First the Vote, Then the Ads

May 29, 2014
BY Dmitriy Shapiro
Fight over J Street continues in print
An advertisement in which 41 Reform Jews accuse Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs of “divisive” leadership for his threat to pull URJ out of the Conference of Presidents over the rejection of J Street. (Jews Against Divisive Leadership)

An advertisement in which 41 Reform Jews accuse Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs of “divisive” leadership for his threat to pull URJ out of the Conference of Presidents over the rejection of J Street.
(Jews Against Divisive Leadership)

An organization claiming to represent Reform and Conservative congregants has published full-page ads in Jewish newspapers across the country blasting their denomination’s leaders for supporting the inclusion of the “pro-peace pro-Israel” group J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

While the criticism of the religious leadership is clear, it is unclear to what extent the group represents the views of the estimated 1.5 million Reform and Conservative congregants.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations last month voted 22-17, with three abstentions, to reject J Street’s bid to join the umbrella group, often called the spokesman of the Jewish community. Despite the rejection, Jews Against Divisive Leadership, led by Carol Greenberg of Potomac, launched the attack ads.

“Voting to include J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was not advocating for diversity. It was falling for duplicity,” said the Conservative version of the ad, which ran in New York Jewish Week, the New York Jewish Press, the Boston Jewish Advocate, Washington Jewish Week and the Baltimore Jewish Times. It was undersigned by 60 names, 23 of whom are Washington-area residents, along with the congregations they belong to.

The Reform version of the ad, printed a week earlier, went after Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), calling him a “divisive leader.” It was signed by 40 people, none from the Washington area.

“We told you that he would use his position to bolster the anti-Israel J Street. We told you that he would try to diminish American Jewry’s support for Israel,” the ad admonished, apparently alluding to opposition before Jacobs became URJ head in 2012. “But we did not know quite how divisive Rabbi Jacobs would be. We did not expect that when he failed to persuade the Conference of Presidents to accept J Street as a major Jewish organization–which it is not–he would threaten to take the URJ out of the Conference and ask others to leave, too, over differences about Israeli foreign policy.”

In a statement following the Conference of Presidents vote, Jacobs said the conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” He hinted that after due consideration, the URJ may decide to leave the conference.

Greenwald was out of the country at publication time and unavailable for comment. She is a prominent member of COPMA, the local group that led a boycott of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for its support of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, whose Theater J presented a play the group considered anti-Israel.

In the Presidents’ Conference vote, all four groups representing Reform Judaism and all but one representing Conservative Judaism voted in favor of J Street, saying that even if some do not agree with J Street’s perspective, the Conference of Presidents should reflect the full spectrum of American Jewish opinion.

Jacobs, who was on J Street’s board of directors before taking the helm at URJ, was one of the most outspoken of the representatives who voted in J Street’s favor.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, where Greenwald and a number of the ad’s signatories are members, said the Conservative leadership moved on J Street without taking the whole movement with them.

“I think part of what upset people really was the fact that certain leaders in the Conservative movement were so out front, advocating so strongly, which seemed not to take into consideration the feelings of various members of conservative synagogues and rabbis who felt differently,” he said.

Weinblatt added that he was not surprised by the ad’s sentiments.

“These are people who care deeply about Israel, who feel a sense of having been disenfranchised,” he said. “Usually most Jewish organizations are driven by consensus and trying to reflect the overall position of its members and in this particular case it’s hard to gauge really how accurate a reflection it was to take the position that they took.”

Jessica Rosenblum, director of media and communications at J Street, dismissed the ads, saying that it does not surprise her “that 40 people in the Reform movement and 60 people in the Conservative movement … are strongly opposed to their respective leaders’ decisions to support J Street’s admission to the Conference of Presidents.”

“The Reform and Conservative movements voted to admit J Street to the Conference of Presidents, not because they agree with everything J Street says,” Rosenblum wrote in an email. “They did no more than faithfully represent the diversity of opinion within their movements–but such diversity is apparently unacceptable to the signers of these advertisements.”

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