Ideas and strategies abound at Cleveland

 


What a thrill it was to be in Cleveland, Ohio! You may not hear that sentence too often, but it was truly thrilling for me, your JCRC staff director, to attend the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) annual conference there in mid-May. For three days, Jewish public affairs and community relations professionals learned, debated, and schmoozed together in one of the strongest, best-supported, and most well-organized Jewish communities in the United States. With a generous full scholarship from JCPA in hand, I was able to be among them. With representatives from New York’s giant JCRC to the tiny one in Springfield, Ill., it was extremely valuable to hear how other communities engage on issues such as Israel, civil rights and political polarization, and on strategies for interfaith and interethnic relations, separation of church and state and crisis management.

It was no surprise that the 2016 election was a hot topic at the conference. The first session, with former U.S. Reps. Martin Frost (D-Texas) and Tom Davis (R-Va.), included a discussion on the current toxic political environment. A panel with Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights included a lengthy back-and-forth about voting rights, especially restrictive voter identification laws that some states, most conspicuously Texas, have recently passed. During the Q&A period, the JCRC professionals and lay leaders in attendance spoke about how their organizations could help contribute to a more civil dialog in such a heated political season. Some communities are bringing in facilitators to lead sessions on how to do so, while others are looking to their clergy to promote civility and compassion in political discussion. One takeaway for everyone was that in formal event settings around the election or politics, ground rules for civility should be laid out in advance and any participants must agree to abide by them. We look forward to putting this into practice at our event on June 6, The Jewish Vote in the 2016 Presidential Election.


Israel advocacy held a prominent place at the conference, with sessions on managing diverse perspectives on Israel; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and briefings from the Israel consul-general for the Midwest Region as well as from experts from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. We were grateful that despite outside groups trying to intercede in the Orlando area, we remain a region with strong support of Israel, and we were proud that our event with the Israel Action Network in February laid out a pragmatic advocacy plan for engaging with individuals around BDS. It was also heartening that our decision to serve as an educational resource for last summer’s Iran nuclear deal, rather than take a stand on the deal, was the strategy that experts in community relations advised—our role is to ensure that diverse perspectives can be heard, that we are a big tent. In fact, the saying of our Orlando JCRC chairwoman, Ina Porth, of “All Jews, All Views” resonated with the entire audience as well as with those leading the discussions.


For community relations professionals, the sessions on interfaith and interethnic outreach were a highlight. We were reminded many times that there is “no shortcut to relationship building.” As Jewish communal professionals, we must be everywhere—finding common ground with other faiths, reaching out to other ethnic groups, and getting to know people as individuals. Some communities partner with non-Jewish professional organizations or place young, promising Jewish leaders on local secular nonprofit boards. Others become sponsors of organizations like an inner-city program for at-risk youth to show that our Jewish values extend far beyond our own community. We were advised to look for “identity markers” that we have in common, such as being parents, runners, environmentalists, or similar.


Even if our community does not have a particular issue with something, such as police-community relations (how lucky our Maitland campus is to have the Maitland Police Department!), we should still engage, if only to learn more and find ways to engage with other communities.

One very popular session was on Jewish-Muslim relations, where the panel (a rabbi, an imam and a young Muslim woman who had just completed a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative) spoke about the urgency around the two faiths coming together, that “improved Jewish-Muslim relations are only really possible in the United States,” that it is too late in France and that without intervention, there is no reason that the climate in the U.S. could not become like it is in France, with alienated Muslim youths constantly attacking Jews despite government avowals to stop the violence. Here in the U.S., each faith tends to get its information on the other (especially about Israel) from just a few sources, frequently sources that are at odds with the other. The panel advocated for telling our stories directly to each other, diversifying the sources of our own information and being committed to having a difficult discussion with an open mind.

Lastly, the conference offered myriad ways for attendees to just talk to one another. A side conversation with the Philadelphia JCRC on the importance of interfaith Israel missions, one with New York on how it spends its $5 million (!) JCRC budget, another with a representative from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) on refugees and international development—all of these helped spark new ideas for how Orlando’s JCRC can be more effective going forward.

It was a thrill to hear from the Institute for Curriculum Services, which advocates for accurate depictions of Israel and Jews in textbooks and curriculum materials across the country, that Orlando is one of its most trusted partners, and that our community members Barbara Weinrich and Dr. Terri Susan Fine have contributed so much to the organization in the past nine years. It was a thrill to hear directly from Rabbi Doug Kahn, one of the most trusted voices in the Jewish communal professional world, about how key it is to engage in “passionate moderation” and ensure that nuance does not get lost in the current climate of soundbites and tweets. It was a thrill to sit with our Florida colleagues from Miami, South Palm Beach and Pinellas to talk about how lucky we are to live in Florida, a state with a strongly pro-Israel legislature and members of Congress who prove their support to Israel through their votes and their voices. And it was a thrill to return to Orlando with new ideas and strategies for our JCRC and broader community.

Thank you, Cleveland!

Marli Porth is the director of Community Relations and Leadership Development at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando.

 

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