA. During the opening plenary on Nov. 8, for example, when Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella mentioned Justin Trudeau, the newly elected prime minister from Canada’s Liberal Party, there was significant, although certainly not unanimous, applause — his predecessor from the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, was widely regarded as the West’s most ardent supporter of Israel.

At the breakout session, Kahn pointed out that in response to President Barack Obama’s signature nuclear agreement with Iran last summer, 24 Jewish Federations came out against the deal, while the remaining 106 did not take a public position.

“There’s not unanimity at all nationally, which is OK, but which is fairly unusual within the system,” Kahn said. At a separate breakout session on defining Federation’s role within Jewish communities, volunteers and professionals from two East Coast Federations discussed how each approached the issue of staying neutral on the Iran deal or publicly opposing it, with one woman saying that her Federation first consulted the executive board and major donors before making a decision.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said in an interview at the GA that after his office sent a community-wide email in late July stating that the agreement with Iran “threatens the mission of our Federation as we exist to assure the continuity of the Jewish people,” and encouraging people to contact their elected representatives, he had dozens of meetings and conversations about Federation’s outspoken decision. Federation’s email prompted angry responses from some leaders and rabbis in the community who supported the deal and felt it wasn’t Federation’s job to take such a public position.

“The vast majority of people that I heard from over time were happy that the Federation was willing to take a stand,” Sanderson said. “In our mission, it says that we support a strong and safe and secure State of Israel.”

Federation sent its email after a unanimous vote by its executive committee but did not consult its general board, which also upset a handful of board members, none of whom, Sanderson said, has left his or her position or stopped financial support of the organization.

“We [now] have a process to make decisions in a more transparent way,” Sanderson said, when asked whether he wishes Federation had handled the Iran email any differently. “It will get brought to the executive committee, and then to the board, and it will need a very serious majority of the board for us to make a public statement.”

Richard Sandler, former L.A. Federation board chairman and the new board chairman of the JFNA, supported the L.A. Federation’s position on the Iran deal, and said while he wishes it had handled the process of the letter differently, he believes the result would have been the same. “I think we would have come out, quite frankly, in the exact same place,” he said in an interview. “But we owe a responsibility to the entire board.”

Sandler characterized the division among American Jewry as a “symptom of an insidious disease.”

“There are tremendous divisions within the Jewish community,” he said. “It’s not about the Iran deal. If there was no Iran deal, they would still exist.”

In a session titled “Identity Crisis: Defining the Role of Community Organizations,” Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, addressed what may have been the most prominent elephant in the Washington Hilton: that Federation, once the longtime go-to Jewish communal organization with no close second, is now just one — albeit a big one — Jewish group among hundreds of influential nonprofits. 

We “can no longer take for granted that we’re in charge and can shape an agenda,” Kurtzer said. “We are living in a post-authority moment for Jewish life,” in which many American Jews feel that “if the leadership decides not to support my views, I am no longer beholden to the institution.”

To add to the problem, while policy on support for Israel used to be a unifying issue,  it has increasingly become a divisive topic in some synagogues, Hillels and Federations. Further, study after study shows that American Jews, particularly young Jews, are becoming less religious and less involved in Jewish communal organizations.

“I’m worried that what’s going on now will alienate a lot of people that we don’t want to alienate,” Sanderson said. “My job is to build the Jewish community first and foremost, and sometimes we’re going to have to build it where Israel is not the central driver.”

The GA’s featured speakers, roundtables and breakout panels reflected the Federation leadership’s hope to appeal to all parts of a community with widely varying religious, social and political priorities. Diverse political views on Israel were covered — with speakers and panelists including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Canada’s previous foreign minister, John Baird, as well as Obama administration officials such as Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro and the White House’s Jewish outreach liaison, Matt Nosanchuk. 

There were breakout sessions focused on the successes of Chabad and Hillel, as well as LGBT issues and “tailor-made Judaism” as it pertains to being inclusive toward interfaith families.

For Federation insiders, this year’s GA, like every other year’s, was first and foremost a chance to share best practices and cram weeks’ or months’ worth of meetings and travel into three days in one hotel. For outsiders and observers, it was just the most recent example of how a pillar of American Jewry is adjusting to a community that is more divided and less reliant on the traditional handful of large Jewish institutions.

For Sandler, as a national leader, that means navigating a Jewish community that, when he joined the L.A. Federation eight years ago, saw Federation as being in the “tax-collecting” business.

“You’re Jewish, you have a responsibility to your people; you have to give money to the Jewish world. We have traditionally been the outlet for that money; we distribute it where it needs to go,” Sandler said. “It doesn’t work anymore, because there are so many other places to give your money, and each generation becomes less connected with the prior generation.”

Israel vows big investment in world Jewry project, though details remain fuzzy

Its leaders call it a “historic development,” a “paradigm shift” and a “change in the relationship” between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

But when it comes to the details of the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry, key questions have yet to be answered — including what it will do and who will fund it.

Conceived last year as a partnership between the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel and major Diaspora Jewish bodies, the initiative aims to strengthen Diaspora Jewish identity and connections between Israel and Jews worldwide.

On Sunday, Israel’s Cabinet voted to invest upward of $50 million on the initiative through 2017. The government intends to increase the sum to $100 million annually by 2022. The government wants Diaspora sources — federations, philanthropic foundations and individual donors — to contribute double those sums for two-thirds of the initiative’s total budget. The funding will go both toward expanding existing programs for young adults and creating new ones.

