After 10 years in his post, Rabbi Steve Gutow is stepping down at year’s end as president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella group for Jewish community relations councils and synagogue groups. (See story on page 26.) He will be sorely missed by those who valued his caring and commitment in helping to develop and put in place public policy issues based on seeking consensus within an increasingly divided community. JCPA is rare in that it takes so many different parts of the community into its deliberations, and makes decisions that reflect a real give-and-take rather than top-down mandates. Key issues have included energy independence, hate crimes legislation, interfaith relations, anti-poverty and hunger initiatives, immigration policy, and Iran sanctions.
Rabbi Gutow’s work has been all about inclusiveness and collaboration, and he is respected for his personal warmth as well as his professional talents. But he acknowledges that his effort to promote civility and respect among Jews with different viewpoints have been an uphill battle.
“It’s become much worse,” he said during the JCPA’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., last week. He noted that advocates for differing views are sometimes unwilling to even hear out the other side. But as a Reconstructionist rabbi, his repeated attempts to have people treat each other with respect were based on Judaism’s core belief that all of us are created equal in the eyes of God.
In his valedictory remarks, Rabbi Gutow addressed “four major challenges facing our community,” which included “the incivility of our discourse.” He said that “the way Jewish organizations and Jewish people speak about each other cannot help our cause nor lead to good decision-making.”
The other challenges he cited are also worth serious reflection and discussion. “We must be able to criticize Israel in a seemly way when we disagree with its policies,” Rabbi Gutow said, not just on Israeli democracy but in “opening our hearts to the plight of the Palestinians.”
He also spoke of “the outsize influence of our donors,” asserting: “We cannot allow money to make the community’s decisions.” Finally, he criticized “our insularity,” saying “We cannot be a whole community in America and worry only about Israel, anti-Semitism and Jewish issues.”
Such forthright and thoughtful observations are welcome in a Jewish establishment that sometimes has a difficult time stepping back and assessing its strengths and weaknesses. We wish Rabbi Gutow well in his new endeavor to create an institute for politics and religion, and hope he will continue to contribute to and critique our communal efforts as he has so ably this past decade.