January 15, 2019

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.”