2016-08-31 / Columns

JCRC strives to be ‘The Voice of the Village’ in our community

JCRC Executive Director

“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned… People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”—Donald Trump

This declaration from the Republican nominee for President was the core of his acceptance speech. It drew applause from his supporters, who see Mr. Trump as a brawler for the downtrodden and disenfranchised.

It drew skepticism from those who question his commitment to conservative ideals and derision from those who doubt an unabashed billionaire can represent the interests of average folks, let alone empathize with their struggles.

Mr. Trump’s statement grabbed my attention because it echoes the front half of the mission of the Jewish Community Relations Council: To be the voice of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey on issues of public policy, social advocacy, and community outreach.

The following week, Mr. Trump’s opponent faced a similar clash between cheers and boos, albeit in reverse. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party leadership’s seasoned champion, but many of their grassroots members were more energized by a firebrand who attacked from her left.

In her acceptance speech, Mrs. Clinton pointed to the title of her well-known book, calling it “not just a slogan [but] a guiding principle.” That title—“It Takes A Village”—reflects the second half of our mission statement: To foster constructive relationships within the Jewish community and among people of all faiths and cultures regarding Jewish- and Israel-oriented issues.

So while it matters not whether I agree or disagree with any of the positions that either candidate has taken, I can certainly appreciate—even empathize with—the challenges they both face to balance and articulate competing views and priorities inside their own parties while also continually trying to engage those who have completely different perspectives. The political parties rightfully recognize the importance of the officials, institutions, donors, and voters that back them, just as we strive to maintain a strong working relationship with our Federation colleagues, synagogues and day schools, local community organizations, as well as our JCRC Patrons, sponsors, and Federation Annual Fund supporters. While our agency’s portfolio may not appear as large and complex as a national platform of a political party, even in this tri-county area, the constituencies are many, their needs and views are broad, and their interests are diverse. As such, the JCRC is often asked to weigh in on a wide array of community issues: School funding and security; support for seniors, Holocaust survivors and the disabled; anti-Israel BDS efforts; assistance for the unemployed, the homeless, and the hungry; state and federal tax policy.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it was an issue at the heart of our agenda— one that outsiders might have thought would come with an easy consensus—that best encapsulated how difficult it is to be the voice of the village. Last year, the proposed nuclear deal with Iran sparked heated debate—not just about whether to support or oppose it, but about if and how our agency should take a public position.

I remain satisfied with the stance that was taken, but mostly I am proud of the deliberative process our leadership employed. The internal meetings we held and the external educational events we organized— particularly, our Middle East Institute with Ambassador John Bolton and Iran Deal Forum with Professors Alan Dershowitz and Peter Beinart— energized the community and shined a bright light on the value and necessity of civil and detailed civic discourse. Moreover, these gatherings affirmed the crucial role of the JCRC: To eagerly convene and to openly convey, but not necessarily to convince. Indeed the approach we took then is the model we have long followed to ensure we stay true to both halves of our mission statement:

• We actively listen. Our board of directors consists of more than 40 accomplished and connected members who are carefully vetted and specifically chosen to reflect a cross-section of the catchment area; they bring insights and ideas from every corner of our community.

• We shake hands. We seek and build relationships with politicians on both sides of the aisle.

• We create coalitions. We recognize that, while our influence is disproportionate to our size, our continued success depends on dialogue and collaboration with other ethnicities, religions, and social movements.

• We emphasize and invest in education. We facilitate policy forums for the public; we host elected officials who want to learn more about our concerns; and we send ambassadors to other groups who want to understand our issues.

• We take the long view— through our endowments, through the JCF Life & Legacy program, through a slew of programs aimed at students.

In conclusion, unlike Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, we at the JCRC are not just focused on the election cycle at hand. We are determined to increase and protect the vitality of this community for generations. To borrow further from Mrs. Clinton’s speech, “Whatever party you belong to, or if you belong to no party at all, if you share these beliefs…join us.”

To learn more about how you can get involved with the Jewish Community Relations Council, please visit www.jcrcsnj.org. 

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