On May 5 I headed to Detroit for the annual Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, otherwise known as the JCPA, the Community Relations Council’s umbrella organization.
The JCPA, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, serves as the national coordinating and advisory body for the 14 national and 125 local agencies comprising the field of Jewish community relations, to which Tidewater belongs. Joining with hundreds of Jewish activists to discuss current and critical issues facing Jews and Israel today, I heard from national experts on how we can be involved in the issues most important to our community.
The first full day of the Plenum offered so many opportunities for education and understanding that I had a hard time choosing which sessions to attend. I started with a workshop on Israel advocacy on campus titled “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Colleges and Universities.” The discussion focused on how the organized Jewish community responds to both pro and anti-Israel activity taking place on campuses. The panel shared real world experience and best practicesfor advocating for Israel on campus. Out of 4,000 schools of higher learning in the United States, only about 150 even have a debate about the affairs of the Middle East. Bottom line… the sky ISN’T falling!
The afternoon started with a Plenary (an all Plenum attendee session) where we explored the Jewish stake in private and public education, balancing community building with our concern for the separation of church and state. The afternoon forum I attended was “Israel’s Domestic Challenges: The American Jewish Community’s Stake” and included a panel discussion with Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the National Council for Jewish Women and Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco JCRC. The session explored the status of issues facing Israel today and the appropriate role of the organized American Jewish community in responding to them. Issues such as the growing socio-economic gap that spawned mass protests throughout Israel, gender discrimination and segregation and more were discussed.
In the keynote address, Ambassador Michael Oren offered his insights about Israel’s challenges, the U.S-Israel relationship and community based Israel advocacy. To be pro-Israel today he said, means someone who is “committed to ensuring that the world will never again know a life without the Jewish state. A pro-Israel person sees controversy and has strong opinions on it [but also] appreciates the immense threats facing Israel every day.” He said, “Israel has the right to defend itself and only Israel, as a sovereign state, knows how to best defend its citizens.” I was sitting in the front row, hanging on his every word. If you’re interested in reading his full speech, let me know and I’ll be glad to send it to you. Inspiring and thought provoking as he always is, it’s worth taking the time to read.
Monday morning at the Plenum we were joined by two of Michigan’s legislators, Senator Debbie Stabenow and Representative Mike Rogers, for a discussion about the challenges currently facing our nation and a vision for the future. As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Stabenow spoke about this critical moment in time for America, and reminded us that “We have never had a more important time for Tikkin Olam.” Senator Stabenow stressed the importance of the 16 million jobs provided by the American agricultural industry as well as the need to preserve the most vibrant and stable food system in the world. She also insisted that the Farm Bill reauthorization preserve the billions of dollars that provide nutrition assistance to low income families, the disabled, and senior citizens. She recognized the importance of our value system and our willingness to work together to move our country forward.
Former FBI agent and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers of the 8th Congressional district of Michigan shared his expertise on international affairs and global terrorism. Through his leadership on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Rogers said he fights everyday for the safety and well being of Americans here and around the world by responding to threats like nuclear weaponry and cyber espionage. Representative Rogers sent a strong message to the attendees about America’s ability to remain a strong world leader and convince others not to develop nuclear weapons. He reminded us that a nuclear Iran isn’t worth the threat that it poses to the world. The only thing that can convince Iran to abandon their nuclear program, said Rogers, was a clear military commitment from the United States.
Another exciting plenary included JCPA President Steve Gutow in a moderated conversation with Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter, an internationally respected evangelical leader and Prof. Amy Jill Levine, a ‘self-described Yankee Jewish feminist’ expert in Jewish- Christian relations, for a conversation about the relationship between Evangelical Christians and Jews. “There is this mythology in both Jewish and Evangelical communities that we are both so different and divided. I don’t believe this is true,” said Gutow. Demonstrating the similarities between Jews and Evangelicals, Prof. Levine explained that contention between the two communities is based on a mutual misunderstanding: “We have trouble engaging with Evangelicals because we don’t know how to begin the conversation and what questions to ask.”