“It’s a historic development that the Israeli government has decided to take more responsibility for strengthening the identity of Jewish communities,” the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, told JTA. “We’re talking about Jewish identity built on a connection to Israel.”

Given the success of Birthright Israel, a free, 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults, the initiative will focus on immersive experiences in Israel, college campus programs, Jewish summer camps and experiential learning, Sharansky said.

But though the Israeli government has set aside money for the initiative, it has neither lined up the matching grants from Diaspora foundations nor has it outlined the specific programs that would receive the funding.

A planning meeting for the initiative in November 2013 drew a virtual who’s who of major Jewish organizations and foundations. But Sharansky mentioned only Jewish Federations of North America as a potential initial source of funding from the United States, saying he didn’t want to single others out before a plan had been set.

“There are many unanswered questions at this point,” the Jewish Federations’ CEO, Jerry Silverman, told JTA. “Six months from now many of those questions will be answered. We’re not at the finish line. We’re at the 30-yard line. We feel confident we’ll get to the finish line together on this.”

Silverman said that the Jewish Federations had yet to decide on an initial sum to contribute to the initiative and that his network was not involved in setting the budget passed by the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday.

Sharansky set a timetable of one to two months for program proposals to be drawn up. Following the initiative’s lengthy planning process thus far, which has included conferences and an online forum for young Jews worldwide to suggest programs, Sharansky said that “coming to practical decisions comes very quickly.”

Dvir Kahana, the director-general of Israel’s Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said the initiative still requires strategic planning in addition to practical steps.

The Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, as well as the Finance Ministry, will provide Israeli government funding for the initiative. It will be run by a body including representatives from the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and Diaspora funders.

“We’re going to have a strategic plan for the next 25 years,” he said. “Not what we know to do now but what we should and should not do. From that strategic perspective, with key people, we’ll make decisions both regarding existing programs and programs we need to create. We’re not set on any specific program.”

According to the text of the resolution passed by Israel’s Cabinet, a key portion of the initiative is strengthening the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The first stage of the initiative will focus both on bringing young Diaspora Jews to Israel and on Israel education in Diaspora communities. There has not been a decision whether the project’s initial stage will also educate Israeli Jews about world Jewry, Sharansky said.

The Jewish Agency, historically focused on promoting immigration to Israel, has in recent years taken up a new mission of strengthening Jewish identity and peoplehood in the Diaspora. It now offers Diaspora Jews long-term experiences in Israel without a commitment to immigrate.

Sharansky said that while Orthodox Jews can count on ritual observance to keep them engaged in the Jewish community, Israel is the only proven anchor to ensure Jewish identity for non-Orthodox Jews.

“In the non-Orthodox world nothing stops assimilation except connection to Israel,” he said. “In Orthodox communities, awareness of Jewish identity is very high. They live through their faith and Jewish tradition. When you move to others you find out that this deep feeling of your belonging to this Jewish story and your desire to stay inside of it is becoming thinner and thinner.”

Thinking big about littlest Jews

When Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), addresses the umbrella organization’s upcoming General Assembly (GA) in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, he may very well be thinking about a constituency not likely to be present at the Jerusalem International Convention Center: America’s Jewish 5-year-olds. 

It was those kids — and their parents — that Siegal and JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman were targeting when they proposed offering free Jewish preschool to American Jewish kids as a way to combat the trend of assimilation and disaffiliation identified in the recent Pew Center study of American Jews. The proposal was published in an op-ed that appeared in The Forward and the Huffington Post on Oct. 24.

“Children laugh without the inhibition that they’re going to be judged. We have to bring that joyfulness back,” Siegal said in an interview with the Journal on Oct. 31. “And clearly, a 5-year-old can influence their parents.”

Siegal, 60, says becoming a grandfather made him favor this idea, but the chairman and CEO of Cleveland-based Olympic Steel — which was a family-owned business before he built it into a publicly traded company valued today at about $290 million — pushed any sentimentality aside, estimating such a giveaway could cost roughly $400 million per year. 

It’s a staggering sum — JFNA as a whole spent a total of $317 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012 — and the idea is still in its earliest phases of gestation. But in light of the Pew study’s findings, Siegal said, bold actions are required. 

“If we can’t get the money to do all of this, what part of this can we do?” Siegal asked. “Because we want to make an impact that changes the narrative 70 years from now.”

That Siegal and JFNA are addressing the Pew study results at the GA at all is itself a change — as of early October, Silverman said that the Pew study wouldn’t be on the agenda. 

But just weeks before the three-day gathering, which will begin with a plenary featuring a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, JFNA assembled a panel about the Pew research that includes executives from Federations across the country — including Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The topic seems likely to take up some of the other sessions at the GA as well. The more than 2,500 Jewish leaders from across the continent who are expected to attend — including about 20 from Los Angeles — will also witness a conversation between public opinion pollster Mark Mellman and five members of the “millennial generation,” which the Pew study found to be the least engaged of all adult Jews in the United States. 

Siegal and Silverman also mooted an increase in support for Jewish camp and proposed designating certain American cities as “Jewish empowerment zones,” where innovative pilot projects could be tested. They also urged Birthright to share its database of contact information for its more than 350,000 past participants.

