JCCs and Jewish Federations: Made for this Moment

By David Cohen

I recently returned from JCC Association of North America’s Executive Forum in Denver, where CEOs from JCCs across the continent – and from Israel – gathered to learn, discuss best practices, and share our current challenges and opportunities.

What was abundantly clear from the small group sessions, speakers, and keynotes, was that we are definitely in the middle of a groundbreaking moment – and that the JCC movement and our integrated Federations may be the best-positioned Jewish communal organizations to meet that moment.

It is self-evident that synagogues and agencies of all kinds are vital to sustaining a thriving Jewish landscape.  Day schools, advocacy organizations, services agencies, and foundations are all part of the fabric of what makes our community work.

But the numbers are undeniable.  In a day and age when our most challenging hurdle is how we are understood by the wider society – the fact that our organization serves as the largest touchpoint for the non-Jewish community is incredibly important and actually quite remarkable in its scope and potential.

Over one and a half million people walk though the doors of JCCs every week and participate in Federation-sponsored activities.  And more than 500,000 of those people are from the wider or non-Jewish community.  There is simply no organization better positioned to leverage these relationships and promote positive and meaningful connectivity to the Jewish community. 

It is a well-known adage that you don’t connect with someone with what you know, you connect with them by how you make them feel.  That means even just the wonderfully sweet small of Challah in the ELC on Friday can better connect a non-Jewish family with the Jewish community - even more so than an advocacy email or letter to the editor.

Of course, we still do advocacy – and we need to.  Our JCRCs in Federations all over the country along with local organizations like the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition (which all PA Federations belong to) work hard every day to maintain positive relationships with community leaders, legislators, city and state officials, and law enforcement. 

All of these are also ways we keep our community connected to the wider community, in allyship with others faith communities, and in partnership with all people of good will.

Does this mean that these methods are guaranteed to defeat antisemitism, hate, and bias?  Of course not.  Does this mean there will not continue to be issues on campus, and anti-Israel rallies in towns across the country? Of course not.  But to the extent that we recognize whether these threats come from the majority of our neighbors versus a very small minority - this is an important distinction.   Now, is ANY antisemitism or demonization of Israel a problem?  Yes, of course.  But will there ever be a day when those things are gone completely from our daily set of concerns?   No.  Of course not.

So how do we proceed?  We applaud the good and challenge the bad.  As we always do.

While I was in Denver, we heard from the Chancellor of the University of Denver.  He was describing his hardline on extremism and hate speech on campus.  He artfully described how antisemitism – even the demonization of Israel - does violate their honor code because it directly impacts Jewish students on campus.  “When any community group on campus feels threatened,” he said, “we must protect them.”

This University – and hundreds of others just like it – get it right every day.  So, is the recent focus on campuses and University Presidents who get it wrong warranted?  Yes.  But does it mean we as a community should write off and condemn universities writ large as bastions of antisemitism?  No. A recent study of approximately sixty-five universities showed an increase in incidents of antisemitism and a problem with newly formed diversity offices.  Yet, there are over 5,300 colleges and universities across the nation.  Which number do we focus on?  The sixty-five, or the much larger number who do protect students appropriately and have effective and supportive diversity offices?  We do what we always do.  We focus on both and make sure the impact of our detractors does not overshadow the far larger number of our supporters.  At our conference we spoke of something I have written about often in these pages.  Gam v’Gam.  We focus on this and that.  We lament the bad appropriately, but we make sure it does not overshadow the good.  We speak up when we need to.  And in the face of adversity we reach out, make friends, and form relationships.  We show people who we are and we teach our children to do the same.  This is the way.

We do have to still acknowledge that these past few months have been difficult and mourn our Israeli brethren and offer prayers of healing for the parents and relatives of hostages and those tragically killed.  Yet, in the face of that, our community here in Harrisburg continues to unite - even though we may not be in total agreement on a number of issues.  But it should surprise no one that this is what Israeli society is doing as well.  This is who we are.  This is what we do.

I know I still don’t have the answers, but I do know that the responsibility of dealing with the problems lies at the feet of the boards and professionals of our communal organizations.  I do know that the best chance we have to defeat myths and stereotypes about the Jewish community is to invite the non-Jewish world into ours and show them how similar we are to them.  Some say it is not our responsibility to do this and that we shouldn’t have to.  I think that being only 2% of the population in America does make it incumbent upon us to tell our stories to all those who will listen and engage with all those who would be our friend.  We are SO not on people’s minds every day – and so we do have an obligation to be our best selves when we are.  To be empathetic, but also committed to who we are and what we believe.

For the half-million people who we can help become more informed about who we are and what we care about – we have an incredible opportunity to shape the future of our shared society – even if at present it feels on edge and tenuous.  I can imagine many Jewish communities felt similarly before their societies teetered on collapse and hate and demagoguery took over.  Now is the moment to help our society change course – and now is the time to help us meet that moment strategically, stridently, and with humility.