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Jewish Liberal Group Aims to Fill a ‘Vacuum’

Jewish Liberal Group Aims to Fill a ‘Vacuum’

Progressive New York leaders want to counter trends on the right and left.

New York Jewish Agenda co-founder Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum: Pushing “the mainstream liberal Jewish voice” into the public square. CBST/Facebook
New York Jewish Agenda co-founder Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum: Pushing “the mainstream liberal Jewish voice” into the public square. CBST/Facebook

Local Jewish leaders with established progressive credentials have formed a new group designed to counter the strength of a politically conservative Orthodox community and the hostility towards Israel in many liberal circles.

The New York Jewish Agenda will fill a “vacuum” here of liberal Jews who have lacked a unified voice to press for its sociopolitical agenda and to advocate for Israel, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, one of the organization’s co-founders, told The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Timoner, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, said NYJA is not affiliated with any Jewish or political movement. It has no relation to the New Jewish Agenda, a once-prominent organization that billed itself as “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews” from 1980-1992.

The new organization will have a New York focus, “a voice that is politically Jewish,” concentrating on such issues as bail reform, criminal justice and anti-Semitism, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan, another co-founder, told The Jewish Week.

She said the increasing confidence and visibility of the Orthodox community here has given many people, including political leaders, the impression that Orthodox Jews, who usually take a conservative position on social issues and on the Middle East — including opposition to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration — represent the majority of the city’s Jews. “There’s diversity in the Jewish community,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said. “We’re going to be very loud and visible. The mainstream liberal Jewish voice is not getting out into the public square in the way that it should.”

In its first public action, NYJA mounted support in December for bail reform. The organization has held virtual town halls and meetings about combating the coronavirus here, issuing a letter with the African American Clergy and Elected Officials Coalition criticizing the NYPD for using physical force against African-American men to enforce social distancing rules.

While many national Jewish organizations have a liberal slant, “they don’t necessarily have a New York focus,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said; J Street, for instance, focuses primarily on foreign policy, while the Jewish Democratic Council of America focuses mostly on Washington politics.

“We felt it was important to create a new voice in New York that focuses on state and local issues, that serves as a central address for liberal Jews whose Jewish values shape their priorities, both with respect to domestic issues and with respect to their support for Israel and their commitment to combating anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Timoner said.

“We’re focused on New York State because while it has the nation’s largest and most diverse Jewish community, liberal, mainstream Jewish New Yorkers are not heard as a collective Jewish voice on the issues they care about. We’re here to put their values into action,” Matt Nosanchuk, a former Obama administration official who is serving as president of the organization, told The Jewish Week via email.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, another co-founder: “It’simportant for Jews to show up [in the liberal community] and make the case for why Israel is important.”

“Since making the New York Jewish Agenda public, we’ve already brought together hundreds of Jewish leaders to take a stance on hate crimes, anti-Semitism, criminal justice reform and the response to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Nosanchuk. “Our voice has been heard in public campaigns to Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio and private meetings with the highest representatives of federal and state government.”

Other founders of the organization are City Councilman Brad Lander, and Amy Rutkin, chief of staff for Rep. Jerry Nadler, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

None of the founders who spoke with The Times of Israel last week would disclose who was currently funding the organization. “Not at this point,” Rabbi Timoner told the website.

The group plans to lobby on behalf of a liberal voice that is supportive of Israel but not necessarily of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is hostility to Israel on the left,” said Rabbi Timoner. “It’s important for Jews to show up [in the liberal community] and make the case for why Israel is important. It’s important for us to bring a clarity about the need for a Jewish state.”

“We’re seeking to exemplify a voice here in New York that is supportive of a democratic Israel, a two-state solution, a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Rabbi Timoner added. “It’s more to bring together the Jews of New York who are supportive of Israel but who don’t necessarily support the policies of the current Israeli government.”

Growing talk that Israel might annex settlements in the West Bank government could prove a tricky test case for the new liberal group. Many on the Jewish left (and some voices on the Jewish right, including Daniel Pipes, who wrote a New York Times op-ed last week opposing annexation) are strongly against such a move and will likely speak out vehemently against it.

Rabbi Kleinbaum said the organization opposes Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. “We think it hurts a two-state solution,” she said. “We are against the occupation and against BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel]. We support a secure and democratic Israel and a genuine two-state solution.”

The group, two years in the making, was not a reaction to dynamics of the 2020 presidential campaign, in which there was a fissure between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and much of the pro-Israel establishment, Rabbi Kleinbaum said. Sanders, a democratic socialist, notably declined to attend the American Israel Public Affairs conference in March, saying it provided a forum for bigotry.

She said the founders were spurred to establish the organization after the fatal stabbing attack in Monsey last fall and a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents here.

“We are not partisan. We’re not going to be endorsing candidates,” Rabbi Kleinbaum said.

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