JCF boosts money to religious pluralism programs

Last winter, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation found itself in the middle of a firestorm started by prominent rabbis who said the agency wasn't directly supporting Israel's emerging non-Orthodox movements.

That fire has been extinguished.

Last month, the JCF revealed plans to give $130,000 in grants to five Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox institutions in Israel — including four programs never before funded by the JCF.

Two projects sponsored by the Reform movement will receive $60,000, and two sponsored by the Masorti movement, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel, will receive $50,000.

And just to drive home the point that the JCF is being truly pluralistic in this initiative, a program sponsored by the modern Orthodox stream is getting $20,000.

The $130,000 includes $100,000 in new funding, which came from the proceeds of the 1999 annual campaign.

In the past, the JCF has funded educational projects in Israel sponsored by the Reform, Masorti and modern Orthodox movements, according to John Goldman, the chairman of the JCF's Israel and overseas committee.

However, for the first time "we have contacted representatives of the various religious streams locally," requesting their recommendations on projects they would like the JCF to support.

"We sought project proposals which would expand the options available to Israelis for Jewish identification and expression," Goldman said in a letter to rabbis and synagogue presidents.

"The federation has come up with an additional $100,000 not just for pluralism but for promoting the [religious] streams in Israel," said Dawne Bear, assistant director of the JCF's Israel and overseas department.

Rabbis and presidents from Conservative and Reform congregations in the Bay Area were invited to join federation staff and lay leaders in deciding how to earmark the money.

For the first time, the JCF will give $30,000 to a leadership training program for ex-Soviet emigres and $30,000 to the Beit Midrash for Jewish Studies, both sponsored by the World Union for Progressive Judaism (Reform); $20,000 to a Community Midrasha sponsored by the Pelech Religious Experimental High School (modern Orthodox); and $20,000 to the Schechter Institute: Center for Women in Jewish Law (Masorti).

The JCF also drew on other campaign funds to make a second-year grant of $30,000 for the TALI Education Fund, a Masorti program that funds schools in the upper Galilee.

Rabbis who were among the most vociferous critics of the JCF's perceived lack of funding of Israeli pluralism in early 1999 reacted with such statements as, "I'm thrilled" and "It's wonderful news."

"I think this is a very fine move," Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch said by phone from New York last week. Hirsch is the executive director of ARZA/World Union, North America, the worldwide advocate for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

"Numerous federations across the country are supporting us to various degrees, and it's good to have San Francisco on board with an amount that is respectable," he added.

In June, the JCF decided to set aside $100,000 from its annual fund-raising campaign to give to projects tightly linked to the more liberal religious streams in Israel.

Wayne Feinstein, the JCF's executive director, seemed to downplay the new grants, stressing that the federation has openly supported pluralism in Israel for at least 15 years.

"Since 1984 or 1985, we've given well more than a million dollars for Jewish pluralism in Israel," Feinstein said last week. "I think the total actually comes closer to $1.5 million."

Rabbi Michael Barenbaum of Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael agreed with Feinstein that the JCF has long funded pluralistic causes in Israel.

"I don't think that the federation deserved all the criticism [last winter]," said Barenbaum, a lay member of the Israel and Overseas committee. "But whatever happened — whatever raised the consciousness of the San Francisco federation and the United Jewish Communities to promote the liberal streams of Judaism in Israel — really woke up the community."

Barenbaum is also a member of the JCF's shared values subcommittee, whose 20 or so members helped decide which grant proposals would receive funding. The Amuta, an organization of volunteers in Israel, also made program recommendations, as did some Bay Area rabbis and congregation presidents.

Among the new programs to receive funding, the Reform movement's leadership training program will try to create a cadre of leaders and facilitators among Israel's burgeoning ex-Soviet emigres, who are largely separatist and non-religious. In turn, those leaders and facilitators will guide other ex-Soviet emigres (a number believed to be nearing 1 million) into an exploration of Judaism and a Jewish heritage that many have never known.

The Beit Midrash for Jewish Studies, also sponsored by the Reform movement, is designed for secular and religious men and women who want to conduct an intense study of Judaism and reclaim their Jewish heritage but not in an Orthodox setting.

The Masorti-sponsored Schechter Institute: Center for Women in Jewish Law formulates alternatives within Jewish law on matters affecting women, monitors rabbinical court decisions and publishes academic works on women in Jewish law.

The Community Midrasha is sponsored by the modern Orthodox Pelech Religious Experimental High School, a women's school that has received past JCF funding. However, the midrasha is geared for the parents of Pelech students. It provides an adult education program to strengthen the modern Orthodox sector while curbing trends toward extremism.

The TALI Education Fund will continue to fund schools in the upper Galilee region.

"I think they chose very wisely," said Rabbi Richard Block, the former spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills who was perhaps the most vocal critic of the JCF last winter.

At that time, he blasted the JCF for contributing to pluralism only in the abstract.

"What we weren't seeing was a readiness to invest in the religious movements in Israel that constitute religious pluralism," he said last week while visiting family and friends on the Peninsula. "It was like studying sheet music but never playing the instrument."

Block, who now lives in Israel, is the president and executive director of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, the leading advocate for the Reform movement in Israel.

The JCF, he continued, "rightfully prides itself for promoting pluralism over the years." But except for "occasional exceptions," such as TALI, "there was basically a real reluctance to sponsor programs sponsored by the religious streams."

While Block was happy to see the funding finally come through, "it would be a mistake to portray this as the result of a pressure campaign," he said.

"I respect the leadership of the federation for being responsive to our appeal, and for bringing the relationships between the federation and the movements working for pluralism to a new, higher level."

In reality, the new JCF grants shouldn't be viewed as a major change in direction, federation officials say. The JCF funds 16 projects that promote pluralism in Israel, nine for Arab-Jewish coexistence and 11 for community development.

"I would hope that in the future this funding [to liberal streams] will just be seen as part of our ongoing commitment to what we do in Israel," Harold Zlot, the JCF president, said last week. "This $130,000, although important, is only a small portion of what we do in terms of supporting religious pluralism in Israel."

Still, Rabbi Michael Berk, the S.F.-based regional director of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he was "delighted" to see the JCF openly and officially make pluralism a priority.

"There's a growing interest in Judaism — and Israelis wanting to hear about it from a non-Orthodox perspective," he said. "The only thing holding us back is money."

The executive director of the Conservative movement's national body, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also applauded the JCF.

"It's following a trend of most federations," Rabbi Jerome Epstein said Dec. 29 at the United Synagogue Youth's international convention in San Jose. "They're coming to the realization that if there's ever going to be pluralism in Israel, they have to make the major effort in helping create it. The government in Israel is not going to do it on its own."

The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose each gave money directly to Israel's liberal religious streams before the S.F.-based federation.

"The San Jose federation was one of the first in the country to specifically designate funds for pluralism," said Marsha Felton, the executive director of the ARZA/World Union, North America's regional office in San Francisco.

Other federations active in funding pluralism include the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest (Whippany, N.J.), the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the United Jewish Appeal — Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

Block said the addition of the S.F.-based federation on that list is big news.

"It's very important because a lot of federations look to San Francisco for leadership," he said. "I'm hopeful that San Francisco's action will have an impact on those federations that don't yet support pluralism in general and the liberal movements specifically."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.