There are two resolutions up for proposal at the two-day annual policy plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), starting Sunday in Washington, D.C. One advocates for fair pay, and the other for gun control. But the talk among the delegates will be about a third resolution that won’t be on the agenda.
That’s the one that would support same-sex marriage.
The draft of a task force resolution, in the works since last summer, framed the issue as one of protection against the discrimination of same-sex couples, calling for equal treatment under federal and state laws for both same- and opposite-sex couples. It doesn’t mention the words “gay” or “marriage,” but officials of the JCPA, the “common table” for 14 national member agencies and 125 local community relations councils around the country, acknowledge that support for gay marriage could be read into the resolution.
The great majority of these groups and their delegates support the resolution, but one member agency, the Orthodox Union, objected, arguing that this was a religious issue since the Torah forbids homosexual acts. In the weeks leading up to the annual convention there was talk of an OU veto of the resolution — each of the member groups representing the religious streams has the right of veto on matters that it feels goes against its constituents’ religious beliefs — and even the possibility that the OU would withdraw from the JCPA.
The story of how the matter was resolved peacefully, at least for now, underscores how the JCPA is unique among national Jewish organizations, and why its overarching belief in open and inclusive discussions and consensus-driven action make it particularly important at a time when there is so much divisiveness — political, religious and ideological — in American Jewish life.
“Our mission is to hold different views and work hard to find consensus, if possible,” says Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of JCPA, “and if not, to hold that difference with sensitivity.”
He says he thinks of the Jewish community “as family,” albeit “sometimes dysfunctional,” with its home “in Torah and traditions.”
And part of the work of JCPA is “to find that sweet spot that is too often lost” when there are “so many ways Jews find to fight with each other.”
Says Rabbi Gutow: “We think organizations that take seriously” the notion of respectful dialogue, “while trying to find a just position, in some ways defines what a community can be.”
The JCPA sees itself as the united voice of the national Jewish community, identifying issues, setting forth policies and focusing attention on certain causes and programs in keeping with its slogan, “repairing the world through Jewish activism.” Historically viewed as reflecting a liberal agenda, the JCPA, in addition to supporting security for Israel and Jewish rights, currently has campaigns on confronting poverty, protecting the environment and promoting civility in the community.
The planned resolution on the issue of discrimination against same-sex couples no doubt would have passed, but when OU officials voiced their concerns to JCPA leaders, a series of private discussions took place.
The OU felt the JCPA should not take a position on same-sex couples because, as one OU professional told me, “JCPA is a big-tent organization” and should respect that the OU sees the issue as a religious one. In the end, in the interest of maintaining unity among its member groups, the JCPA decided to refer the resolution on same-sex couples back to a task force.
“Maybe by going back to the task force we can work it out,” Rabbi Gutow said.
He noted that in past years there have been resolutions that were tabled, revisited and eventually passed. One was on gays in the military, which the Jewish War Veterans initially opposed. And last year a resolution was prompted by women in Israel being forced to sit in the back of some public buses. Members of the National Council of Jewish Women and the OU worked on the wording over a period of months before a compromise was reached. The resulting resolution opposed “gender segregation in secular public spaces in Israel.” It also noted there could be circumstances, like in public swimming pools in Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods, where separating men and women is appropriate, and that it must be done with sensitivity and avoid discrimination.
At this year’s plenum, the JCPA officials have decided to make the discussion around the same-sex resolution a learning experience. They have scheduled a session called “Jewish Consensus and Controversy: Same-Sex Relationships.” Panelists include Jeremy Burton, a gay Orthodox Jew who is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Yehuda Neuberger, lay chairman of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs.
Neuberger told me he was impressed with how seriously JCPA officials took the OU’s concerns during their lengthy discussions. “The point of the panel will be to talk about the importance and benefit of consensus, which requires real sensitivity,” he said.
One take-away from this incident is that the JCPA values communal unity more than any one issue. It’s an important lesson at a time when Republicans and Democrats in Washington are so at odds that they can’t seem to compromise, allowing politics to trump national interests, and when American Jews on the left and right marginalize rather than listen to each other when it comes to what’s best for Israel, and other issues.
“This is one organization,” says Gutow, “where the goal is to keep everyone together.”