When former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine agreed to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), he hoped to infuse it with the passion and purpose of its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In those days, the JCRC — which is one of the major voices and faces of The Federation to the non-Jewish world — was a high-profile entity. It took up the cause of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopia’s Jews. It was assertive locally, too, whether in denouncing the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 or reaching out to non-Jewish communities in need.
But something has happened during the John Fishel era at The Federation.
Critics say that starting in the mid-1990s, the JCRC slowly began losing its voice and shirked a core mission: to be as visible and forthrightly active as possible.
As Levine saw it, the community relations committee could once again become a powerful voice by taking principled stands on controversial public policy issues, thereby strengthening coalitions with African American, Latino and other ethnic groups.
Levine’s appointment came at a time when JCRC staff morale was low. The committee had largely abandoned public policy advocacy in favor of its more traditional roles of ardently supporting Israel, reaching out to other religious and ethnic communities and lobbying for government dollars for social programs. Under Fishel, the JCRC has seen its influence, as well as staff and budget, shrink.
“John Fishel doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it,” said Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair. He said that Fishel constantly pushed to downsize the JCRC during Welinsky’s two-year term in the late ’90s.
But Fishel’s view is that the political climate simply evolved. The JCRC has “a unique function,” he said, but the community itself no longer always coalesces, through the committee, as one voice. There are no longer such issues of broad agreement, such as support for Soviet Jewry.
“I think it’s become much more difficult for the JCRC to define what becomes an issue of Jewish concern,” Fishel said.
To be sure, JCRCs across the country have seen budgets shrink as federations’ resources dipped. After the successful immigration to Israel of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews — a Herculean undertaking that community relations councils around the nation helped orchestrate — several JCRCs experienced periods of “searching for meaning,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the New York-based parent organization for 125 community relations councils nationwide.
Which is why the appointment of former Rep. Levine was so welcomed. Given his political connections in Sacramento and Washington and his energy and dedication, JCRC supporters believed Levine would restore the committee’s lost luster.
When the Israeli embassy contacted Levine, seeking JCRC public support for Israel’s planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, he set about building consensus. Although Levine eventually succeeded in putting the JCRC on record as favoring the withdrawal — a position shared by the majority of American Jews — he said he felt frustrated that it took so long for The Federation to sign off on the public pronouncement. And by this time, The Federation was following the train of opinion shapers, rather than leading it.
Time was, the local JCRC, with The Federation’s blessing, took controversial stands on issues of the day, said Steven Windmueller, the committee’s director from 1985 to 1995. In those heady times, the JCRC opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and spoke out in support of abortion rights, he said.
Although those positions angered some Jews in the community, Windmueller said the committee’s views reflected those held by the majority of the Southland’s liberal-leaning Jews. The JCRC’s willingness to take those and other positions, Windmueller said, attracted scores of young people to the committee, which served as a gateway to the Jewish community for many. Some later went on to became Federation donors, he added.
About a decade ago, however, the L.A, Federation, like some others around the country, began discouraging the local JCRC from venturing into controversial public policy matters, Windmueller said. With competition for charitable dollars heating up, many federations concluded that the risk of alienating conservative donors outweighed the benefit of taking liberal stands. Increasingly, most JCRCs left political advocacy, whether liberal or conservative, to other groups.
In Southern California, that void was filled by the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), among others. Ironically, the PJA’s willingness to fight against sweatshops and the exploitation of hotel workers along with its boldness in embracing the sort of left-of-center causes once championed by the local JCRC has helped swell its ranks to 3,500. With half its members under 30, the alliance, which just opened a second office in the Bay Area, has succeeded in reaching a demographic coveted by Fishel’s Federation.
“What we find is that pursuing a positive, progressive Jewish response to the issues of the day is profoundly inspiring , especially to young people who one day will be our community leaders and donors,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.
Two of the nation’s most robust JCRCs are among the most politically liberal. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has a staff of 24 and a $3 million budget, while the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs 20, with a budget of $2.1 million. By contrast, the local JCRC has five full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 million. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have taken bold policy stands recently, with San Francisco, for instance, coming out in favor of same-sex civil marriages.
A left-leaning JCRC wouldn’t fly everywhere, but the formula has consonance with liberal Los Angeles.
Levine had expected the L.A. JCRC to take positions on ballot initiatives, legislation and other political issues, provided he could build consensus. But The Federation’s new chairman of the board, Michael Koss, worried about alienating donors. Koss said he also thought the JCRC would benefit if led by someone who was not strongly identified with either liberal or conservative politics. Koss, who had the authority as Federation chair, did not reappoint Levine. The former congressman, for his part, said he had no interest in a second term given the lack of support.
“Losing Mel Levine for the JCRC or anyplace Mel puts his hat is a loss,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair.
Fishel said he respects Levine but added that Federation chairs make their own appointments. Fishel’s critics counter that it’s his job to show leadership.
Koss tapped corporate attorney Ron Leibow as Levine’s successor. Leibow, former chair of The Federation’s Planning and Allocation Committee, said he plans to revitalize the JCRC and has made reaching out to ethnic groups, especially Latinos, a priority.
Those involved with JCRC are determined to make a positive difference. Under new JCRC Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, the committee has added paid staff and seen its budget increase. Several JCRC programs have grown in importance. The Holy Land Democracy Project, for instance, has helped teach thousands of area Catholic high school students about Israel, while, simultaneously, tightening links between Jews and Catholics. The JCRC continues to take elected leaders on trips to Israel — to expose them to the Jewish state and to Jewish issues.
But a recent, tentative step back into the political fray was telling, when the JCRC encountered some Federation resistance and withdrew, for now, a pro-immigrant statement. The scenario unfolded in mid-May, when the JCRC board approved a statement saying that it supported better border security but opposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. The statement also favored normalizing immigrants’ status, insiders said. JCRC members had hoped the resolution would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community, she said.
The Federation board, however, barely approved the JCRC resolution, so the JCRC has pulled back, while it develops new wording that could attract more support, Schwartz-Getzug said.
That the JCRC still hasn’t come out with a statement weeks after one of the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in U.S. history reflects the committee’s — and, by extension, the Federation’s — cautious approach. Critics might go farther, arguing that this reluctance to take a public stand on immigration illustrate that those institutions no longer speak for the local Jewish community.
“If the Federation isn’t going to take a position on something as important to the Latino community as immigration, even after the huge marches all over the nation, then what in the world do they have to say to the Latino community?” commented Michael Hirschfeld, formerly the top JCRC staff member. Hirschfeld was himself the focus of an earlier JCRC furor: His unexpected 2003 dismissal, after 24 years with the JCRC, generated a firestorm of criticism, and a few calls for Fishel’s resignation.
Levine believes that until Fishel’s Federation either allows the JCRC to become independent or have more autonomy, the committee will serve as little more than an administrator of such programs as KOREH L.A, a well-regarded tutoring program.
“The CRC and Federation are no longer a meaningful political force in the structure of Los Angeles,” said Levine, now a partner in international law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “That’s unfortunate.”