For almost 80 years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) has been an independent community relations umbrella organization committed to the development of a Jewish communal consensus on important policy issues. JCPA has been one of the few national Jewish forums where open debate is encouraged and conducted in a civil tone — even where the issues considered are divisive. And the process has yielded some impressive results.
But today’s realities raise questions. Some say that JCPA was a good idea that outlived its usefulness, whereas others would like to see it continue. That debate is playing out as consideration is being given for JCPA to give up its independence and become a department of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella organization for the federation system.
This is not a done deal. But there is logic to the effort.
Virtually every organized Jewish community has a community relations council (JCRC). But very few communities have an independent JCRC. Both Washington and Baltimore have independent, freestanding community relations organizations with close ties to their local federations, and they are among the exceptions. Most JCRCs have merged into their local federations. So, it may make sense for the “umbrella organization” of the JCRC system to be part of the federation system.
But maybe not. There are benefits to having an independent JCRC in a community, and for JCPA to be independent, as well. Independence allows the organization to take on sensitive issues that might otherwise divide federation donors, and present a problem for the community.
In fact, it was precisely such a circumstance that many point to as the reason for the current effort to bring JCPA under the JFNA umbrella: Last August, JCPA joined some 600 Jewish organizations in an open letter in The New York Times that endorsed “Black Lives Matter.” Many within the federation system were concerned by the move, and felt it improperly injected the Jewish community in the divisive, partisan BLM debate and endorsed a movement that some believe to be anti-Israel.
While we doubt that current discussions are driven by an interest in harnessing JCPA, some heightened degree of sensitivity in the shaping of JCPA’s message could be a good thing. Sensitivity toward the broader implications of policy positions is something JFNA does very well in the areas of domestic policy and government affairs, and should be able to handle quite well in the broad areas of community relations. But JCPA can do the same thing on its own.
Regardless of the path chosen for JCPA, we trust that the decision will have no impact on the nimbleness and responsiveness we have come to expect from our local JCRC, the “front line” of our communal engagement. Whether with continued independence or through joining with JFNA, we hope that JCPA will continue to strengthen, empower and encourage our JCRCs to lead and to deliver meaningful results for our community.