Seeking compromise in the age of Trump? Good luck.
The upcoming annual conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) comes at a time of serious challenges and distinct opportunities for the umbrella group that offers guidelines on a range of public policy issues to its membership of 16 national Jewish agencies and more than 125 local Jewish Community Relations Councils.
The April 22-24 gathering, with the theme “The Power of the Network,” will bring together about 350 lay and professional leaders to the Sheraton Times Square hotel to deal with issues including “The State of American Democracy,” “Civil Society Efforts to Foster Peace in Israel” and “#MeToo Is #WeToo in the Jewish Community.”
The obstacles JCPA faces these days are more obvious. Just last month, the organization, along with eight other national Jewish groups, learned that a key source of funding from the Jewish federation system was closing down, causing staff and lay leaders to scramble to make up for the financial loss — estimated at about 20 percent of JCPA’s budget, according to its officials. And in recent years the number of autonomous Jewish Community Relations Councils in the country has been reduced as Jewish federations have incorporated their local JCRCs into the federation system as a means of cutting costs — at a price, though, of losing the JCRC’s independent voice on a range of public policy issues.
But as Cheryl Fishbein, a local clinical psychologist and attorney who chairs JCPA, noted in an interview this week, the organization’s mission to “advance a just and pluralistic America, global human rights and peace in Israel” has never been more relevant — or challenged. “Seeking consensus, which is what we do, is a constant struggle,” said Fishbein, who has served on numerous national Jewish nonprofit boards. “But the key is to seek alliances with others, keep the lines of communication open, educate the community and not give in to the polarization that has become pervasive these days.”
She noted with pride that JCPA, whose members include representatives of the major Jewish religious streams, reached consensus on the Kotel controversy, calling for the Jerusalem government to keep its pledge on religious pluralism at the Western Wall.
Fishbein, who will be honored for her leadership at the conference as she begins her third year as chair, has sought to streamline the number of issues JCPA deals with and focus on providing more training for JCRC executives and lay leaders around the country.
“We need to do more to prepare people for their work in how we present ourselves to the non-Jewish community locally, nationally and internationally,” she said, including how to respond quickly and thoughtfully to crises. Much of the training is done through webinars.
Key issues for JCPA include combatting anti-Semitism and bigotry, gun control, Muslim-Jewish relations, the criminal justice system, black-Jewish relations, a just immigration policy and the Mideast peace process.
Fishbein acknowledged that JCPA has been perceived in the past as a distinctly liberal organization. “Some used to call us, half-kiddingly, ‘Jews For Trotsky,’ but we’ve expanded our issues beyond causes like Darfur and the environment and are being asked to respond to more parochial issues that directly impact on the Jewish community. We seek to be a united front with as many in the tent as possible.”
The program for the conference still suggests a liberal agenda, with sessions like “Undocumented in America,” focusing on advocacy efforts for Dreamers, and “Why Trans Rights is a Jewish Issue; Why Anti-Semitism is a Trans Issue.” But Fishbein explained that the conference deals with issues the JCPA’s constituents are being asked to deal with. “The topics are based on the requests from our communities, and the speakers present a spectrum of views,” she said. “We’re not pushing for a specific outcome.”
For example, the Reform movement called for a discussion at the conference on transgender issues, and Fishbein said all voices, including those from the Orthodox community, will be heard.
She added that topics “balance out,” noting that issues like BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel and Israel advocacy efforts on campus are also on the agenda.
Fishbein observed that by maintaining independence, JCRCs around the country give local federations a degree of “deniability” when they are confronted with controversial issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal. “Federations can steer clear of controversy” and concentrate on fund-raising and providing social services, she said, with the JCPA, through resolutions on hot-button issues, presenting non-binding policy guidelines to its member organizations. (The JCPA did not take a position on the Iran nuclear deal, focusing its efforts on offering education about it instead.)
David Bernstein, president and CEO of JCPA, credits Fishbein for a sense of renewed energy within the organization. “Cheryl is one of the best networked people I know, with a big heart and huge commitment to the Jewish people,” he said. “Under her leadership we’ve taken a new direction in empowering our network and narrowing our focus on the number of issues we deal with to be more effective.”
He acknowledged that “in these binary times it’s very challenging to build consensus,” but he observed that “much of the polarizing energy exists at the margins” of the community. “And the need for consensus is greater than ever. We want to double down on supporting civility and strengthening the center of American politics.”
A worthy goal, and one all too rare these days — making the efforts of the JCPA all the more worth noting.
The JCPA awards dinner on Sunday night will honor Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue, communal leader Susan Stern and leading First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams in addition to Fishbein. See jewishpublicaffairs.org for more information.