By Jackie Hajdenberg
(JTA) — It was still winter when the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs learned that its June conference would share space at a hotel with an unexpected guest: a conservative “parents’ rights” group that is driving book bans across the United States.
Among the books pulled from classrooms at the behest of Moms for Liberty members have been several Holocaust-related or Jewish titles, including a version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The group’s conference would bring together backers of the group’s agenda, purportedly to protect children from dangerous influences in their schools. It would also attract protesters who view Moms for Liberty as a vanguard for a radical right wing that is increasingly taking aim at LGBTQ rights.
That gathering at the Marriott Philadelphia Downtown took place alongside the national convention of the men’s club group and took its attendees by surprise, said convention co-chair Mark Givarz.
“We didn’t rent the whole building. We rented half of it,” Givarz, who lives in Florida, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But we never expected to have a group of controversy next to us.”
It was too late for the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which is associated with Judaism’s Conservative denomination, to reconsider its conference location. The group had already signed a contract with the Marriott, and approximately 400 attendees from across the country had already booked travel for the event, which ran June 28 to July 2. Plus, the organizers had already put together a whole program and made plans to set up a temporary synagogue for the duration of the event.
So the group proceeded, putting out a statement rejecting Moms for Liberty and emphasizing that it holds very different values.
“We believe that every person is made b’tzelem elohim — in God’s image, and deserving of loving-kindness, respect, and dignity,” the statement said. “As such, the FJMC strongly advocates for equal rights for all, including the LGBTQIA+ community. At the FJMC we welcome all participants with love, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, which is why our Inclusion Initiative is a vital part of our programming.”
The statement went on, “While the FJMC recognizes that Moms for Liberty and their speakers have the constitutional right to peaceably assemble, the FJMC does not endorse either the organization, its leadership, or the sentiments that they or their speakers may express during their conference.”
As the event drew nearer, Givarz and his co-chair Rick Wronzberg continually monitored the Moms for Liberty website for updates on guest speakers, concerned about the possibility of security issues at their own event. In the days before the conference, Moms for Liberty announced that three Republican candidates for president would speak: former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been a particular champion of the parental rights movement. All three draw support from Republican Jews —including a subset of the men’s club convention attendees — driven in part by their records on Israel.
Moms for Liberty also ignited new controversies as the conference neared. A chapter in Indiana quoted Adolf Hitler in a newsletter; an apology followed, but so did an illumination of other instances when group members had cited Hitler approvingly. A report in Vice documented ties between the group and multiple white supremacist and extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, whose founder has a history of antisemitism and whose members were integral to the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol. And the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate, officially declared Moms for Liberty an “extremist” organization, along with several other parental rights groups.
A few people who had planned to attend the FJMC conference canceled because of the overlap out of concerns for the atmosphere, Givarz said.
“They didn’t want to disrupt their Shabbos with the nonsense,” he said. “Can you blame them?”
Eric Weis, a member of the group’s board of directors from New Jersey, canceled his plans to attend despite having attended each of the group’s conferences over the last 22 years. “There was just no way we could have fun,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, which first reported about the overlapping conferences.
Another group member, Elliott Dubin, did travel from Northern Virginia to attend with his wife but told the local newspaper that the conference overlap was particularly galling because of his group’s membership.
“I just wondered who is the genius that booked two sort of opposing groups in the same hotel?” Dubin said. “Many of the Holocaust survivors went through book burnings in Germany and this seems to be the same type of thing.”
Tensions were high as the conferences got underway, as hundreds of protesters against Moms for Liberty gathered outside the Marriott. Police, Secret Service and hotel security amassed to keep the peace and protect the political speakers, and several protesters were arrested.
Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs leaders said they and their attendees felt safe despite the crowding. And Givarz said encounters between the two conferences were mostly neutral. He said that throughout the conference, he had brief, cordial conversations with Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich, recalling that he told her a significant portion of his attendees were “very pissed off” about Moms for Liberty’s presence, though he noted that a smaller subset would likely be interested in hearing from the group’s speakers.
Descovich told JTA she did not recall that phrasing. She said she remembered hearing from a leader of the men’s club group that “half of them liked us and half of them didn’t like us, but that they weren’t there to be political.” She was also unaware of the Jewish group’s statement regarding Moms for Liberty, and upon being informed of it, told JTA, “This is America, you can have disagreements and debate on ideas. That’s what our country is about.”
Both Givarz and Descovich remember a conversation in an elevator about his kippah, which was made by the Abayudaya Jewish community in Canada. (There is a FJMC chapter there, but Ugandan group members were unable to attend the conference because of visa issues.) Descovich told JTA, “It was the most beautiful yarmulke I’ve seen.”
Only at one moment was there tension, when attendees of the men’s clubs conference got to bypass a security line and Moms for Liberty attendees got upset — but Givarz compared it to a dispute in the line to get soda at a baseball game.
“We’re very, very pleased with the Philadelphia Police Department and the Marriott for providing excellent, very assuring and unobtrusive security,” Alan Budman, the newly installed president of the mostly volunteer organization, told JTA.
On Saturday, a group of about 50 men set out on a short walking tour — and wound up with police escorts.
“We didn’t ask for it — they sent police officers on bicycles to accompany them on the walk down to the tour which was about a seven- or eight-block walk and then on the tour itself and back,” Budman said. “So it made our people feel much more secure.”
Givarz said he made contact one last time with Descovich on Sunday as both conferences were wrapping up — for a goodbye that he said was not particularly memorable.
“At the end of the day, in my opinion,” Givarz said, “Moms for Liberty were like a mosquito that got swatted around but did no damage.”