Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb speaks to fellow pro-cease-fire protesters in the rotunda of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JVP)
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb speaks to fellow pro-cease-fire protesters in the rotunda of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JVP)

‘Clear violation of our policies’: Jewish nonprofit workers face pushback calling for Gaza cease-fire

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

When Brenda Nelson came to work at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund two days after Oct. 7, she expected that the staff would come together to comfort each other. Many had family and close friends in Israel. “It was awful and scary,” she recalled. “I cried, I reached out to people.”

But Nelson — who now acknowledges she was naive — said she did not anticipate how quickly the federation’s leadership would start emphasizing the need to defend Israel from political criticism.

One of the first resources shared with staff was a brochure about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Nelson felt was filled with offensive arguments. “If only the Middle East resembled the Middle West!” one section of the pamphlet read.

Nelson, who managed fundraising databases, started speaking out at staff meetings and pressing executives on why they would not support a cease-fire. A week after Oct. 7, she met with a leader at the organization to ask why there wasn’t a fund for Gaza, pointing to previous federation campaigns for Ukraine and survivors of the Maui wildfires. 

“I said, ‘If this was anyone else, we would have done something by now,” she recalled. “And the executive told me, ‘But it’s not somebody else.’”

The San Francisco federation did not respond to a request for comment.

Nelson, 31, said she was given an audience with top leaders at the federation but ultimately told to resign if she was unhappy with the organization’s positions on Israel, and left in December. While she was not raised Jewish, Nelson learned as an adult that her grandfather was Jewish and began reconnecting with her Jewish roots, touring old Jewish quarters in Europe and taking the federation job.

RELATED: More than 700 staffers of Jewish groups appeal to Biden for cease-fire

She became one of 900 employees of Jewish organizations who signed a letter last month calling for a cease-fire in Israel and Gaza, and organizers say that many other signatories have faced similar pressures. Those behind the letter say they do not believe anyone has been fired as a result of signing the document, which avoids strident rhetoric about the conflict, but it is unknown whether other signatories have left their jobs over political disagreements related to it.

These tensions underscore how raw emotions are within many corners of the Jewish community. Many top rabbis and Jewish leaders expressed unwavering solidarity with Israel in the aftermath of Oct. 7 and argued that a cease-fire would leave Hamas in power and allow it to continue attacking Israelis. These views seem to resonate with many American Jews, including tens of thousands who turned out for a pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C., in November. But younger Jews — including those working at Jewish nonprofits and synagogues — are far more likely to take a dim view of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack.

For example, 70% of Jewish voters over the age of 35 supported the Biden administration’s decision to block a United Nations resolution calling for a cease-fire, while 55% of younger Jews opposed the veto, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute.

Establishment leaders have also denounced activists from groups like IfNotNow, a left-wing Jewish group opposed to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, which has organized thousands of young Jews to call for a cease-fire, including many who signed the open letter. Critics say that by aligning themselves with anti-Zionist organizations, these Jews risk removing themselves from the mainstream.

“The Jewish left will have no seats at any tables besides the ones they set for themselves,” Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, wrote in an October op-ed for the Forward.

Names, employers removed

The open letter was partly intended to push back against these claims, by attempting to show that many Jewish supporters of a cease-fire, who had turned out in the thousands for street protests, were also represented within the ranks of mainstream synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

“There was a message being put out that they were not in any way representative of American Jews,” said Dove Kent, the former strategic director of Bend the Arc, the progressive Jewish group, who helped organize the letter. “We wanted to bring attention to the fact that so many of those people are working at Jewish day schools, teaching Sunday school classes, and are working at Jewish charity organizations.”

Signatures were gathered over the course of several weeks by a group of progressive organizers that included Kent and Yonah Liberman, who previously led communications for IfNotNow.

The letter calls on President Joe Biden and Congress to work toward “a ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and a commitment towards a long-term political solution that ensures the freedom and collective safety of Israelis and Palestinians” and referenced Genesis and Psalms.

Several organizations threatened to fire employees who signed it, according to anonymous testimony collected by activists behind the letter, while others demanded that their staff remove organizational affiliations from the document. Many of these organizations are progressive when it comes to various domestic issues, but take more moderate stances — or no position at all — when it comes to Israel and the current war in Gaza.

“Some employees named Repair the World as their employer, which is in clear violation of our policy,” Julia Malaga, chief operating officer of the Jewish social justice nonprofit, wrote in a Slack message to staff obtained by the Forward. “We expect that they remove Repair’s name immediately.”

In an email to the Forward, Cindy Greenberg, Repair the World’s chief executive, said that while the organization “respects its staff’s right to freedom of speech” it requires them to “avoid doing and or saying anything that would lead someone to reasonably attribute their personal positions to Repair the World.”

Other organizations that were originally listed on the letter but subsequently removed at the request of signatories include the Shalom Hartman Institute and Mishkan Chicago.