Whether their proposals will drive discussion in Jerusalem remains to be seen. 

 “We threw these ideas out there for the debate,” Siegal said, “and that’s what we want to do at the GA.” 

A number of other controversial topics are up for debate at the GA — including the contentious argument over the future of the Western Wall. The GA will host the first public conversation between Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, which has been holding female-led prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site for 25 years, and Ronit Peskin, who directs a new group, Women for the Wall, that opposes any changes to the current restrictions. 

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, who has been working to come up with a resolution that might appease — if not please — all parties, will also appear on the panel, along with MK Aliza Lavie, a member of the Knesset committee focused on the status of women. 

On Nov. 12, GA participants will walk to the Western Wall, where they’ll be invited to pray — as they wish, where they wish — or not. 

“Our walk is to state that Israel is a dream, and Israel is a reality,” Siegal said. “The fact that we’ve got leadership in Israel trying to connect the dream to the reality and trying to come up with solutions … we want to support the government.” 

The GA takes place in Jerusalem every few years, and this year’s gathering will focus on Israeli issues and on connections between Jews in the Diaspora to the Jewish state. 

But Siegal clearly sees his task as strengthening the Jewish American communities represented by JFNA. As such, at the end of his ranging conversation with the Journal, he returned to the themes — and concerns — raised by the Pew study.

“America is intoxicating, America is a drug,” Siegal said, seeming to simultaneously emphasize the positive and negative aspects embodied in his metaphor. “Minorities disappear and become Americans and are replaced by other minorities. 

“The reality is,” he continued, “Jews don’t have a lot of people to replace themselves with. We have to stand tall by ourselves and say that our responsibility is to the great-grandchildren that none of us will ever meet, for them to have the same vibrancy that we have today, if not better. And we’re heading down some paths that give us some pause.”

The Disability Inclusion Initiative: The sound of the breaking dam

A conference on inclusion of people with disabilities may mark the beginning of a new era in Jewish communal attitudes.

For years, it has fallen to the parents of children with intellectual, physical, learning, social and other disabilities and differences to battle the institutions of the organized Jewish community for “a place at the table” for their children in Jewish day schools, synagogues and summer camps. Almost every parent of a child with a significant disability can tell of the heartbreak of rejection of their children by the community, or, at the very least, the heroic battles that they had to wage to enable their child to lay claim to some component of their Jewish identity. Adults with disabilities can tell stories about the lack of appreciation of the community’s role in allowing them access, physical and social, to the community as it is often mistakenly deemed “too expensive” or put in the back of the line of our community’s priorities. 

But given that fully 20 percent of Americans overall have a disability and that Jews have additional disabilities because of genetic differences and choices to have children later in life, which can lead to autism and Down syndrome, there is an epidemic of Jewish children with disabilities who must be included in our Jewish institutions. Ensuring that Jews with disabilities have a seat at our table is vital not only for recognizing the image of God within each person, but also to Jewish survival. 

Thankfully, the drive for acceptance of people with disabilities from the grass roots is beginning to be complemented by a growing awakening in the Jewish community’s leadership ranks. On Nov. 14, The Jewish Federation of North America hosted Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative as an adjunct conference at the conclusion of this year’s General Assembly meeting in Baltimore. The practical program, developed to share “best inclusion practices,” was attended by more than 130 community and lay leaders from across the country and across the religious spectrum. The program was sponsored jointly by The Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), Jewish Funders Network (JFN), Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the Mizrahi Family Foundation. The event also welcomed the arrival of an important free online resource book created by the JFN (see 

The keynote speaker was Gov. Jack Markell (D-Del.), chair of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and who is also active in Jewish life. Each NGA chair picks an issue of the year, and Markell has chosen the issue of helping people with disabilities get jobs, inspiring his fellow governors to bring people with disabilities into the work force by focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities. At the conference, Markell challenged Federations and other Jewish groups to “walk the walk” and be even more inclusive, not only in whom they serve and which organizations they fund, but also in their professional hiring.

JFNA leadership, including CEO Jerry Silverman, whose hallmark is commitment to full “big tent” Jewish institutions, agreed that ending the shortages of accommodations available at many Jewish institutions for people with disabilities needs to change and that funding decisions need to reflect that commitment. He even agreed that JFNA needs to prioritize the hiring of people with disabilities so that their voices are heard loudly, directly and personally.

Los Angeles is a step ahead of the country in part because of the HaMercaz Jewish special needs collaborative, funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. It is a model of how Jewish organizations can work together to help families impacted by developmental disabilities and other special needs. L.A.’s recent Special Needs Study Mission to Israel was the first group of parents, professionals and young adult stakeholders to visit Israel for the express purpose of visiting innovative young adult vocational and residential programs. Other collaborative efforts, such as the Bet Tzedek Transitions Project, are looking at the new phenomenon of aging adults with developmental disabilities. Los Angeles also has some schools, synagogues and camps that have created either inclusive or self-contained special-needs programs for children, teens and young adults.

