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Focus on Issues: from Oregon to North Dakota, Jewish Politics, Too, Are Local

From Oregon to Massachusetts, from Texas to North Dakota, the Jewish agenda is adapting to the old political adage that “all politics are local.”

Communities once driven by concerns such as anti-Semitism and Soviet Jewry now are training their energies with greater frequency on home-grown issues.

Take the case of Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Jewish community relations council, which also covers the Dakotas, spent a good chunk of last year focusing its energies on defeating a measure that would have banned all circumcision in North Dakota.

After a large number of African immigrants who settled in the state began performing ritual female circumcisions, called genital mutilation by its opponents, the state legislature moved to ban the practice.

But a bloc of feminist legislators said that if you’re banning female circumcision you must ban male circumcisions, according to Jay Tcath, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

While the link failed in the legislature, the lawmakers took their case to court. Late last year, the law was upheld — without the male circumcision ban.

But just because the issues are local does not mean they are unique to each community.

From interviews with dozens of Jewish officials on the front lines of community relations and coalition building, it is clear that many of the issues that shape the local agenda are shared by CRCs across the country.

As diverse as their communities and organizational structures are, a common thread of policy, politics and partnerships run through the agencies that are responsible for setting policy and communicating it with the broader local community.

The change in focus could not have come at a more critical time, as the federal government continues to shift power and dollars to the states.

With this shift, many community relations councils, officials say, have found themselves in the enviable position of harnessing renewed energy and activism among grass-roots American Jewry.

“The problems no longer are anti-Semitism, an Israel besieged and Soviet Jewry. Civil rights ain’t what it used to be,” said Tcath.

“So whither the JCRCs?” he said.

According to Tcath and many of his colleagues who gathered this week in the sunshine state for the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, they’re doing just fine.

They’re just doing it a little differently.

The JCPA, formerly known as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, is an umbrella body of 117 local community relations councils and 13 national agencies.

“No one’s calling us on Russian-Iranian missile cooperation. Ninety percent of our incoming calls are on local issues,” Tcath said.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, said the CRCs’ “historic mission is to safeguard the condition under which the Jewish community can flourish, both here and abroad.

“Now there’s an expansion of the agenda,” with a greater focus on domestic issues.

Among the issues now occupying the attention of local Jewish organizational officials and activists across the country are school vouchers and prayer in public schools, issues of religious freedom and social welfare benefits for poor and immigrant populations, according to CRC officials here.

It’s a shift that Kahn, who serves as the director of the national CRC directors association, said is a “natural” change.

While the CRCs were “initially a little hesitant to grab hold of the area, we are the institutions in the community that possess the expertise” because of their longtime work in coalition building and advocacy.

Many activists say that while the shift to local issues is complete, it is not new.

Following the 1988 Democratic National Convention, when pro-Palestinian activists scored a major victory by bringing a vote on Palestinian statehood to the floor of the assembly, Jewish activists began to focus on forging better relations on the state level.

Both the Republicans and Democrats elect their delegates to the national conventions locally.

According to many officials on the front lines of local Jewish politics, the shift toward local issues intensified after the 1994 Republican revolution, when Republicans were swept into power in Congress.

This shift gave much more power to the states, as Congress left it up to individual states to decide how to spend billions of federal dollars.

The Jewish community received a “wake-up call,” Nancy Kaufman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Boston, said. “Somehow we forgot about the state.”

Across the country, the push for welfare reform and shift of social welfare benefits from the federal to the state level further galvanized local Jewish communities to develop better relations with state officials. Until then, people had mostly concentrated on relations with members of Congress.

“We basically realized that the government was the federation’s single largest donor,” Kaufman said. In Boston, 67 percent of the budget of Jewish social service providers come from government funds.

Welfare reform, which has led to a reduction in benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid for the needy and some immigrants, is one issue that concerns virtually all of the local CRCs.

“Everyone thinks that their community is unique, but every community deals with the same issues,” said Susan Abravanel, vice chair of JCPA and former chair of the CRC in Portland, Ore.

For all the concentration on local efforts, activists stressed that the national scene is not being neglected. Instead it’s taking on a different spin.

In the community known as MetroWest, N.J., people are still reeling from last year’s Senate battle between Richard Zimmer and Robert Torricelli that analysts widely regarded as one of the dirtiest and ugliest in recent memory.

“Until the Zimmer-Torricelli race, campaign finance reform was one of those `up-there’ Washington issues,” said David Mallach, director of the CRC in MetroWest. Now the community is seeking ways to support campaign finance reform.

But like most communities, MetroWest has its own home-grown issue that ranks high on the agenda.

“The largest New Jersey issue is the formula used to fund suburban school districts,” Mallach said. That’s what matters because “that’s where the Jewish community lives.”

In some communities, one of the best results of the local orientation has been an increasing number of Jewish activists.

“We’re experiencing a renaissance of an enormous energy,” Boston’s Kaufman said.

“People are wanting vehicles to do something. We are giving people a Jewish context.”

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