Evangelicals believe in the importance of issues such as justice, poverty, and the environment. Through a communal problem-solving approach, the Jewish community and Evangelicals can come together to tackle these issues and simultaneously learn about the other’s theology and beliefs. Rev. Dr. Hunter believes that these mutual concerns will bring us closer: ‘My excitement of our future together is that we have the same ‘heart’ and through these issues, a way to build a meaningful, helpful relationship.’ On the topic of Israel, Gutow noted that Evangelicals seem to carry both a love of the Jewish state as well and a simultaneous concern for to Palestinian rights.
Monday also included some interesting choices for workshops and forums. I attended a workshop titled, “Engaging Our Young Adults” which included some amazing success stories from across the nation—one was presented by former local, Campe Goodman, now living in Boston. Goodman shared information about the work of the Boston CRC. He also received a JCPA award for the program, which offers social justice volunteer opportunities for Young Adults and engages them in CRC work from there.
Following that energizing workshop, I attended a forum, “Election Year Engagement: Can Campaigns, Money, and Civility Coexist?” With the 2012 elections upon us, Ron Kampeas, JTA Washington Bureau Chief, Richard Foltin, director of National and Legislative Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Amy Eilberg, discussed Judaism’s approach to civility and its role in this year’s campaign. This engaging session left the attendees talking about the issue on the absence of relationships and our hopes that candidates can go back to actually talking with each other. None of the panelists were overly optimistic.
Together with accomplished Jewish communal professionals like Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, John Ruskay, CEO of the UJA-NY Federation, and young and innovative Jewish activists from Detroit, we discussed inspiring the next generation of Jewish youth to become tomorrow’s leaders. They left us with the question, “Are we too engaged in pursuing particularistic Jewish concerns to engage that part of the Jewish community, particularly the young, who have a broad view of social justice as part of our historic mandate of what it means to be Jewish?“ It will be on my mind as we look ahead to the work of the CRC going forward.
That night we were treated to the Chair’s Awards Dinner at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a beautiful museum opened just for us. The evening’s highlight was the acceptance speech by Detroit Mayor, Dave Bing of the Chairs’ Tikkun Olam Award. A retired American professional basketball player who played 12 seasons in the National Basketball Association, primarily for the Detroit Pistons and a seven-time All-Star, he founded the Bing Group, one of the largest steel companies in Michigan and went on to become mayor of a city in turmoil. His inspiring words were honestly, my favorite of the Plenum, reminding me that with commitment and follow through, one person can make a difference.
Tuesday began with a session for CRC directors and chairs. Discussion focused on board development and leadership cultivation and was unfortunately cut short to allow us to attend the next program. The ideas that were shared and connections made will allow for further discussion and more great ideas in our community.
Following that session, Starfish Family Services lead a session with a poverty simulation. Attendees were given roles representative of the real struggles for many Americans. Going through their everyday tasks, we learned about the challenges facing millions, including going hungry while waiting in line for SNAP benefits and transportation to work. It was described as overwhelming, eye-opening, and consuming, not just by me but by colleagues and lay leaders. Making the exercise more challenging— and true to life—was how many of us were unfamiliar with the resources and support available us.
To end the Plenum, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, credited President Barak Obama for the values underlying his proposed federal budget and his commitment to catalyze economic growth. Signed just days after his inauguration, Sperling said history will view President Obama’s recovery legislation as one of the “quickest and boldest” responses to an economic crisis in American history. Sperling continued by noting that compared to the last period after a recession, at this point in our current recovery, 2.5 million more jobs have been created. Sperling described the importance of job growth and the President’s emphasis on infrastructure. The group with the single highest level of unemployment is not African-Americans or Hispanic Americans, but construction workers. It was an informative presentation.
I was lucky enough to stay on for CRC Directors meetings that took place after the lay leaders left, along with about 30 of my colleagues. I found the time educational and inspiring and it left me motivated to do more in our community, for our community. I’m really lucky to have so many thoughtful, intelligent and dedicated colleagues who share a love for the Jewish Community Relations Council as I do. I am proud and thankful to have represented Tidewater at the JCPA Plenum and I encourage you to consider attending with me, the next JCPA Plenum taking place in Washington, D.C. March 9-12, 2013. Contact me (Rmancoll@ujft.org) to hear more about my trip and/ or the work the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater is doing.
by Robin Mancoll
and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs