To paraphrase those classic 1980s TV commercials for the brokerage firm E.F. Hutton, when John Ruskay talks, people listen.
Last Tuesday, when some 500 hundred lay and professional leaders in the community came together to honor him on his first decade as executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, there was much anticipation of the speech he was about to give — he did not disappoint; more on that in a moment — and numerous references to the talk he gave 10 years ago, on coming into his post, a classic in communal circles.
In that first address he outlined his strategy and goals for the coming decade, calling for the creation of “caring communities” of “meaning and purpose” that would renew, support and strengthen Jewish people, wherever they may be, according to need rather than location — from New York to Israel to Argentina to the Former Soviet Union.
Much of what Ruskay, now 63, envisioned not only has come to pass but seems like it has always been in place: the emphasis on mission-based rather than agency-based objectives; an end to the division of domestic vs. international allocations; talk of and commitment to Jewish peoplehood; coordination between federation’s network of human service agencies and “gateway” institutions like synagogues, JCCs, camps and Hillels; widening support for Israel and greater emphasis on mainstreaming Russian-speaking Jews into the Jewish community.
Ruskay would be the first to admit that there is far more work to be done in giving Jews reasons to be Jewish and feel connected to each other in a Me First age and at a time when, as he says, we are all, in effect, Jews by choice.
UJA-Federation has led the nation in fundraising and been at the vanguard in re-envisioning the role of federation as seeking to inspire, educate and engage people in caring for each other, deepening their Jewish identities and sense of responsibility.
Much of the credit for that vision goes to Ruskay, who is respected widely for a rare combination of bold professional leadership, deep Jewish knowledge and personal warmth.
His “gift” from colleagues on this 10th anniversary was having the new issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service dedicated to the role of federation, with New York of the last decade as a case study. More than 50 authors, most of them professionals in the field, contributed to the 220-page issue on topics from synagogue renewal to innovation to responding to crisis.
(I was asked to write on the tensions between Jewish newspapers and federations. The editors were deeply concerned that I had gone too far in citing a specific incident of would-be imposed censorship and asked me to leave it out. I found that ironic and telling; in the end, we reached a compromise.)
Ruskay gave another memorable talk on Tuesday, offering an aggressive defense of federation’s foundational commitment to “communal collective responsibility in a culture too often defined by rampant individualism.” The central theme though, was in sharing his thoughts on four areas he believes should be addressed by federation in the coming decade, in addition to its care for the poor and needy. (See excerpt, page 1.)
They are: the “crisis of affordability of Jewish life,” with so many young people turned away from day schools, summer camps and Birthright Israel trips for lack of resources; the need to “reweave” our community to connect the various agencies’ chesed work more deeply; reassessing our future role in Israel, primarily in terms of seeking greater collaboration among philanthropists in Israel, as well as here, to work with the Jerusalem government and North American federations in tackling major problems, like reversing the crisis in Israeli education; and, perhaps most intriguing of all, differentiating between Israel advocacy and Israel education.
On that last point, Ruskay noted that “too few of our people — on and off college campuses — are able to effectively respond to Palestinian claims or to campaigns which seek to de-legitimize the moral basis for Israel.”
He added that “in conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education, we deny members of our community the opportunities to deepen their own engagement and bonds to Israel by developing their own positions and perspectives.”
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Later, I asked Ruskay to explain his thoughts; he asserted that Israel advocacy and educational agendas are not the same, and recalled teaching a course on Zionist ideologies that included pre-state thinkers like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, A.D. Gordon and Rabbi Judah Magnes, each with different visions — Revisionist, Labor Zionist and anti-Zionist.
Such explorations are no longer common, he said.
“There is no one reason” to support Israel’s legitimacy, Ruskay noted. “For some it’s the Torah, for others international law, and still others it’s a matter of rights. But we need to work through these issues, and that will require a tolerance for hearing things and grappling with things” many would prefer to ignore.
“This may not be a great time for internal debate, but we avoid dealing with delicate issues at our own peril,” he cautioned.
Some view Ruskay’s remarks on this subject in his speech as a re-emergence of his dovish views on the Mideast, expressed as a youthful activist, and a push back at groups like AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, perceived as taking an Israel-right-or-wrong position.
In his talk, Ruskay called for a major effort, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel and other Jewish organizations, “to enable young and old to legitimate Israel — not because they are defending a given line, but rather on the strength of the positions they have developed after wrestling with Israel’s history and difficult existential issues and reconciling their views with their deepest values.”
An honest exploration of Israel’s history is hard to come by, given that even “facts” can be subjective, as seen through the lens of hindsight and ideology. But Ruskay is correct; the attempt is needed at a time when all criticisms of Israel are disseminated widely, and when many young Jews — even in the Jewish state — are less interested and less informed.
Digging deep is more painful than relying on slick slogans and surface summaries. But if we are confident the truth that emerges will more than justify Israel’s moral, historical and legal case, we have no alternative.
We won’t have to wait another 10 years to see if Ruskay’s four major worries are justified, or addressed. Stay tuned.