Today is December 15, 2019 -
February 14, 2017
Fifteen months ago, I was given the honor of becoming chair of The Jewish Federations of North America. This position has given me the opportunity to listen to and learn from leaders throughout the Jewish world, and to see the Jewish community from a broader and more informed perspective. I have had the privilege of working with Natan Sharansky and his colleagues at The Jewish Agency for Israel; Alan Gill and now David Schizer and the leadership of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and the leadership of World ORT. I have been able to interact with leaders from almost every major Jewish organization in the U.S., from the Conference of Presidents to AIPAC to JCPA, Hillel to J Street. And I have gained a new appreciation for the complexity of issues affecting the Jewish world, from pluralism and politics in Israel to the relationship between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry to educating the next generation on the beauty of our heritage.
As a result, I have identified the following three issues as critical to our community:
The loss of young Jews through assimilation, not because they don’t care about Judaism and Jewish tradition, but because they don’t know;
The lack of understanding between Jews in Israel and Jews in North America; and
The lack of civility around controversial issues within our own community.
With respect to the first point, we are working to engage young Jews through several successful programs conducted by a number of Federations, and through a reexamination of our National Young Leadership Cabinet.
As to the second point, we are building bridges between our Jewish communities in several ways. We work directly with the Government of Israel on several issues, including that of prayer at the Kotel, and we have brought members of Knesset on missions to Federations across North America, connecting them face-to-face with our community. We partner with The Jewish Agency and oversee iREP (Israel Religious Expression Platform), which brings together leaders from a number of communities to support organizations in Israel. And, of course, we are very active on college campuses and beyond as we fight BDS through our Israel Action Network (IAN).
However, because of the rhetoric, anxiety and concerns that exist in our community today, the balance of this message will address the third issue — civility.
In all my years with Federation, I have never received so many requests or demands to make statements, or as much criticism, as I have since November. People are turning to their Federations for guidance, and we have a responsibility to respond in a thoughtful and constructive manner consistent with our mission.
Let me digress and briefly discuss what that mission is. I believe that Federations should be like think tanks. We convene thought leaders from inside and outside the community. We are the one organization that touches all others, from synagogues to agencies and beyond, in an effort to address the most serious issues affecting our communities today, from taking care of Jews in need to supporting the State of Israel. We act based on the values of our religion — values that come from our Torah and that have sustained us for more than 3,000 years. Of course, these values also include taking care of the “other,” the “stranger,” because we were once strangers in Egypt. At the same time, let us not forget that even today we are a small minority, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s population. We, too, are still the “other.”
Note that nowhere in my discussion of Federations’ mission or responsibilities do I mention making statements or getting involved in political issues, either in the U.S. or in Israel. There are organizations whose mission it is to take political positions, to issue statements on a regular basis with respect to events or decisions of concern to them and their constituents, and to otherwise influence government decisions. Federations work on behalf of the whole community on a non-partisan, non-political basis. JFNA works with Congress and the administration principally on matters affecting quality of life, such as healthcare and communal security. On issues regarding the welfare of Jews in Israel and Diaspora relations, we take action.
JFNA rarely makes statements about government decisions. We, like Federations, represent the entire spectrum of the American Jewish community, which mirrors the diverse political views of Americans overall. Unfortunately, that means we also mirror how greater society today discusses serious matters.
Our responsibility is to promote understanding of complex issues. What concerns me most is disrespect and vitriol around difficult decisions. It used to be that when people found something wrong with a point of view, they would argue about it in a civil and respectful manner. As a result, those engaged in the argument would learn from one another and hopefully work toward a solution or at least a better understanding of the problem. Today, people find something wrong with anyone who holds a different point of view and therefore have no interest in having a discussion with them. Instead, they attack and even outright delegitimize the person or organization with which they disagree. There is no chance to learn about different points of view, or to try to reach consensus about serious and complex problems. This is inappropriate, dangerous and just plain wrong.
To address this problem, we intend to work within the Federation system over the next year to create a way for our community members to engage civilly with one another around serious and controversial issues, from Israel and the peace process to the actions of the U.S. government. We need to listen to and understand different points of view, and work together to try to find solutions. At times like these, it is Federations’ responsibility to be the adult in the room.
Most of us really do care about the same things and want positive results that benefit everyone. Please join me in a concerted effort to respect different points of view, to learn as much as we can about issues before we reach conclusions, and to make sure we stay focused on the important work our Federations do each and every day.
I will close with text from the Babylonian Talmud that we read with Rabbi Doug Kahn at our Board meeting last week:
“For three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, both contending, ‘The law is in agreement with our views.’ Then a voice from heaven announced, ‘These and those both are the words of the living G-d, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.’ Both were the words of a ‘living G-d’ but the law was in agreement with the School of Hillel because they were kindly and modest, they taught their own rulings as well as the rulings of the School of Shammai and they taught the latter before their own. This should teach us that one who humbles oneself is exalted by the Holy One and one who exalts oneself is humbled by the Holy One.”
Richard V. Sandler
Chair, Board of Trustees
The Jewish Federations of North America