All Community Relations is Local

JCPA Opening Plenary: "Community Relations: The Past & Future of an American Jewish Success Story"
L-R: ED Jeremy Burton, AT&T’s Marissa Shorenstein, Rep. Jeremy Raskin (D-Md.), and David Brown

In recent weeks, a Jewish Federations of North America/Jewish Council for Public Affairs task force (of which I was a member), and the Reut Institute each released reports and recommendations on the future of the Jewish community relations field. Each calls for a reinvigoration of the network of JCRCs as an indispensable vehicle for the Jewish community – combining advocacy and relationship building efforts addressing both particularistic and universalistic issues – to navigate today’s polarized landscape and to advance core priorities and interests of our community. This past Sunday I was invited to respond to these reports as part of the JCPA Conference’s opening plenary.  What follows is drawn from my remarks:

Allow me to offer two metaphors to frame what the Jewish community relations (CRC) field needs.

Being from New England, the first metaphor is from football. When we look at the national field, some of our national agencies operate between the forty-yard lines, others work in the red-zone, but together the broad range of agencies – both JCPA members and other Jewish organizations – largely cover the field. There is virtually no issue, coalition, or partnership on the national stage where there is not some Jewish participation. There is virtually no leader of consequence with whom someone from across our network isn’t in relationship.

But there’s a second field, the field of the whole country across fifty states, and this one is not fully covered. And here, I offer a second metaphor. Since I live in Cambridge, MA, I’ll paraphrase our former congressman Speaker Tip O’Neill: All community relations is local.

Let me give you a glimpse of what my colleagues, CRC professionals around the country and I – do every day.

Each one of us is called upon (often multiple times daily) to hold the center of our local Jewish communities, listening and giving voice to a broad array of Jewish perspectives, and speaking to the values and interests of some 80-90% of American Jews. We know what those views are because we are the most over-studied and over-polled minority in American history. And we need to set and articulate boundaries – both to the left and to the right – to ensure that we are authentically representing the beliefs, opinions, and values that are the consensus of the vast majority of American Jews.

We are challenged – in an increasingly fractured time – to hold the center in broader civic space, finding ways to be in authentic and meaningful partnerships with evangelicals and LGBTQ activists, the Catholic Diocese and feminist leaders. We engage with all of them while also setting boundaries of hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism, both on the left and the right; that small percentage of folks to whom we will give no quarter.

In civic spaces we are expected to act as interpreters, representatives, and advocates; Interpreters of the diversity of Jewish perspectives and representatives of the organized Jewish community’s concerns. And advocates for the priorities of our communities.

CRC professionals are looked to provide vision, design, strategy and execution. We are expected to build programs, partnerships, and relationships in service to a collective agenda. We are on the front lines of the hardest conversations and the moments of crisis that impact us all.

Which is to say that if we are serious about the findings of these reports (i.e. that community relations is a valuable and strategic resource that requires a serious investment) then our response needs to be a major investment in local JCRCs, in my colleagues around the country, and especially in those communities where there is currently little or no JCRC work being done right now.

We need to develop the professionals and volunteers who are committed to and trained in the practice of community relations. We need to support them in the challenging local work even when other forces try to nationalize every squabble and social media amplifies every fracture. We need to invest in local capacity to experiment and pilot in doing this work. And we need to measure and replicate those experiments in other local communities.

The organized Jewish community, through the community relations network, needs to cover the field. We need a fifty-state strategy of local community relations practitioners. These practitioners must have the benefit of a vibrant national peer network from whom they can learn and adapt to meet unique local relational needs.

Together with funders, national agencies, and other partners, we can strengthen this local work across the country. Now is the moment to look forward and to build the capacity and the tools to tackle our collective public affairs goals in a profoundly disruptive time.