The role of Federation in political debate
By Rhonda Forest
“When is Federation going to issue a statement?”
It’s a question periodically posed to me as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, usually when a national political issue dominates the headlines. And in the past several months, there has been no shortage of such issues.
Just four months removed from one of the most contentious elections in modern history, our nation is polarized. To a lesser extent, our Jewish community is polarized.
We see it, hear it and feel it almost daily at Federation. As president, I know firsthand that members of our Jewish community hold political opinions that cover the spectrum. These valued members of our Federation family are resolute in their beliefs, and understandably so. Some want Federation to speak out, to be an activist organization—to take sides.
While we applaud and encourage such passion in our community, the Federation has a duty to represent the entire Jewish community, not just those with the loudest voices or the greatest clout. Federation fulfills an important role as a community leader, and leadership means not succumbing to pressure.
Federation does not issue opinions, pro or con, on presidential appointments, nor do we cheerlead for a particular party, candidate, lawmaker or piece of legislation—in fact, our status as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization strictly limits such activities. We strive to educate, not agitate. We promote discourse, not discord. We are advocates, not activists. When disparate opinions divide our community, Federation’s role is to celebrate that diversity of perspectives while working to bring the community together. We might not get everyone to agree, but we want to ensure that every voice is heard—and respected.
By not “taking sides” on hot-button political issues, the Federation itself often ends up in the line of rhetorical fire. Sometimes the criticism is brutal. But it does not change our mission or our duty to lead. Federation has demonstrated time and again that we are willing to endure short-term sacrifice for the long-term betterment of our Greater Orlando Jewish community. That’s what we do; it’s why we are here.
We don’t take sides; we unify.
Whether we are fundraising, sponsoring an interfaith gathering, holding a family event or serving as a community facilitator on local or global issues, Federation’s work is driven by our Mission Statement: to nurture a unified Jewish community that transcends generations and neighborhoods.
A unified Jewish community. That’s our goal. Choosing sides in a political debate, simply stated, does not promote unity. We believe, rather, that knowledge empowers our Jewish community, and we will continue to lead using the Federation’s Mission Statement as our guide. We do so proudly and unapologetically.
That doesn’t mean we are disengaged; far from it. You may recall that during the debate over the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, Federation served—quite effectively, in my view—as a community educator and facilitator on the issue. We encouraged our constituents to contact lawmakers and share their opinions, whether for or against the agreement. We created and promoted a special web page with resources, informational links and videos that addressed the agreement and its potential impact so that you could make your own informed decisions. Finally, through our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), we organized and convened a public forum on the Maitland Jewish Community Campus, during which attendees got to question a local member of Congress as well as an expert on nuclear nonproliferation. We didn’t emerge from the forum in full agreement, of course, but we all learned a great deal more about the issue. Your voices were heard—and respected.
That is just one example of Federation’s JCRC in action. In the past 18 months, the JCRC has sponsored forums addressing the BDS movement, the Jewish vote in the 2016 election and other issues important to our community. When anti-Israel billboards began showing up here in Central Florida, JCRC members submitted letters to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel in defense of U.S. aid to Israel. I, personally, wrote an op-ed for the Sentinel on the subject.
But in every case, our goal was to educate, to help our community make informed decisions while respecting the rights of others to disagree. Using this approach, Federation helps to put our community on the path toward unity.
That is our mission.
So the next time you wonder why Federation is not chiming in on a current political hot topic, please understand why we must remain above the fray. It’s not because we don’t care; it’s precisely because we do care.
Rhonda Forest is the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando.