Thousands of people cheered and applauded at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly in Los Angeles last month, when JFNA president Jerry Silverman announced the organization’s resolution on Israel, criticizing the Jewish state for backtracking on a deal to expand egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and a bill that would hand greater authority to the Orthodox over conversions.
But for Barry, a 30-something modern Orthodox Jewish communal professional from L.A., that moment made him wonder if he was out of place at the annual conference of the Federation umbrella group.
“It was my first time going to the GA, and I was very excited,” said Barry, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. “I had heard a lot about it from lots of different colleagues. You know, the Federation world, especially when you work in development, they are the gold standard. And so, you look up to them in so many ways.”
Barry was “surprised” by Silverman’s speech, he said, and by the reaction of the crowd.
“He came out with a statement about the Women of the Wall and how we are going to be pushing the Israeli government and the Orthodox establishment,” Barry said. “It’s not an easy issue. I don’t even know where I stand on the issue itself. I know it’s super complicated, and I want everyone to be able to express their Judaism. But they were very strong saying, ‘We’re going to be pushing for inclusiveness.’ [It’s] sort of like saying the way it has been done is wrong and bad.”
For Barry, that implication was uncomfortable.
“I’m totally new to the Federation world, and I’m hearing, ‘This is what the Federation is going to stand for.’ When you just hear it, and they are coming out proud, and the whole place is cheering for something — I know that I don’t understand all the issues — but I know that on either side I wouldn’t be clapping and cheering, because I know that some people would feel left out,” he said.
“For me, I wondered if I was part of this camp, whether it represents the diversity of opinions in our Jewish community, or does it just represent a certain slice.”
Despite his unease at times during the conference, Barry nonetheless appreciated the feeling of Jewish community.
“I don’t want to take away from the great moments of the conference, and there were many,” he said. “You feel proud that you are connected to everyone else there and it is deeply inspiring.”
Despite not getting “that call to action from the Federation that I would have expected,” he said, he might be willing to give it another try.
“But I’d probably want to get a couple friends to come with me. I’d want to be more strategic,” he said. “I’d probably say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s be a part of it and make sure all voices are heard.’”
The Federation was supposed to be the place where you could sit down at the table and worry about the needs of the community. Federation is no longer where everyone can sit at the same table.
The JNFA’s recent focus on what some in the Orthodox movement view as liberal and progressive values is leading to feelings of exclusion. Some Orthodox Jews question whether it is, or should be, the Federation’s mission to weigh in on what they see as domestic political issues in Israel.
“I don’t think this is the place of Federation,” said Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel and co-chairman of the American Friends of the International Young Israel Movement, Israel Region. “The Federation was supposed to be the place where you could sit down at the table and worry about the needs of the community. Federation is no longer where everyone can sit at the same table.”
The JFNA, Lerner said, should not be “dictating to a Democratic country what it should do,” and instead, should be “focusing on problems of assimilation, intermarriage and lack of Jewish education. Those are the problems the community should be looking at, rather than giving them a bigger space at the Kotel.”
Lerner, speaking by phone from Israel where he had been visiting for several weeks, noted that he had been to the Kotel several times during his stay, and during none of those visits did he see a single person worshipping at Robinson’s Arch, the space currently designated for egalitarian prayer.
“This is not where Federation should be putting their efforts,” said Lerner. “The demand is not there. Why are we spending so much time on an issue that affects so few people? There are bigger fish to fry, bigger concerns to the Jewish community.”
Rick Wice, a former member of the Reform congregation Temple David in Monroeville, who is now a member of Pittsburgh’s local Orthodox community, is an annual contributor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and said he was “peripherally” involved in its lay leadership several years ago when he co-chaired its environmental committee.
The Federation movement’s “magnification” of issues of social and political action and its interpretation of tikkun olam, Wice opined, is contributing to a chasm between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox when it comes to participation in Federation.
“In the Reform and Conservative movements, there is more of a focus on tikkun olam, and the Orthodox focus more on halacha, so there is a collision,” Wice said.