Although the need for more programming exists even on America’s “progressive coast,” Elaine Hall from Vista Del Mar and The Miracle Project represented the Los Angeles special-needs community at Opening Abraham’s Tent. She shared the good works of Nes Gadol, Vista’s religious education and Jewish Life programs for families with special needs, and announced receiving a recent grant from L.A.’s Jewish Community Foundation to enhance community inclusion in local synagogues and JCC’s, but she also commented on how L.A. lags in housing and jobs. She said she is hopeful that the new merging of Etta Israel and Ohel will remedy the lack of housing opportunities and that the Shalom Institute’s commitment to creating jobs for young adults with special needs will stimulate Los Angeles in these areas. Hall noted the importance of gatherings such as Opening Abraham’s Tent to provide necessary connections to and collaborations with others so that we each don’t need to “reinvent the wheel.”

Perhaps the moment is arriving when the grass-roots efforts of numerous parents of children and adults with disabilities (all of whom can be exhausted from the personal and financial stress from disabilities) are being reciprocated by efforts of the Jewish community’s leadership. With the impetus coming from above and below, the next few years may witness
a major change in the Jewish community’s embrace and celebration of the contribution that people with disabilities
can make to the future of the Jewish people.

As federations await new funding model, no big buzz at GA

A year since its creation, the grandly named Global Planning Table (GPT) remains the great white hope of the Jewish Federations of North America, which held its annual General Assembly in Baltimore this week.

Introduced a year ago, the GPT aims to reshape the way federations spend money outside their local communities by making decisions on collective spending more transparent and communal. Federation officials hope this will stem the decline in overseas spending and bring more clout — and money — to federations’ collective action. (For news on Los Angeles’ delegation to the GA, see story on page 16.)

“Some say the federation system is an old model that won’t survive” because donors are more independent, Kathy Manning, the outgoing JFNA board chair, said at the GA’s opening plenary on Nov. 11. “I believe the secret of the Jewish community’s success is our ability to act together.”

A year on, the GPT is still in its embryonic stages. No money has been doled out under GPT guidelines, and over the summer, the professional director of the project resigned. The Jewish Federations subsequently announced that implementation of the GPT, which will end the traditional arrangement by which federation overseas dollars automatically went to the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee along a 75/25 percent split, will be delayed by a year.

“This is slower than I would like it to be, but I understand we have to get a lot of buy-in,” said Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “I’m still optimistic we can get the right thing done, but something has to happen in 2013. There needs to be some tachles,” he said, using the Yiddish term for substance.

The central challenge of the Jewish federations, which together raise nearly $3 billion per year, has not changed in recent years. These clearinghouses of Jewish charity must figure out how to keep the community committed to a system of collective action in an era when American Jewry is increasingly fragmented, less institutionally affiliated and more restrictive than ever when it comes to philanthropic spending.

Most of the time, that’s a tough sell.

But then a crisis like Hurricane Sandy comes along, and the need for a system that can harness the collective power of the community suddenly becomes readily apparent. In the space of just a few hours on the Sunday after the storm hit, the executive board of the UJA-Federation of New York made $10 million immediately available to Jewish institutions and people affected by the largest storm in memory to strike the northeastern United States.

“Responding to people in suffering is what we do,” Jerry Levin, chairman of the board of UJA-Federation of New York, said at the GA. “This is the federation system.”

Absent a crisis, however, mustering collective action faces two major obstacles: decision-making and motivation. How can 156 federations, each with its own agenda and priorities, come to agreement on spending decisions? And how can they motivate donors to give in support of those decisions?

Federations hope the GPT is the answer.

“The Global Planning Table could be terrific if they decided what the things are that we can do to bend the future,” Barry Shrage, president of the Boston federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, told JTA. “The federations are still the richest, most powerful force in American Jewish life. We can change the world if we know what we want to do.”

So far, the discussion, research, consultation and committees connected to the GPT have resulted in the identification of four spending priorities: strengthening Israel; developing leadership and community; caring for vulnerable populations; and building Jewish identity and connections. The federations hope they’ll be able to launch one to two new initiatives next year that support those priorities.

“The potential still remains that the GPT will be able to gather enough momentum,” said Alan Hoffman, director-general of the Jewish Agency. “It’s all about the power of ideas to engage the hearts and minds of donors. This is about the future of the federation movement.”

While the GPT dominated insider buzz at last year’s GA held in Denver, this year’s assembly seemed to lack a comparable big issue. And while attendance at other major Jewish gatherings has continued to climb year after year — AIPAC’s annual conference now draws a crowd of more than 10,000, and 6,000 showed up to last year’s Reform biennial, which also featured President Obama — the GA seems stuck at about 3,000. It wasn’t even the largest Jewish gathering of the week in the United States. That distinction went to the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which drew more than 4,000 supporters and Chabad outreach emissaries to New York.

For many, the confab is not so much a pep rally as an opportunity for networking. Representatives of American Jewish and Israeli organizations hoping for federation support come to pitch their programs and meet federation leaders. Federation executives come to meet with their colleagues. More than 300 college students and 100 high schoolers were brought to this year’s conference.

Stephen Hoffman, a former president of the federation umbrella organization and now president of the Cleveland Jewish federation, said the GA is “not a place to convert the unwashed — people who aren’t involved in federation.” Rather, he said, “It’s a place to reinforce the values and motivation of people who are engaged in the leadership ranks.”

But Sanderson says GAs need to be attractive to more than just core professionals and lay leaders.

“We need a lot more home runs,” he said. “This is a walk at best.”

