Sunday, February 19, 2017


For what seemed like the third or fourth or fifth time, JFNA Board Chair Richard Sandler has tried to rationalize JFNA's inability (refusal?) to speak out on behalf of its federation owners behind a claim that to do so at a time of incivility would be, I guess, a distraction. The incivility impacting on our discourse or lack thereof has recently been a focus, as well, in an excellent piece by Spertus College CEO and President Hal Lewis in ejewishphilanthropy, Dysfunctional Discourse and Internecine Invective, and that great chronicler of Jewish life and leadership, J.J. Goldberg in The Forward,  Can Squabbling Jews Still Hear Each Other? Neither author called for an end to the "Discourse;" Richard Sandler doesn't feel it should even begin.

A terrific, thoughtful federation professional leader recently wrote: "The Rambam, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, explains that the righteous (tzadikim) “say little but do much.” It strikes me that JFNA's Board Chair and its CEO practice a different version; theirs is that recommendation from Hamilton: "Talk less; smile more." And, by characterizing all issues as "political," unable to separately address Jewish values impacted by political decisions JFNA and some federations are unable and/or unwilling to even articulate those values

All of us would agree that we live at a time of heightened political partisanship which too often plays out in self-righteous anger. We have seen that anger expressed in Comments to this Blog and more certainly in far more important places. The question is: does that hyper-partisanship excuse our communal instruments -- local or continental -- from articulating positions on issues impacting on our historic communal values?  To me the answer is no; we must assert our position on those matters in the public space that place our long-established values in question; to JFNA's leaders the answer is -- we must remain silent until in their subjective judgment an undefined "civility" reigns.

The JFNA posture was most recently articulated by Sandler in his statement (14 February 2017): Reflections on Bringing Back Civility.* Therein, he attempts to dismiss any and all responsibility of our Continental organization to speak out on our behalf as follows: "Note that nowhere in my discussion of Federations' mission or responsibilities do I mention making statements or getting involved in political issues, either in the U.S. or in Israel." Following Richard's "logic:" in today's volatile environment (1) all issues are political and (2) therefore, JFNA will not speak out on any issue." Sandler's false premise may satisfy him, but it shouldn't. 

And, this position of "statements are a distraction" is a far cry from the position he and his LA CEO took when they rushed out a statement on the "Iran Deal" with no process and were badly burned. In an article in the Jewish Journal, Richard seemed to preview his position on JFNA backing away from taking any position on almost anything:  The contretemps in LA arose when the members of the Federation"s Rautenberg New Leaders Project objected, privately and respectfully, to the community's articulated non-position on the plight of refugees: We must express our profound disappointment — for some of us, even anger and shame — at ‘Our Commitment to Immigration and Resettlement,’ ” they wrote, adding their voice to a chorus of donors and community members airing their grievances internally." Sandler attended a meeting with the New Leaders and expressed his own strong opinion:
“Federations really should not get involved in making statements one way or another, because they need not get distracted from the work Federations are supposed to do,” he said, adding that political statements inevitably upset some Federation donors."
It's clear that the Los Angeles discussion helped frame Sandler's posture vis-a-vis "Statements" -- yet, that very discussion should have demonstrated how discussions leading to public positions on matters related to Jewish and communal values can take place among leaders of good will in an environment of civility. 

Communities are facing the challenge in different ways: there's Chicago's strong statement, mirrored in other communities', Los Angeles' backing off, and another large city, after its leaders wrote they were "..most surprised and disturbed about the divisions in our community," announced: "[W]e are not going to make another statement on behalf of the Jewish community who we represent because we can't..." (!!) And, should the federations look to JFNA for guidance? Forget it. 

By the time Richard turned his attention to JFNA's (and, presumably, other Federation) Boards, the "distraction" theme was supplemented with a focus on "civility."
Sandler believes that what he identifies as "[T]he lack of civility around controversial issues within our own community" is but another excuse for JFNA's continuing silence on all issues. I guess his hope is that JFNA will lead "...a concerted effort to respect different points of view" and having achieved that wholly amorphous goal of "bringing back civility," JFNA will be able to go forward and speak for us on issues it determines are not "political." With respect, give me a break -- the constant JFNA drumbeat of "civility" from Richard and JFNA Jerry is nothing more than another excuse for doing nothing, and doing nothing all of the time.  Nowhere in JFNA's thinking on this matter is there any acknowledgment that silence also has a "cost" -- a cost in donors and sometimes sure at great cost to our values.

Nowhere in the Board Chair's Statement nor anywhere in that FedWorld rag was there any comment on the brilliant Friend of the Court brief filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by the Seattle Jewish Federation-- apparently, and thankfully, the Seattle Federation didn't consider supporting Jewish and Jewish communal values a "distraction" or, somehow, "uncivil."

I admit that I may be wrong on this matter; but shouldn't JFNA's role in the public square be debated by its Board? You know, by the federations which own this thing? It's all well and good that the Board Chair and CEO have their opinions well- and often-expressed but their opinions are not those of the organization they are supposedly leading. I would respectfully suggest that JFNA's Board Chair lead a public Board discussion on whether JFNA has any...any...responsibility to speak on behalf of the federations and on what matters and, if so, how the public statements will be managed and processed. And, no more sermonettes on "civility," please. And, if developing and processing a Statement on, e.g., the communal values expressed in our historic Torah-driven caring for the stranger would somehow be a "distraction" for JFNA, pray tell what JFNA would be distracted from? It's a real shame that the Board Chair and CEO do not trust the leaders of the federations who serve on the JFNA Board and the CEOs to even engage in such a discussion.

Sometimes you just have to do the right thing...even JFNA...and that means that sometimes you just have to say the right things, even though that may be hard.


* I won't use this Post to respond to Sandler's specious assertion that Federations are "think tanks." More on that in a later Post.


RWEX said...

It's a shame, as Masha Gessen wrote today in the New YorkTimes, that the Chairman of Board of Trustees of OUR national organization is urging all of us not "to act in accordance with moral values" but to shrink from them in the face of any dissent. My community is proud to join those who have spoken out. We didn't take a political position but one consistent with the values that have mad federations great. Sandler by his demand for silence is contributing to the diminishment of the federations values he was elected to protect and enhance. #Sad

Anonymous said...

Richard, perhaps it was the statement of the CEO of the LA Jewish Federation that might be relative to the position that community and others took "then" and are taking now. He told JTA in 2015: “Sometimes when you take positions, you do so recognizing that one of the results will be a louder, more interesting communal conversation. At the very least the community is thinking and talking about this in a way it hadn’t a week ago.”

Anonymous said...

If you read, for example the excellent Statement on our country remaining a haven for refugees published by the leaders of the Rochester Federation, you will see how to anchor position on Jewish values and remove it from the political.

Anonymous said...

Now that the President has condemned racism and anti-semitism do you think that Sandler-Silverman will feel "safe" enough to do the same?

Anonymous said...

To Anon 2:37 p.m. Hey, its Richard and Jerry, Jerry and Richard,they aren't going to entertain any Statement unless there is unanimity among the federations with which they consult (NY, Chicago, Cleveland ?) to do so. And, even then it's doubtful. These two men have no courage.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is looking for JFNA to lead they had better look in their rear view mirror where you'll find the leaders with their heads in the sand and a finger in the air checking which way the wind is blowing

Anonymous said...

Hypocrisy alert! Sandler endorses Friedman nomination while claiming JFNA is apolitical.

Anonymous said...

To add more hypocrisy to Anon 7:53 pm:

Is also lauding the very controversial Trump while claiming JFNA is apolitical:

Federations do not deserve our support if this is our JFNA Chair.