“That is not to say that one group is better than another,” he was quick to add.
Many in the Orthodox community “think it’s a wedge issue for the Federation to be political. That’s part of the problem. The Orthodox community doesn’t feel at home; [Federation] feels so liberalized and secularized. There is a perception in the Orthodox community that the Federation’s idea of Judaism is to save the world with liberalism, and that can conflict with the views of the Torah observant. The Torah observant believe in the same principles, but in a different execution.”
For me, I wondered if I was part of this camp, whether it represents the diversity of opinions in our Jewish community, or does it just represent a certain slice.
Locally, the Federation is “very careful to avoid making political statements, and I think we have been pretty successful,” said Cindy Shapira, vice chair of the JFNA board and immediate past chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We are here for the community and everyone in the community. And JFNA has the exact same attitude. So, I don’t really understand the reference to political acts.”
The recent JFNA resolution on Israel, Shapira said, “has to do with JFNA expressing its concerns over an agreement that was negotiated and agreed to by the Israeli government, which took many years, by the way, to negotiate and was primarily handled by our overseas partner, the Jewish Agency — which is also a big tent, big umbrella organization for all Jews.”
The concern on the part of the JFNA, she continued, “was that an agreement that had been adopted and passed was then reneged on last June. So that was what the issue was over. It had nothing to do with playing politics.”
The Kotel agreement, she added, “was something that modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews came together on under the auspices of the Jewish Agency because the JFNA does work with all streams, including Orthodox streams.”
Shapira noted, as just one example, a collaboration between Federations and Chabad to help hurricane victims in Houston.
“We simply do not do political or religious-based work,” she stressed. “There is no sense, from our point of view, that we are not inclusive of any part of the community. We have an agenda that’s around community-building and fundraising to take care of the Jewish people, not about religion.”
From the perspective of the JFNA, there is no gulf between the Orthodox community and the Federation movement, echoed Rebecca Dinar, the JFNA’s associate vice president of strategic communications.
“In all of our efforts to support Israel and Jewish communities in the U.S. and worldwide the Orthodox community is our valued and cherished partner,” she wrote in an email.
Dinar listed examples of how the JFNA works together with the Orthodox, including funding Orthodox groups based in Israel “who support Israeli freedom of expression,” and having its security arm, the Secure Community Network, regularly consult with Orthodox institutions to keep them safe.
“We look forward to strengthening and enhancing this partnership to continue this critically important work,” Dinar wrote.
Judi Kanal, a board member of Pittsburgh’s Federation who is Orthodox, said that locally, the Federation “does a great job in reaching out to the Orthodox community.”
“We have a seat at the table, and our voice can be heard,” Kanal said.
Still, the fact remains that despite its agenda of inclusivity for all religious streams, there are those in the Orthodox community who feel that the Federation machine has, in fact, become political, leaned to the left and left them behind.
“Our relationship with Federation has cooled over the years,” said Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills in Queens. “Forty years ago, my father [who is also an Orthodox rabbi] would solicit funds for Federation. Those days are gone.”
The Orthodox community and the Federation world have “fewer shared values,” Schonfeld contended. “The Federation should be a charity gathering institution for local needs and for Israel. There should be no right-wing statements and no left-wing statements and no middle-of-the-road statements. Once you mix politics with charities you’re going down a very dangerous road. Charities can’t be tainted by political stances.”
The Federation’s common emphasis on “pluralism,” he said, is also problematic.
“Pluralism has become a code word for a large umbrella that includes things that shouldn’t be included. There is a big open umbrella, but it’s not shading everyone.”
For Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox organization, whether there can be a place for the Orthodox at the JFNA table depends on the Federation’s “commitments for the future.”
“If they assure us that they will not take sides on religious issues and limit their activities to charitable endeavors and social services, they can recapture the trust they once enjoyed in parts of the Orthodox community that supported them in the past,” he said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at