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Newsmaker Interview: Wishner, Now at Cjf’s Helm, Applauds Diversity of Communal Opportunities

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Maynard Wishner remembers the days when a cacophony of Jewish opinions rang out from the street corners of Chicago, when every point on the ideological spectrum had its own Yiddish newspaper, its own anthem and a spokesman on a soapbox.

He remembers as well what followed those days, how little all the ideologies helped in what proved to be the overwhelming powerlessness of the Jewish people.

Five decades later, Wishner heads an organization that exemplifies the strength of the contemporary American Jewish community — the Council of Jewish Federations, the umbrella for nearly 200 local organizations that together raised $730 million for Jewish causes last year.

And he defends what some criticize as the stifling of debates in Jewish life, even as he sees the great debates of Jewish history as some of the most powerful things Jewish education can offer.

Wishner has assumed the presidency of CJF at a time when the organization, bound by the iron chains of consensus, is quietly accumulating a position of absolute centrality in American Jewish life.

Organized in 1932 to serve the local Jewish fund-raising federation, CJF has in recent years taken on the form, and a small portion of the function, of a national Jewish parliament.

Starting in 1990, it began prodding local federations toward a sense of “collective responsibility” — making them pay a fair share of the costs of national challenges.

Those challenges have included resettling Soviet Jews in America and offering loans to Soviet Jews in Israel. Next on the agenda is providing Hillel services for college students.

Small wonder that a Jewish activist making the rounds to launch a project can be told five times in one day, “You have to speak with (CJF executive vice president) Marty Kraar; he runs the community.”

‘PEOPLE FIND THEIR JEWISH EXPRESSION’

But while Wishner staunchly defends the consolidation of Jewish organizations, which has been going on for decades, he also applauds the proliferation of Jewish organizations.

In his hometown of Chicago, he said, “there must be 2,000 people who are president of something Jewish. A sisterhood, a brotherhood, a B’nai B’rith lodge, Women’s ORT.

“That means there are 2,000 people who when they turn on the radio in the morning and hear something bad, say, ‘I’m the president. What should I do?’

“It enriches. So many people find their Jewish expression, their Jewish self-esteem, their sense of Jewish worth, their sense of being part of history, because they have a responsibility, relationship, to a particular institution, function, or agency, whatever it might be,” he said.

Wishner, who became president of CJF in November, received his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1947.

He was educated in a secularist, Yiddishist school in Chicago and acted in the city’s Yiddish theater.

Typically Wishner, he threw in an old-world example to drive home his point. “You know how many organizations there were in Vilna? There were dozens and dozens,” he said.

And yet there is the need to consolidate, to flock together under increasingly larger umbrellas.

“Historically we have evolved, from full fragmentation to these creatures, these instrumentalities we have created.” These creatures have names like council, united, federation, joint.

Wishner noted that much of the alphabet soup of contemporary Jewish communal life reflects the mergers from the days of even more diversity and confusion. Now there is talk of a merger, lurking not too far over the horizon, of the CJF and the United Jewish Appeal.

He remarked that while at one time the federations had a mostly local, philanthropic agenda and UJA represented a once-controversial Zionist, Israel-oriented agenda, today the two agendas are largely intertwined.

Wishner declined to discuss the likelihood of a merger, saying only that there are always conversations about CJF and UJA relations and, that with any organization, “if you’re going to start today and draw a blueprint of how to ideally structure everything, you would create it differently.”

ARGUMENTS MADE CLASSROOM COME ALIVE

CJF has taken a lead role in the new efforts at enhancing Jewish continuity — what an earlier generation of task forces called Jewish identity.

But as Wishner noted proudly, the CJF-launched North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity “doesn’t belong only to the federations (but) the broadest possible segment of the Jewish community as a whole,” including the synagogue movements and seminaries.

Pressed for his thoughts about Jewish education, Wishner thought of an Orthodox yeshiva he visited a few years ago, in his role as president of the Jewish Federation and Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

A class of high-school sophomores was debating a page of Talmud concerning finders and losers of property.

“The argument, the demand for explanation — it was alive in that classroom!”

And yet Wishner heads organizations, whether CJF or the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee (where his term as chair expires in February), where the great debates are played down.

At the recent CJF general assembly in Montreal, Wishner argued against Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, who had wanted Israel’s raging political debates to be aired at the event.

For American Jews to truly relate to Israel, argued Beilin, they must be engaged in the debates, rather than simply endorsing the positions of whichever government holds power.

But Wishner maintained that American Jewish umbrella organizations cannot afford to join the debate.

“Israelis have a Knesset,” said Wishner. “They can decide something by 51 percent, the other 49 percent can consider it a betrayal, but the next morning, they’re still Israelis, they still go to the army.

“In our structures, if you do something that 49 percent disagrees with, our house crumbles. ‘I didn’t give you money for this,’ they’ll argue. ‘What right do you have to speak for me?'”

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