Every North American Jewish federation that has not opposed President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran has failed the Jewish people.
Federations across the country have come up with various creative formulations to express reservations about the deal and some have even opposed the deal without serious changes (which, according to Obama, are not in the offing). This is all smoke and mirrors. There was a simple question to be answered, and some federations stood up and did their duty to safeguard and support the Jewish people while others — that’s yinz, Pittsburgh — made up some other excuse and did the wrong thing.
Certainly, this is a harsh, black-and-white judgment. And perhaps it is unfair to heap scorn on what are after all supposed to be communal social service organizations. Why demand political clarity or even involvement in political affairs at all? This is not what federations were designed to do.
The first federation was founded in Boston in 1895, followed closely by the second in Cincinnati. As Donald Feldstein writes in “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community,” perhaps unconsciously, early federations were committed to traditional Jewish values. “Hesed – loving kindness – was very much in the minds of the founders of Jewish federations,” he explains: “Thus, as God clothed Adam and Eve, federations were concerned with clothing the naked; as Abraham cared for strangers, federations cared for strangers; as God buried Moses, Jewish federations supported Jewish burial societies.”
Over their long history, of course, federations have evolved and their mission has changed and expanded. But the basis in Jewish values has not been lost. “Jewish Federations embodied the very spirit of kol yisrael aravim zeh la zeh – All Jews are responsible one for the other,” wrote Denis Braham and Lee Wunsch in 2014. “Jewish Federations were built on the ideal of collective responsibility and that Jews and Jewish communities are strengthened by one another,” they declared. But while these two representatives of the Houston federation, which opposed the deal — go Houston! – were extolling the virtues of the old system, Braham and Wunsch argued that rethinking and refocusing on the future was necessary. “For too long,” they explained, “the national Federation system has forgotten that Jews connect where they live – in their homes, in their communities, in their synagogues and in many new places. For too long, the national system has forgotten that it is not about what happens in New York; it is all about what happens in local neighborhoods.”
Given this history of communal activism on behalf of other Jews, providing food, shelter and other basic necessities to the local community and all in the name of the responsibilities Jews have toward one another and their fellow man, perhaps the current reflex of looking toward these same organizations for answers to thorny foreign policy issues is in fact outside their area of responsibility.
In an alternate universe, indeed, federations probably shouldn’t provide the opportunity for the president to argue for his Iran deal just as these communal groups shouldn’t offer their own judgements on the merits of giving $150 billion to terrorists and while insignificantly delaying the Iranian bomb.
We don’t live in an alternate universe however. We live in this one and in this one, the principle to which all federations are beholden can be found in Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6: “A man is traveling on a boat with companions when he starts drilling a hole beneath his seat. The other travelers inveigh against him: ‘What are you doing?’ The man keeps drilling: ‘Why do you care? I’m only drilling under my own seat.’ But as water begins to flood the floor of the boat, they shout: ‘But you will flood the boat for us all!’”
The water is rising.
Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based political commentator. Her first book, “Captain Mommy vs Nanny State: Getting the government out of Parenting” will be published by Encounter Books next year.