Is it still worth striving for a united Jewish community?
Once-bedrock issues like promoting democratic values and voting rights are up for debate. Generations disagree on how, and even whether, to support the state of Israel. The blue and red divide has cleaved a mostly Orthodox minority from a mostly liberal Jewish majority.
Even from within the organized Jewish community, the very notion of a large, successful consensus-based organization to represent its interests seems outdated.
Can our toxic culture and frayed relationships be repaired?
No one has thought more about these issues than Michael Miller, who has led the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York as executive vice president and CEO for more than 36 years. In that time, he was committed to forming and supporting a broad agenda of communal priorities.
Now, as he prepares to step down and take the title of CEO emeritus on July 1, he remains committed to a sense of common Jewish purpose, despite the obvious divisions.
“The very name and mission of this organization — the Jewish Community Relations Council — is about trying to bring people together to communicate with each other even if they disagree, fundamentally, with each other,” he said during an interview last week.
Miller, 72, is being honored Wednesday evening at a JCRC Virtual Gala. He will be succeeded by Gideon Taylor, 56, a JCRC executive board member who has led the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (best known as the Claims Conference) both professionally and as a lay leader.
The JCRC seeks to promote and protect the Jewish community of New York by working closely with political, ethnic and religious leaders. It has a long history of hosting goodwill tours of Israel for. politicians and others in a range of fields, and sponsoring the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, the largest parade of its kind.
During Miller’s tenure, he and the JCRC have weathered the storms of antisemitism from outside the community — most notably the Crown Heights riots of 1991 — and political, religious and social tensions from within.
Most recently, the non-profit’s focus has been on the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic hardships as well as the worrisome spike in anti-Jewish attacks and efforts to delegitimize Israel.
In recent days the city announced a grant to protect houses of worship that will provide, through JCRC, an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 for synagogues in the wake of recent attacks.
Miller said that “the degree of hatred directed at our community” of late is deeply disturbing, as is the level of “polarization and demonization” among Jews themselves taking place here and in Israel.
The primary way to combat those trends, he believes, is to foster and strengthen interpersonal relationships among Jews as well as with a wide range of leaders, from top government officials to neighborhood activists. And although Miller has been a strong and articulate advocate for Jewish causes in public settings, much of his most effective work has been done behind the scenes, as he prefers.
Miller learned that power of persuasion at home. His father, the late Rabbi Israel Miller, was a consummate religious and lay leader of his generation. In addition to his post as rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in the Bronx, he served as vice president of Yeshiva University, was president of the Claims Conference, and led a host of national rabbinic and lay Jewish organizations, including the JCRC, which he helped found.
“The Jewish world was a constant topic at our Shabbat table, and many of its leaders, including top Israeli officials, joined us,” Miller told me. “My Dad had a tremendous impact on me,” he said, noting, “I was always interested in going into Jewish organizational life.”
He followed in his father’s footsteps in receiving rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University, serving as a U.S. Army chaplain (at Fort Knox in Kentucky as the only rabbi among 40,000 soldiers) and taking a pulpit (for six years in Springfield, Mass.).
In 1984 he was hired by Malcolm Hoenlein, the founding executive of New York’s JCRC, and succeeded him when Hoenlein was tapped to lead the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations two years later.
Shortly before he took the post, Miller made a solo trip to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and bring them encouragement, along with prayer books and other religious items he smuggled in illegally. He knew he was being followed by KGB agents during his two weeks in the USSR, and he says he has never experienced loneliness like he did then.
“The experience was very powerful,” he recalled, and helped deepen his conviction to make a career of serving the Jewish community.
Several of the people I spoke to this week have worked closely with Miller, from outside as well as inside the Jewish community. They asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of their work. Each noted the respect he is given, from Albany to the boroughs. One lay leader cited his “integrity above all, but also his modesty” in a position of authority, his willingness and ability to talk to anyone and everyone, and his deep devotion to the Jewish people.
“Michael has had a remarkable ability to achieve consensus through his leadership,” one observer said, primarily through close relationships, developed over the years, with top government officials and a wide range of civic, business and faith leaders.
No doubt his detractors would agree with that description; their key complaints underscore the seemingly impossible high wire act of achieving communal consensus.
“The fact that Michael is a peacemaker is, to his critics, a weakness,” one lay leader noted. “People want more clarity today. To those on the right, he’s wishy-washy, and to those on the left, he’s conservative.”
A prime example of a JCRC dilemma concerns its policies regarding the annual Celebrate Israel parade, which has long been both a major source of pride and a constant headache to the organization. It often attracts major press and big crowds. But tensions within the community over Israel play out in terms of which groups are allowed to march and which — particularly progressive ones — are not.
A colleague observed: “Michael may well be more popular outside of the Jewish community than within it. He is a consensus human being in temperament and philosophy, and I’m not sure consensus is tenable at this time.”
Indeed, at a moment when New York will have a new mayor and the fragile Israeli government is seeking to enhance the state’s image amidst an increasingly vocal chorus of critics, the role of protecting and projecting the Jewish community’s interests is vital.
Some within the JCRC question — though quietly — whether its mission of representing the majority of New York Jews and achieving consensus within the community is possible at a time when demographic trends point to a deeper divide.
The recent Pew study showed that among younger Jews, there are two opposing trends: One is a move to the right politically and religiously among the growing Orthodox community. The other is an increase among progressives who have little affinity with the organized Jewish community or its interests.
The divisions are multiplying. Criticism of Israel by progressive Democrats appears to have grown sharper and more bold in the wake of the recent Hamas-Israel conflict. Upstart local organizations like The Jewish Vote, a project of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, have endorsed some of these progressive candidates.
Last year, Matt Nosanchuk, President Obama’s former Jewish liaison, helped form New York Jewish Agenda, in order to amplify liberal voices for both social justice and a “democratic vision of Israel.”
And it is not just pressure from the left: Haredi Orthodox groups tend to go their own way in protecting the interests of their communities in Williamsburg, Borough Park, Crown Heights and other neighborhoods.
The nearly 50 groups that make up the JCRC tend to reflect the segment of the Jewish population most engaged in communal concerns. They skew older and more traditional, religiously and civically, but how representative are they of the larger Jewish community?
JCRC leaders are well aware of the problem, and acknowledge the challenge. Some think it may be time for the group to reinvent itself to reflect the current demographics, and seek to engage even those with no affiliation by offering them a seat at the table.
Michael Miller notes that while Jewish organizations like the JCRC have been in place for many years, “it doesn’t mean that they’re permanent fixtures.” He recognizes the need to engage younger people, pointing out that while rallies and demonstrations were effective in the days of the Soviet Jewry movement, the Jewish world must find new ways to speak out that fit the times.
“There are no simple solutions, no panacea here,” he told me. But he expressed faith in new leaders, in addition to his successor, who will “rise up from the ranks” and give voice to the calls for justice that have echoed since the days of the Bible.
Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com