Jakir Manela, chief of Adamah, which promotes Jewish environmentalism, said he was OK with staff signing the letter as individuals but asked them to take the organization’s name off. “It’s not issue-related, it’s just that staff are not supposed to sign onto something as Adamah without permission,” he said. Manela added that he could not recall another instance of asking staff to remove the organization’s name from a letter but that the policy was relatively new.

The president of SVARA, which describes itself as a “traditionally radical” yeshiva catering to queer Jews, offered a similar explanation. Rabbi Benay Lappe said that she encouraged staff to sign any letters they “felt called to” but worried “that the signatories could be understood to represent the policies, positions, or views of the organizations that employ them” and so asked them not to name SVARA.

Rabbi Benay Lappe is the founder of Svara, the queer yeshiva based in Chicago, which has served the Jewish LGBTQ community for two decades and is now creating the first written set of Jewish law by and for trans Jews. (Photo/JTA-Jess Benjamin)
Rabbi Benay Lappe is the founder of Svara, the queer yeshiva based in Chicago. (Photo/JTA-Jess Benjamin)

Organizers of the letter are skeptical of these arguments. They say it should have been abundantly clear from the context — including a disclaimer at the top — that the list of signatures did not represent official endorsements by the organizations named.

“People are very able to understand someone’s employment being listed for identification purposes and not meaning that the organization is signing on,” said Kent. “It’s such a common practice.” 

Repair the World, unlike some other organizations, also tried to convince Kent to remove the organization’s name from anonymous signatories on the letter (those who had signed as “Anonymous, Repair the World”). Kent declined to remove the affiliation.

One employee at Repair the World who had signed the letter said that several people on staff felt that the demand to remove the organization’s name from anonymous signatures was especially unreasonable.

“It seems really hard to believe that someone who is listing anonymously that they work at Repair the World is in any way suggesting that Repair is endorsing this call,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was worried about being fired.

Some institutions more receptive to worker calls

Not every organization has pressured workers who signed the letter. Some signatories — like the nine from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice — work for organizations that already endorsed the call for a cease-fire.

Several employees of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel organization that has held off on explicit calls for a cease-fire, also signed the letter. One signatory who works at J Street said management asked him to remove the organization’s name beside his signature because the letter does not represent the organization’s policy. 

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of professional repercussions, said he declined to remove J Street’s name and did not hear anything more from his managers.

“I felt that I was being honest about who I was and the values that I’m working for,” the employee said. “It is disappointing that through my work at J Street — fighting for a future of peace and equality for Israelis and Palestinians — that I can’t fight for an end to this war.”

Nathan Wolfson, a J Street spokesperson, said that the organization had not pressured any employees to remove their affiliation from the letter and noted that Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s president, praised the employees who signed during a December appearance on MSNBC. 

In a statement to the Forward after this article was published Friday, Ben-Ami said, “I am really sorry to hear that any employee of J Street felt pressured in any way around this letter. That is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our organizational values.”

Others said that their bosses seemed open to employees both signing the letter and pushing for change within their workplaces. Jules Santiago Anderson, who teaches art to preschoolers at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, said they signed the letter after raising concerns about how the institute was responding to the crisis in Israel and Gaza.

Anderson, who is not Jewish, said the response they got from senior leaders was that they were glad they felt comfortable signing the letter. “More recently, they’ve told me that they’d like to make the workplace more explicitly anti-Zionist friendly,” they said.

Paul Geduldig, chief executive of the JCCSF, updated an open letter that he posted on the center’s website. While the original language included passing mention of Palestinian suffering, the new version included a full paragraph on the “growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

an inscription on the wall: "welcoming strangers -- let your house be open wide, pirkei avot"
Inscriptions on the wall in the main lobby of the JCC of San Francisco. (Photo/Joyce Goldschmid)

The JCCSF, which had at least one other employee who signed the letter, also removed a link to a local Israel advocacy website and added prominent links to Standing Together and Combatants for Peace, two progressive Israeli organizations focused on Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, and the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a U.S. think tank focused on a similar goal, among its various resources.

Anderson said they think these changes were the result of complaints from them and other workers who felt uncomfortable with the organization taking political positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I honestly wasn’t aware that there was an assumption that employees needed to be supportive of Israel to work at the JCC,” said Anderson.

Geduldig said that the community center made a decision shortly after Oct. 7 to eschew Israel advocacy in favor of providing a “big tent,” including prohibiting political speeches at a Shabbat dinner for hundreds of people shortly after the attack.

He has also held meetings for employees every Wednesday since Oct. 7, and learned how diverse staff opinions are when it comes to the conflict. Geduldig said that he would “prefer” that workers did not identify themselves with the JCCSF while engaging in political activity, but said that there was no Israel litmus test for working at the center and that leadership was not trying to “silence anyone.”

Geduldig, who previously ran another JCC in the Bay Area, said that he has noticed a generational gap among employees, with older workers generally more supportive of Israel, and wants to make sure that everyone feels welcome.

“When I think about the younger staff that work here — that choose to work in a Jewish organization, that care about the Jewish future, I want to build a bridge to them,” Geduldig said. “Not close the door.”

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.