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Focus on Issues: Torah and Pluralism Spark Passion for Delegates to Njcrac Gathering

February 19, 1997
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Welfare cuts, campaign finance reform, the balanced budget amendment and federally funded school vouchers dominate the domestic Jewish public policy agenda these days.

But when Jewish community activists from across the country gathered in Washington this week, some of the most stirring discussion focused on other matters.

Delegates to the annual conference of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council passionately debated American Jewry’s role in Israeli policy matters, from the peace process to religious pluralism.

At the same time, they celebrated a new marriage throughout the community relations field of social activism to Jewish values and tradition. The mantra of the movement appears to be “Torah and tzedek,” Hebrew for “justice.”

For the first time at a NJCRAC plenary conference, delegates crowded into a late night Beit Midrash, or study session, which explored how Jewish texts on helping the poor inform the current debate on welfare reform.

Nancy Kaufman, executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, and a pioneer of “Torah and tzedek,” said that “for a long time there was a nervousness” about this in the field.

Now, she said, “slowly but surely, there is a recognition and acceptance and embracing of the inextricable link between the justice part of our agenda and the Jewish part.”

Having a Beit Midrash “shows us there’s something beautiful and special about our texts which infuses us with the energy and commitment to do this work.”

About 400 delegates attended the convention of NJCRAC, an umbrella body serving 117 local Jewish community relations councils and 13 national agencies.

Long plagued by its unwieldy name, NJCRAC was expected to change its name to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Another conference, the B’nai B’rith Hillel Spitzer Forum on Public Policy, was held in conjunction with NJCRAC’s and drew 300 students from more than 100 college campuses.

Some of the programs overlapped, to the evident pleasure of many.

“I like the way they mix the generations,” one young Spitzer delegate said on a crowded elevator after the Beit Midrash, where all ages were encouraged to mingle.

The strong showing of the students reflected what Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel, called a Jewish “renaissance.”

Renaissance, he said, using Hillel’s watchword, is different from continuity.

“Continuity has meaning if you’re 75, but a 20-year-old won’t be excited about it.”

A renaissance, on the other hand, “has the image of going from dark to light, of unleashing creativity and a rebirth of culture.”

Afterward, Sarah Manekin, a junior at the University of North Carolina who belongs to a multicultural campus group called Masala, a Hindi word for “spice mixture,” said, “I’ve learned that the stuff I do on campus has to do with the fact that I’m Jewish.”

Ultimately, she said, “I want to be a voice in the community and help shape and direct the way Jews approach other groups.”

The main NJCRAC conference drew a host of political personages, including former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres; Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar; National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, and former Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp.

Some expressed disappointment that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not appear Sunday, instead ending his U.S. visit early that morning.

U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) were among those honored at the chairman’s dinner Monday night.

At the session on NJCRAC’s joint program plan, where the annual communal policy agenda is set, delegates adopted a resolution in support of the Middle East peace process, but only after some heated debate over a reference to Jewish settlements.

The section on settlements was then deleted after a vote of 221-118.

The controversial passage called for the Israeli government to “show maximum restraint on this issue,” including “ending economic incentives for settling on the West Bank, freezing the growth of the vast majority of existing Jewish settlements there and banning new Jewish settlements.”

That debate came the day after Ben-Elissar told the group that in light of how “inflammatory” the issue was, Israel would “not create in the near future any new settlements.”

During debate on the issue, Michael Perry of the Jewish Labor Committee, a cosponsor of the measure with the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said settlements “will impede the peace process” and “exacerbate tensions.”

“This language is not helpful to the peace process,” countered David Luchins of the Orthodox Union. He termed the matter “extremely sensitive” and said the delegates were “sticking our feet” in places “where we don’t belong.”

“When we want to criticize Israel, we need to do it privately.”

One activist who asked to remain anonymous said the moderate tone adopted by the usually more dovish umbrella group reflected the upbeat mood after the agreement on Hebron and the overwhelming support for it in the Knesset.

“Given Netanyahu’s political moorings,” he said, referring to the prime minister’s conservative leanings, his policy on settlements “is a measured one.”

A quieter, but more intense discussion ensued on religious pluralism in Israel in a session devoted to “Challenges to the American-Jewish Israel Relationship.”

The discussion came on the heels of Netanyahu’s meetings with U.S. rabbis over the weekend, at which he said coalition politics would force him to support legislation reaffirming exclusive Orthodox control over conversions in Israel.

NJCRAC officials had taken pains, including the euphemistic title, to defuse the volatility of the issue in deference to the sensitivities of the Orthodox Union, which adamantly opposes putting pluralism on the policy agenda.

Many delegates expressed disappointment and frustration after the two speakers in the forum made it plain that there are few solutions to questions burning through the Jewish grass roots about the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

JCRC professionals from across the nation said they increasingly are hard- pressed to counter growing protests over the issue which, in some instances, threaten to spread to federation campaigns.

The forum’s featured speakers were Julius Berman, an Orthodox past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Shoshana Cardin, another past conference chairman who currently serves as chair of the United Israel Appeal and head of the U.S. side of an Israeli interministerial committee on Diaspora affairs.

Cardin declared her personal frustration over the lack of legal legitimacy in Israel of non-Orthodox Judaism and said she raises the issue with Israeli officials at every opportunity.

There is a “major chasm of understanding” between U.S. and Israeli Jews, she said, adding that most Israelis “don’t care” about Jewish pluralism.

She said the current battle is “an internal one” and cautioned against going to battle for “issues that are not life-threatening.”

“Right now, there is no way to make change,” she said. The only solution is to work to educate and “sensitize” Israelis at the grass roots to the richness of pluralistic Jewish life.

“Please do not, do not punish those in need, to whom we are responsible, for policies of the Israeli government,” she said, referring to threats to the central fund-raising campaign.

For his part, Berman said umbrella organizations such as NJCRAC are “unique instrumentalities,” which should not take up the pluralism issue because it is a divisive one.

Apologizing in advance for remarks he knew would raise hackles, Berman said it is the “albatross of Reform Judaism” in America that is responsible for the failure of Reform Judaism to take root in Israel.

The 80 percent of Israelis who are secular “are telling you they don’t want it,” he said, “and maybe they have got good reason.” Berman found support from O.U.’s Luchins, who said he was “pained” by the session. Interdenominational meetings going on behind closed doors in the United States are one thing, he said, but the community “can’t have public confrontation.”

“If we start having discussions in NJCRAC” over halachah, or Jewish law, “I’m afraid we will not have a NJCRAC to come together at.”

But most delegates who spoke appeared frustrated with both speakers.

“I heard a non-discussion,” said Theodore Eisenberg, a lay leader in New Jersey’s Metrowest federation and community relations committee. “I don’t believe talk of division is divisive,” he added. “This is an emergency.”

Emily Fink Bauman of St. Louis said that “whether or not it is legitimate to interfere, intercede or advocate” on these issues, “there’s a great deal of pain and dissension” in communities.

“JCRCs and NJCRAC have the responsibility to deal with that pain,” she said.

“It’s not just a question of pain,” said Kenneth Sweder, president of Boston’s JCRC, “it’s a question of disengagement.”

“The issue is civil rights,” said Bernice Balter, of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. “The troops are champing at the bit.”

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