[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
Each year, volunteers and professionals working with Jewish Community Relations Councils across North America gather for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum where the delegates hear from leading thinkers, teachers and politicians, and they consider social justice issues and other issues of concern to the Jewish community. At the end of the meeting, JCPA has a platform to guide JCRCs for the coming year.
This year’s meeting was held in May in Detroit, and Louisville’s delegation included JCRC Chair Ayala Golding, 2011 Julie E. Linker Community Relations Young Leadership Award recipient Laurence Nibur, long-time JCRC and JCPA leaders Ron and Marie Abrams and JCRC Director Matt Goldberg.
“The entire Plenum was a very worthwhile experience,” said Golding, and she encourages others to attend future gatherings. “From the moment I got there, I felt all the workshops and plenary meetings contributed to the work the JCRC is doing in Louisville.”
In the first workshop she attended, JCPA’s Ethan Felson addressed the Presbyterian push for divestment and presented strategies JCRCs could use in addressing the issue in their own communities. As this issue of Community was going to press, the Presbyterians’ General Assembly was convening and divestment from specific companies that do business with Israel is on their agenda.
At a plenary session, a representative from the American Federation of Teachers and Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna discussed private education vs. public education and covered topics ranging from vouchers to the need for public schools to the concept of charter schools to Jewish day schools.
Another workshop Golding attended covered Israel’s domestic challenges including how Israel treats women and Palestinians. “Israel is still a strong democratic state,” she said, “but we have the right” to review its policies, look at its policies and criticize its actions; however, we have to be careful how we offer that criticism so we don’t take it out of context.
“A lot of people blow things out of proportion if they don’t have all the facts,” she continued. “My concern was anti-Orthodox bias.” Golding was careful to point out that the Orthodox community is not monolithic and that the Haredim, who often draw media attention with their extreme views and practices, are a small minority.
She also pointed out that there is a distinction in Israel between secular and religious places and “the country will not tolerate discrimination in public, secular spaces.”
There was also a session that educated delegates on how to respond to anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts on college campuses. “Listening to our own ADL (Anti-Defamation League) professionals talk about the coordinated work they’re doing on college campuses across the country,” Nibur noted, “I was thankful that our own local universities are not on their agenda. Still, we must not forget that they’re always at risk. One doesn’t have to look further than the University of Louisville or nearby Indiana University for examples of anti-Israel rhetoric.”
The Abrams were most impressed with a conversation between Vanderbilt University Professor Amy-Jill Levine and internationally respected evangelical Christian leader Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter on the relationship between the Jewish and Evangelical communities. The discussion was moderated by JCPA President and CEO Rabbi Steve Gutow.
A summary of the session, issued by JCPA, said, “Prof. Levine explained that contention between the two communities is based on a mutual misunderstanding: ‘We have trouble engaging with Evangelicals because we don’t know how to begin the conversation and what questions to ask.’
“Rev. Dr. Hunter emphasized that it is important to establish these relationships no matter where one comes down theologically. ‘Disagreements are just as important for our identity and future cooperation as our agreements. The more we can figure out how to work together, the more we will be able to achieve ‘shalom’ in the world,’ said Rev. Dr. Hunter.
“Evangelicals believe in the important issues of justice, poverty, and the environment, are concerns of Jesus. Through a communal problem-solving approach, the Jewish community and Evangelicals can come together to tackle these issues and simultaneously learn about the other’s theology and beliefs.”
Nibur found Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council to be the most intellectually stimulating speaker on the agenda. “He is a Detroit native,” Nibur said, “and is very familiar with rebuilding and retooling economies. As Pres. Obama’s chief economic adviser and having served in same capacity for Pres. Clinton, he spoke of our need to make collective sacrifice in a nonpartisan way to help repair our country as a whole. I found that particularly pertinent and meaningful to the work remaining ahead of us here in our own Jewish Community of Louisville.”
Other sessions and workshops dealt with economic issues, international security, Iran, Israel, developing interfaith coalitions and building social justice. The Detroit Jewish community also presented a program on their efforts to confront poverty.
Other speakers included President Barack Obama, Israeli Amabassador Michael Oren and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.
Nibur was particularly impressed with the eloquence of Amb. Oren and the humor of Mayor Bing. Bing used to play basketball for the Detroit Pistons and, in college, was a member of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity.
Since JCRCs are devoted to the pursuit of tikkun olam, it was natural that JCPA should incorporate a hands-on service project in the program. Delegates who participated in the project worked at Omsted-designed Belle Isle, the largest inner city park in Detroit. They worked on fixing up the old children’s zoo that had been closed for several years and removing invasive plants.
“It was really neat watching Rabbi Steve Gutow who deals with national issues of extreme importance in Washington roll his sleeves up and work together with Louisville contingent,” said Nibur. “It really helped galvanize for me that tikkun olam is a hands-on activity, not a spectator sport.”
He enjoyed “working side by side with our JCRC director to help remedy Belle Isle zoo, which is a place I went to as a kid,” and was “pleased to contribute some sweat equity to my old hometown to help enable it to return to its previous stature.”
“It was nice to be in my childhood home of Detroit and talk about important social action issues in a city in the midst of so much recovery itself,” Nibur said. “I want to thank the Linker family” for the award which enabled him to attend the plenum.