National public affairs group must tackle U.S. issues

Two major Jewish federations are attacking one of the central voices in Jewish life as being too far-reaching when it deals with public issues.

But the conflict is actually less about those public issues than about the ways in which organized Jewish life will be reconstructed in the next century. The outcome of the reconstruction could have severe consequences.

The New York and Chicago federations are complaining about the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, a clearinghouse that includes all the major national Jewish agencies and a network of about 150 local Jewish community relations councils, commonly know as JCRCs.

The New York federation suggests that the JCPA should limit itself to public-policy issues related to "the human-services work of the federations, such as assisted-living services for the Jewish elderly."

Conversely, a JCPA vice president says that many local public affairs councils actually want to speak out "on a wider range of…social justice issues."

Both parties miss the main point. A bit of history is in order.

In the 1930s, the Jewish community failed to reverse the tragic immigration policy of the United States that kept many Jews fleeing the Nazis from finding refuge here. As a result, the local JCRC movement was quietly born a half century ago to take advantage of the fact that "all politics is local," and to shape the fullest possible consensus among Jews on matters related to Jewish status and security.

Learning from history, the movement built itself explicitly on the understanding that its mission depended not on traditional and failed "defense" efforts, but primarily on the strength of the still-developing "American Idea."

The American Idea, as defined by Theodore Parker in 1850, centers specifically on the responsibility of government to ensure legal equality and further equal opportunity for all. That particular American Idea coincides exactly with the security needs of American Jews and with certain basic Jewish values.

This fortuitous intersection is larger than the social welfare needs of American Jewry and its federation agencies — but it is more particular than the full span of "social justice" issues.

Sure, the local JCRCs are ideally equipped to deal with the public issues of welfare for Jews and federation agencies — and in fact are doing so. But that does not mean we can abandon the central mission of the council network without risking the kinds of lives our grandchildren will be living in America.

Still, some have been tempted to stretch the American Idea to mean everything that is good and virtuous by their standards — or by the standards of the political party platform of their preference. Unfortunately, that attitude will eventually compromise the communal purpose and effectiveness of these agencies.

In the pursuit of its defined mission, the unique institution of local Jewish public affairs councils and their connective clearinghouse, the JCPA, has a half-century record of stunning success on issues of importance to both Jewish security and the strengthening of the American Idea through the liberalization of immigration, equal employment and religious freedom laws.

Whatever organizational adjustments are needed, the American Idea still needs tending by this dedicated network.

Religious scholar Arnold Eisen presses this idea in "Taking Hold of Torah," his recent book: "We require a certain kind of society if we are to be at home in this country, and require it as well because our tradition demands it."