NEW YORK (Jun. 12)
The national public affairs arm of the Jewish community has hired a new executive director whose background combines religion, politics and public policy. Rabbi Steve Gutow, 56, who has worked as a Reconstructionist rabbi, a lawyer and a Jewish communal professional, will take over the helm of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on Aug. 1.
He succeeds Hannah Rosenthal, who resigned in March to become executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women.
The JCPA represents 13 national Jewish agencies and 122 local community relations councils and the Jewish federations with which they are affiliated to promote a just American society and protect Jews around the world, according to the group’s mission statement.
“It convenes the ‘common table’ around which member agencies, through an open, representative, inclusive and consensus-driven process, meet to identify issues, articulate positions, and develop strategies, programs and approaches designed to advance the public affairs goals and objectives of the organized Jewish community,” according to its mission.
Differing perspectives on those goals and strategies have led to flash points between the JCPA and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American federation system, which significantly funds the JCPA.
Former UJC chairman James Tisch has argued that the group was taking on issues, such as U.S. tax policy and domestic violence against women, that were beyond the purview of Jewish responsibility.
The challenges have never resulted in reduced funding to the JCPA.
But the former UJC chairman’s criticism illustrates one of the greatest challenges facing the JCPA and its new director: building consensus.
“There is always a question when we take stands on an issue of what constitutes a consensus, and JCPA doesn’t take a stand unless it’s a super, super majority, but the people who are on the other side of the issue are always complaining,” Rosenthal, the former director, said.
For his part, Gutow says consensus building is one of his critical skills.
“I think that’s probably something I love doing, and I feel like I do it well,” Gutow told JTA.
He has had practice at the task, working as an attorney for a decade in Texas before becoming the Southwest regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, and then the founding director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, which promotes ties between Jews and the Democractic Party.
All those positions, he said, required determining which issues drew consensus and which, consequently, became effective positions for the organization.
“I like hearing what other people think and trying to find that place where they can find a sense of togetherness and wholeness,” he said.
Several years ago, Gutow decided to shift his focus and studied to become a Reconstructionist rabbi. After his ordination in 2003, he became the rabbi at the Reconstructionist Minyan of St. Louis. He also taught a course in Jewish law at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
As a rabbi, Gutow said, his deepened “understanding of Jewish tradition and where it takes us and what it means will enable me to understand the fundamental underpinnings of why we take the stands we do.”
As the JCPA moves forward, he said, it “has to take into consideration its own feelings as an organization, but part of what its own feelings are is a reflection of a consensus of Jewish organization life.
“There has to be an effective involvement of UJC as well as the other national agencies in the decision- making of the organization.”
For his part, Tisch is continuing to press his concerns. He said after Gutow’s hire, “I hope that as a result, they will reassess their agenda and stick with issues that are within their mission” such as lobbying for Israel or supporting Jewish social service agencies.
Tisch sent an e-mail to the current UJC chairman, Robert Goldberg, on June 10, the day Gutow’s appointment was announced, complaining that JCPA’s outspoken position on violence against women, while a commendable stance, falls outside the group’s purview.
“I hope the UJC tries to bring this agenda under control,” Tisch said, referring to JCPA’s agenda as promoting primarily to Democratic positions. However, he conceded that “other people aren’t as orthodox” about the JCPA agenda as he is, and as a former chairman he plans to stay in the background, he said.
Goldberg was unable to be reached for comment.
For its part, the JCPA plans to pursue a similar path.
“Hannah was able to raise the platform of JCPA, and Steve will continue to move forward with a similar agenda of advocating for Israel and the United States, of promoting a just society,” lobbying for social justice programs in this country and combating anti-Semitism around the world, said Michael Bohnen, immediate past chairman of the JCPA and chairman of the search committee that selected Gutow.
Gutow is “dynamic, he’s passionate, he’s knowledgeable,” Bohnen said.
Those who know Gutow agree.
“Steve brings a set of unique skills to the organization,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“First of all he has the understanding and compassion of a rabbi coupled with a strong understanding of politics and the political process, and also a lot of experience in the public policy arena, and I think that’s precisely the kind of leadership the organization needs and I think he’s going to do a terrific job of really taking the organization to the next level.”
Brooks added that Gutow was successful at bridging the partisan gap as an AIPAC regional director.
Rosenthal, who has known Gutow for many years, said he will “build consensus very well,” and said his distinction as a rabbi will bode well for his leadership.
“We have a tradition of institutionalized debate. Anyone who has read the Talmud knows that, so Steve has studied how to ask those questions and how to look for the answers,” she said.
“They are getting a rabbi who is learned and understands the prophetic vision of Judaism, and there’s not a better place to put that knowledge, those values and your professional energies than JCPA,” she said.
Asked about his plans for the organization, Gutow said, “It’s not so much that I think we’re going to break new ground. I just want to continue doing what it does and doing it well,” he said.
He specifically cited the group’s mission of pro-Israel advocacy to legislators, the press and other religious groups.
“It is an organization that’s reflective of the positions and the values of the Jewish community and of the needs of the Jewish community. That’s what it needs to do and it needs to work hard to make sure when we can form a consensus we do,” he said.
“In that ability to form consensus and to move forward, we both reflect to the world and to ourselves our basic values as a tradition.”