Attracting the younger generation at General Assembly

A dozen officials from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles flew to Baltimore this week to attend the annual conference of the national body representing 155 federations, where they discussed many of the urgent challenges confronting American and Canadian Jewry.

But Gary and Ellen Bialis, who reside in Santa Barbara, came privately and with a more personal agenda: to shep nachas from their daughter.

That is because their daughter, Laura Bialis, took center stage before 3,000 people Monday afternoon to moderate a plenary session in which Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky and Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel reflected on the landmark Washington rally for Soviet Jewry, held 25 years ago.

A documentary filmmaker who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Bialis was tapped by Sharansky to chair the session because she had made a 2007 documentary, “Refusenik,” about the struggle he and many other Soviet Jews endured in pressing for religious freedom at home and for the right to immigrate to Israel.

The session was an important one for the conference to host, because the 1987 rally “needs to be remembered,” Bialis, who was raised in Los Angeles and attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, told the Jewish Journal. 

Many attendees at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), she said, don’t know or have forgotten about the Soviet Jewry movement. “This was yesterday’s news,” Bialis remarked.

Her comments echoed a common refrain about a more contemporary challenge expressed during the three-day conference: how federations and other organizations can draw young Jews into active participation in communal life. (For a related story about the conference’s focus on seeking new directions in funding, see page 26.)

The matter is a key item on the agenda. Esther Kustanowitz, who runs the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Los Angeles  Federation, spoke at five sessions dealing with issues ranging from the role of Jewish media in shaping community to NextGen engagement strategies. One of the recurring themes was the use of social media to amplify today's organizational messages and more meaningfully engage young Jews who otherwise might remain outside communal and organizational life.

The stakes are high both for local federations and for JFNA in meeting the needs of Jews in the 21st century. Federations annually raise approximately $1 billion, which are disbursed to such communal institutions as synagogues, day schools, hospitals, Jewish community centers and senior citizen residences; and for such services as vocational training, counseling, food banks and Jewish programming on college campuses.

Left unstated, at least explicitly, was that failure to “engage” — the favored verb for this context — the young generation in Jewish affairs means to risk the future viability of the entire philanthropy mechanism and the charitable works and Jewish life that it has enabled over several generations.

“With all the distractions, inputs and noise in modern society, we are today all Jews by choice,” William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy, said in an interview. “It is incumbent upon the organized Jewish community to provide as many on-ramps as possible for Jewish engagement. Jewish federations are focused on involving and empowering our next generation of young leaders as a key to ensuring a vibrant Jewish future.”

Richard Sandler, chair of the L.A. Federation, said that he is “always interested in how the federation is trying to engage the younger generation. I regard this as being as important as anything we do to help young people find their entrance into American Jewish life.”

Sandler, who attended one of Kustanowitz’s presentations Monday, believes social media might be a valuable tool in the effort to reverse the alarming slippage in population and affiliation among North American Jewry.

To a casual observer of this week’s proceedings, a demographic-generational gap was evident between the federations’ volunteer leaders and professionals, and the 300 college and high school students in attendance. But the divide may be narrowing, based on the plethora of conference sessions dealing with applying social media to reach young Jews precisely where they are most comfortable.

In a session held Monday morning, for example, the approximately 100 participants were divided into several groups, each of whose members discussed the methods they were employing to capitalize on social media.

In the group Kustanowitz led, members — who work primarily in the media-outreach departments of local federations and other Jewish organizations — shared best practices for recruiting young people in fundraising campaigns. Other groups dealt with such campaigns as publishing a Jewish cookbook completely through online discussions and encouraging people to buy Israeli products.

The session, titled “Social Explosion: An Interactive Lab Experiment,” had “never been done before” at a General Assembly, said Shana Sisk, JFNA’s online marketing specialist.

As the group discussions began, Sisk lowered expectations, stating that she did not expect earthshaking conclusions to emerge from a 90-minute session.

At that, a male voice called out, “In 90 minutes, you can change the world!” Sisk, smiling, said she concurred.

Not all young participants had social media on their minds, though. Two L.A. residents in their mid-20s, Rachel Barton and Becca Ross, came for the more traditional draws of conferences: listening to speakers and networking in the corridors. Both women attend Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

To Barton, who went to last year’s assembly in Denver, attending the many sessions here on Israel and international Jewry helped to crystallize issues that sometimes appear amorphous.

In Los Angeles, “we participate in campaigns for overseas giving, but to know what the impact is is a great opportunity,” she explained. “It’s one of my greatest interests. I skimmed through the program, looking for [sessions] related to Israel.”

Ross said that she was motivated to enter Jewish communal work, in part, from her job several years ago at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, where she witnessed the manner in which its executive director and board members returned to Oregon re-energized from the General Assemblies.

“I can only learn so much in textbooks,” said Ross, who was attending her first General Assembly. “But to meet people who run programs and hear how they get their ideas is very exciting.”

As to the federation establishment’s seeming quandary over how to navigate the generational divide, Barton said a misperception exists.

The assumption “is that when you see a young person texting or on Facebook, that [means] they’re disconnecting from the world,” she said. Instead, she continued, “they are connected. There is a search for community. It’s just happening in a different sphere than it used to.”

While acknowledging the reality of Generation Y’s “not being as connected to their Jewish heritage,” Barton said, “the argument that social media has created a generation that is not interested in connecting to the world is false.”

