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Conference puts local spotlight on nation’s Jewish professionals
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Conference puts local spotlight on nation’s Jewish professionals

At opening session, a hot debate over communal priorities

A challenge to the American-Jewish community to get involved in domestic issues met with a sharp response as professionals from Jewish organizations across the country met in Whippany for their annual conference.

The June 4-5 gathering drew over 200 members of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America for two days of discussions at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus.

Hosted by the organization’s New Jersey chapter and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, the conference featured workshops and panel discussions on nonprofit management, fund-raising, and incorporating Jewish values in the participants’ work at a range of organizations.

Offering a provocative challenge at the event’s outset, keynote speaker Alan van Capelle paid tribute to the Jewish community professionals’ work on behalf of the needy, but then called on them also to tackle politically touchy measures that would result in the funding needed to further such work.

Jewish communal professionals go to Washington to ask for funding for their work, he said, but don’t want to offend major donors by championing the tax increases needed to generate the necessary finances, said van Capelle, CEO of the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc.

“Our efforts are not always aligned with our funders,” van Capelle added.

There is a perception, he said, that Jewish organizations are moving to the right, displaying the attitude “that we’ve gotten ours, and we’ve left everyone else to fend for themselves.” Such an image might bear some of the blame for turning off what he called the 80 percent of American Jews not involved with Jewish organizations.

What’s needed, said van Capelle, himself a veteran labor and gay rights activist, is a domestic agenda to match the community’s advocacy on Israel and issues like Iranian nukes.

“There was a time when we led, and showed up, to help fight some of the greatest movements in American history,” van Capelle said, citing as examples the fight to abolish sweatshops and to expand voting rights. As “the richest and freest group of Jews the Diaspora has ever known,” he continued, it is a duty to use that clout and the opportunities it provides “to act on behalf of those who don’t have those things.”

The first rejoinder came from the evening’s honoree, Max Kleinman, executive vice president/CEO of the Greater MetroWest federation (see story, page 12).

He addressed van Capelle, saying, “Some of what you said is not accurate. We talk about a whole slew of social issues. For example, the American-Jewish community has taken the lead on Darfur.” In fact, Kleinman went on, it has done more on that issue than just about any other group.

Van Capelle replied, “It can be easier to raise concerns about a genocide in Africa than about poverty in this country. But we are powerful and rich enough to do both.”

Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the federation’s Community Relations Committee, also took exception to van Capelle’s comments.

“The federation world does incredible Israel advocacy, but at this federation we also work for social justice issues,” she said. “We have been grappling with immigration, and hunger, and poverty, and marriage equality. I am proud of the work we do on social justice.”

Benjamin Brown, whose organization Jewishjobs.com sponsored the keynote address, welcomed the debate. “We knew what Alan’s views are and that not everyone would agree with him. It’s what you want — to stimulate discussion.”

The theme of changing the Jewish agenda and exploring new models and issues was also explored at a June 5 breakout session led by Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. Bachman urged attendees to discard outdated assumptions about what individual Jews are seeking when it comes to joining Jewish institutions.

He described the success of his own synagogue, located in Brooklyn’s booming Park Slope neighborhood. The synagogue manages to attract young families, Israeli expats, and cultured Jews who normally scorn synagogue life with a combination of cultural events, social action projects, and outreach to interfaith families.

“The message must be that there are many ways to engage, and you can’t vilify any one of them,” said Bachman. Institutions must send the message that they “love people fully no matter what they believe.”

The conference was cochaired by Amy Cooper and Jessica Mehlman.

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