NJCRACs plan to expand agency foments dissension

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NEW YORK — A plan to expand the Jewish communal world's national public affairs body has stirred opposition by some of its national member agencies.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee say the expansion would create a fourth full-service Jewish agency. That move makes no sense when Jewish organizations are consolidating and conserving money, they say.

Critics also say the plan violates the mandate of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, which they maintain was created merely to help coordinate a consensus among Jewish groups on major public policy issues.

But NJCRAC denies the organization seeks to become a "fourth agency." Rather, it contends, NJRAC wants to provide more services to local community relations councils, which include most of its members.

The plan is the product of an effort "to determine what public affairs instrument the community wants going into the 21st century," said Lawrence Rubin, NJCRAC executive vice chairman. "We're going to reinvent ourselves."

Advocates of the plan say the status quo no longer meets the conflicting needs of NJCRAC member agencies. They maintain the "locals" want activism and the "nationals" want passivity.

But Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director, disagrees with the organization's proposed solutions to this conflict. "At a time when community dollars are shrinking," he said, "I'm flabbergasted they are moving in that direction."

NJCRAC, which consists of 117 local councils and 13 national agencies, last week released its strategic planning report, which makes a series of controversial recommendations.

A vote on the plan was slated for NJCRAC's annual plenum in St. Louis starting Feb. 10, but was postponed, in part due to intense protest by the three big agencies.

Most radical is the plan's call for local federations to transfer some $3 million they give each year to the national agencies into a national public affairs funding pool.

This pool would be administered by NJCRAC, which would distribute it to the agencies for special projects. The plan cites the NJCRAC Israel Task Force, established in response to the "embattled U.S.-Israel relationship" in the early 1970s, as a model.

NJCRAC leaders see the move as one way to stop the recent erosion in federation funding to the national agencies.

But Foxman dismissed the proposed pool, saying NJCRAC "is not an objective partner. It's a recipient of funds."

NJCRAC was established in 1944 by the Council of Jewish Federations, the association of about 200 local federations in the United States and Canada.

Some 80 percent of NJCRAC's roughly $1.6 million annual budget is provided by the CJF-administered National Funding Council, representing 42 federations, from about 100 other federations and from service dues of local community relations councils. Most CRCs are part of federations.

The Council of Jewish Federations is believed to support the plan. Though Martin Kraar, its executive vice president, said CJF has not been formally consulted on the report, his position seems clear.

"There is an attempt to do what it does better and have a more effective relationship with its constituents," he said. "Times have changed and I applaud NJCRAC for moving forward."

Another controversial area is the plan's call for ending the veto power now at least officially accorded to the 13 national NJCRAC agencies before any public statements are issued. The veto is rarely exercised but has powerful symbolic value for the locals as anti-democratic interference in their affairs. "It's the club in the closet," quipped one NJCRAC official.

It is also important for some of the national agencies.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, for one, is threatening to walk out if the veto is eliminated. "If there is no veto power, I don't think we can stay," said Betty Ehrenberg, director of OU's Institute of Public Affairs.

NJCRAC's mission, according to the plan, is to serve as the "representative voice of the organized American Jewish community in addressing the mandate of the Jewish community relations field."

That mandate is "to safeguard the rights of Jews in the United States, Israel and around the world" and "to protect, preserve and promote a just American society, one that is democratic and pluralistic."

The question is whether or not the agency's members can agree on taking a new direction within this agreed-upon mandate.

AJCommittee Executive Director David Harris and others say they were not sufficiently involved in the planning process, a charge Rubin rejects.

"They've come to conclusions without enough discussions with the stakeholders," said Foxman. He wants more discussions to be held with the three agencies about how they can contribute to making NJCRAC more effective before NJCRAC changes its structure.

David Gad-Harf, CRC director from Detroit and a member of NJCRAC's strategic planning steering committee, is dubious about that suggestion. "The national agencies are not accountable to the local CRCs," he said. "We would be a lower priority."

He underscored the need for other changes to rectify what the locals perceive as an asymmetry between power and funding at NJCRAC. But Foxman warned of the high stakes if the plan, particularly the funding pool, goes forward.

"If it works, everyone will be better off,"he said. "If not, the problem will be to examine how to totally amend our relationship."