Jewish organizations, she said, deserve credit for understanding the power of social media and for harnessing it to reach young people.

“But it’s a learning curve, and it will take a while for the pieces to come together,” she said. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Why counting counts: Who knows who L.A.’s Jews are?

Susan Goldberg, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, grew up in nearby Echo Park.

“There were no Jewish families around when I was growing up,” Goldberg, 38, said. Now that these neighborhoods are being gentrified, and a young, creative crowd is moving in, the Jews are coming, too.

Some five years ago, Temple Beth Israel, a nearly 90-year-old congregation, counted 30 individual members. Today, she said, “We’re bursting at the seams with young families, parents in their 30s and 40s who are living here, in Mount Washington, in Highland Park, in Eagle Rock,” Goldberg said.

But for all the anecdotal evidence that Jews are moving eastward, no one knows exactly how many Jews comprise this trend.

“We know they’re out there, because when we have events, they come,” Goldberg said. “But it would be so, so tremendously helpful to know where they are, who they are, how many there are.”

Los Angeles hasn’t done a Jewish community survey since 1997, and with nothing concrete in the works, organizations are “flying blind,” in the words of one demographer.

“No other large Jewish community has been without a study for such a long period of time,” said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a firm that helped conduct New York’s recently released survey.

And that can have serious implications for how effectively a community responds to needs.

“We need to know who lives where, what they do Jewishly, what diversity exists among Jews, what needs they have, what resources they have and what they think on a variety of issues,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “That’s my take on it, from the perspective of somebody who wants to help Jews have a better life.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said conducting such a study is “rising to the top of our agenda.”

“We really need to do it. We know we need to do it, and I believe we will do it. We have to figure out the resources and how we’re going to pay for it,” Sanderson said in an interview.

A study of Los Angeles’ Jews, who are believed to number between 500,000 and 600,000, would likely cost somewhere around $1 million. In most cities with large and medium-sized Jewish populations, Federation pays for a survey once a decade. Los Angeles conducted community surveys in 1950, 1958, 1968, 1979 and 1997.

When Sanderson took office in 2010, no study was in the pipeline, and he said he had initially hoped to launch one quickly. But as the impact of the recession became more severe, Sanderson said, funds continued to be redirected to such programs as the Emergency Cash Grants, which has provided more than $2.6 million in relief to 5,350 recipients since 2009.

“Now, with everything we’re doing, we’re still trying to put a survey on the front burner,” Sanderson said.

Federation hopes to launch the process in the next year, Sanderson said — if he can figure out where the money will come from.

But the more time that goes by without a survey, the less efficiently the community is spending its dollars, demographers say.

“If you have a Federation that says they are the planning body of the community, where are they getting their information?” asked Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Herman was the L.A. Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey; he has also worked on surveys in San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

“The longer you don’t have a survey, the more you have to guess, and basically you’re snatching ideas and data out of thin air. And without any community study, there is no way to confirm or refute what they say,” Herman said.

Community leaders say they are eager to have current data.

“Synagogues call all the time, wanting to know where the Jews are moving. Are they moving into our area? Out of our area? Are we losing members because Jews are leaving this area, or for some other reason?” said Bruce Phillips, a principal, with Pini Herman, at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and a professor of sociology and Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Phillips has conducted or published research on more than 20 Jewish community surveys.

Other questions in Los Angeles also need answering. How many Iranian Jews live here, and what is there economic profile? Their Jewish identity? Their integration patterns?

What areas are people moving to and away from? Are nearby cities that are experiencing growth, such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas, doing so at the expense of Los Angeles, or along with Los Angeles? How many French and Latin American Jews have moved into the area, and are they being served? Has the Orthodox population increased, and if so, in what sectors?

Anecdotal evidence about subpopulations can be deceiving, Phillips said, as it’s easier to count visible Jews who are frequent users of community resources — for instance, the Orthodox, or immigrant populations. The unaffiliated are more likely to go undetected if you rely on visibility or data from Jewish organizations.

A topic open to debate is how many Israelis are in Los Angeles. While some estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles, Herman says his own research points to a number closer to a maximum of 25,000, a figure corroborated by the official Israeli count of how many people have left their country.

The Los Angeles Jewish population, once concentrated on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, is migrating toward the East Side and north to areas such as the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys.

Several organizations are investing both money and resources in the East Side, including Federation, which has funded a new staff person at East Side Jews, a nondenominational Jewish community that has attracted hundreds of young, hip Jews to its irreverent monthly holiday celebrations and social events. East Side Jews recently became part of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, an organization that is on a short list to receive significant Federation funding for a renovation and expansion project.

At the same time, Temple Beth Israel’s Goldberg said, Jews in the area remain underserved. When she needs to refer people for social services, she is often told that Jewish agencies don’t extend out to her part of town. In addition to leading Temple Beth Israel, Goldberg serves as rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a position co-supported by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is also interested in being part of the East Side Jewish renaissance.

Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the middle of a $150 million project to restore and revitalize its historic sanctuary and campus in Koreatown. Before embarking on that project, the congregation commissioned its own demographic study of the area — roughly from West Hollywood on the west to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the East, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the South up to Studio City and Glendale.

“I intuitively felt that young Jews were moving eastward, but intuition is not always right,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder said.

Their study, which cost them about $25,000, found around 30 percent growth in the area over the last 10 years, with the most significant increases in the population of childbearing and -rearing age. That information convinced the synagogue’s leadership to buy up the rest of their square block to make room for more parking, an expanded day school, religious school and social service center.

Having data has also made it easier to approach donors, Leder said.

“It’s important to know that there is hard data to support your assumptions when you’re trying to raise money,” he said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s study was based on Jewish surnames in voter registration listings — a method that may have left out Jews who have a non-Jewish parent or who are married to non-Jews, a population that, anecdotally at least, accounts for much of the growth on the East Side.

JFNA rips chief rabbi’s criticism of state pay for non-Orthodox rabbis

The Jewish Federations of North America slammed Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s criticism of the Israeli government’s decision to pay the salaries of some non-Orthodox rabbis.

“It is a fundamental Jewish virtue to ‘love your fellow as yourself.’ We condemn comments that disparage fellow Jews and, in particular, well-established branches of Judaism that represent 80 percent of North American Jewry,” JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman said in a statement.

Amar said in an interview Sunday with the haredi Orthodox Kol Berama radio station that he would convene the Chief Rabbinate Council, made up of Orthodox rabbis throughout Israel, to discuss ways to reverse the decision. The meeting reportedly will take place next week.

“The greatest danger for our generation is the danger of assimilation, and we need to be strong and steadfast in our fight,” Amar said. “It is forbidden to remain silent because there is nothing more serious than this measure.”

He added that the decision to recognize non-Orthodox rabbis could “uproot all the foundations of the Torah.”

Silverman said in his statement that “We know that the Chief Rabbi’s comments and language are completely rejected by the millions of Jewish people whom we represent from all streams, including our Orthodox brethren. Statements such as those made by Rabbi Amar only serve to alienate our fellow Jews from our religion, our people and the Jewish state.”

The agreement announced last month came three weeks after a panel of Israeli Supreme Court judges called on the attorney general to intervene during a hearing on a petition filed more than seven years ago calling for the state to recognize and pay the salaries of rabbis of all streams of Judaism.

Under a settlement negotiated out of court, the non-Orthodox rabbis have the moniker “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community,” and financing for the positions comes from the Culture and Sports Ministry. The decision is limited to regional councils and farming communities and is not intended for large cities.

JFNA rabbis talk Israel with U.N. envoys

A cadre of 60 rabbis from the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America discussed Israel’s treatment at the United Nations with delegations from 12 countries.

The Cabinet’s annual meeting, which took place last week in New York, included talks with U.N. representatives from Canada, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary, among others.

The meetings touched on topics pertaining to Israel, the peace process and Iran.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, the chairman of the Cabinet and the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac. Md., told supporters in an email that the ambassadors with whom the delegation met “were extremely receptive and interested in hearing from American rabbis” on those key issues.

“Our goal was to express our dissatisfaction with the poor and unjust treatment of Israel at the United Nations,” Weinblatt said in a statement. “We sought to highlight the unique way in which Israel is treated, resulting in the inexcusable ignoring of serious problems and egregious human rights violations elsewhere. No other nation is singled out in the way that Israel is.”

He said the nations selected for meetings included Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and the Vatican.

“We met with representatives of nations primarily in the Eastern European bloc because they have often voted neutral or abstained on resolutions pertaining to Israel, and they appear to be interested in improving their relations with Israel,” Weinblatt said. “If a significant number of countries who abstain on votes against Israel would change their votes, many of the resolutions singling out Israel would not pass.”

Richard Schifter, who in the Reagan administration was the U.S. envoy to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, advised the JFNA Rabbinical Cabinet, which was also briefed by officials of the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International.

In addition, the group was addressed by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Homeland Security official briefs Jewish leaders after Toulouse

A top Homeland Security official briefed Jewish groups in the wake of the deadly attack in Toulouse, France.

Bill Flynn, an assistant undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, spoke to over 120 leaders in a phone call on Wednesday, two days after lone gunman believed to be an Islamist extremist killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in the southern French city.

Paul Goldenberg, who heads the Security Communication Network, the group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that organized the call, said he and Flynn reviewed security procedures, resources and protocols. 

“The most important element here is that Jewish communities are very much remaining open for business, we will do so in a much more vigilant matter,” Goldenberg told JTA.

In addition to the JFNA and SCN, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations helped organize the call. 

Goldenberg said that requests for SCN training sessions have increased since the shooting, and that he is traveling to six cities over the next two weeks.

“There is no imminent or specific threat regarding the American Jewish community,” he said. “We will remain concerned about the lone wolf and those that are acting independent of organized groups.”

JFNA calls for pope to seek release of Alan Gross

The Jewish Federations of North America is urging Pope Benedict XVI to seek the release of Alan Gross during the pope’s upcoming visit to Cuba.

The group is circulating a nationwide online petition calling for the pope to seek Gross’ release as part of a nationwide appeal by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Gross, 62 and a Washington-area resident, is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for “crimes against the state” for distributing laptop computers and connecting Cuban Jews to the Internet. He was arrested in 2009 as he was leaving Cuba. Since his incarceration, Gross has been in poor health and is suffering from several health ailments.

JFNA Executive Committee Chair Michael Gelman said that JFNA continues to seek Gross’ release “on humanitarian grounds.”

“We stand in solidarity with the North American Jewish community in our hope that Alan can soon be reunited with his family after two long years of imprisonment,” Gelman said in a statement.

The JCRC of Greater Washington has taken on a key role in calling for the release of Gross.

“The Gross family continues to suffer greatly—physically, economically, emotionally and spiritually—and we must do everything we can to bring this to an end,” Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Washington, said in a statement. “Please help us fulfill the primary Jewish value of ‘pidyon shivuim,’ redemption of the captive.”

Jewish groups praise security grants, despite major cuts

Jewish groups praised the Obama administration and Congress for $10 million in new homeland security grants while noting that the allocation was nearly halved from last year.

“While tough decisions were made by Congress and the Administration, we appreciate the outreach both branches of the Federal government have made leading up to today’s funding announcement, and we are grateful for, although not delighted about, the reduced allocation,” William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, said in a statement Monday.

Last year’s allocation to non-profits was $19 million. The bulk of the grants in recent years have gone to Jewish institutions for security upgrades, including video systems and barriers.

Daroff said the cuts come at a time of heightened security threats.

“Since the inception of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program in 2005, there has been ample evidence, supported in the public record, of threats, plots and attacks against ‘soft’ Jewish communal targets at home and abroad,” he said. “Today, we as a community are faced with emerging and growing security concerns emanating from Iran and through its proxy, Hezbollah, as tensions rise surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions and American-led sanctions to rein them in.”

The Orthodox Union, an umbrella group that with JFNA and Agudath Israel of America led the lobbying for the allocation, noted that the cuts come at a time of austerity.

“While the allocation of $10 million is a lower allocation than in recent years, the Department was contending with severe cuts made by Congress to its overall grants budget for the current fiscal year,” the OU said.

OU, JFNA slam Obama plan to reduce deduction rate

Two national Jewish organizations criticized a provision in the Obama administration’s federal budget proposal that would reduce the tax deductibility rate of charitable donations.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and The Jewish Federations of North America both released statements Monday objecting to the president’s proposal, which would force taxpayers earning more than $250,000 to deduct contributions to charities at a rate of 28 percent rather than the current rate of 35 percent.

“Despite the fact that the White House had recently indicated that its tax reform proposals would not disincentivize large charitable gifts, today’s Budget release is disappointing for America’s charities and the millions we support, particularly during this time of economic distress,” William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office, said in a statement.

JFNA noted last week that the Obama administration emphasized in its “Blueprint for an America Built to Last” that it would maintain the deductibility rate of charitable contributions.

The Orthodox Union said in its statement that the decision to change the rate to 28 percent could reduce donations to American charities by $4 billion annually.

Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director of public policy, said his organization was “deeply concerned” over the budget plan and that it “is a recipe for harmful displacements and cuts in much-needed non-profit sector institutions and services.”

“The tax deductibility of charitable contributions is, apart from a person’s generosity of spirit, the most powerful tool America’s charities possess to raise funds that enable them to serve their brothers and sisters,” Diament said in the statement. “We are disappointed that despite the across-the-board protests this proposal has received from the charitable sector in past years, the President puts forward this harmful proposal yet again.”

JFNA’s Kathy Manning on list of 10 ‘extraordinary’ women

Kathy Manning, board chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, was named to Jewish Women International’s annual list of 10 “Extraordinary Women to Watch.

The list featured in the organization’s Jewish Woman magazine began in 1998.

Along with Manning, the 2011 list cites Mia Bauer, the founder of Crumbs Bake Shop; Abby Greensfelder, a television producer; Kim Morris Heiman, the vice president of Standard Textile and a philanthropist; Alexis Kashar, an advocate for the deaf; Rynthia Manning Rost, vice president of public affairs for GEICO; Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Ellen Stone, senior vice president of marketing at Bravo Media; and Abbie Weisberg, CEO of the nonprofit Keshet.

The women will be honored at a gala on Dec. 5. Esther Newman, the founder of Leadership Montgomery, will receive JWI’s Community Leadership Award.

“Women today are making an immeasurable difference in the world, and these Jewish women, who have accomplished so much in their fields, serve as role models to the next generation of Jewish girls looking to make their way,” JWI Executive Director Loribeth Weinstein said in a statement. “We are thrilled to honor these worthy women and to give them and their accomplishments the spotlight. This is how we ensure the proliferation of women’s leadership.”

JFNA criticizes jobs bill for targeting tax deduction

The Jewish Federations of North America criticized how President Obama proposes funding his jobs bill, although it has praised other elements of the bill.

The jobs bill introduced last week would cut write-offs for charitable donations from 35 percent to 28 percent for those earning $200,000 a year or families earning $250,000 as a means of funding in part its other proposals, which include payroll tax cuts and increased hiring of teachers, first responders and others.

“Limiting the itemized deduction would certainly lead to a significant decrease in charitable contributions,” William Daroff, the Washington JFNA director, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy in a story that appeared online Tuesday. “If charities have less resources, they’ll be forced to choose between laying off employees or cutting needed services. Nonprofits employ almost 10 percent of the work force nationwide, and in many states nonprofits are the largest employers. In our view, cutting the deduction is like cutting your nose to spite your face.”

JFNA had praised the bill for the proposed payroll cuts and subsidies for hiring the long-term unemployed.