Philadelphia Council May Face Its Demise

By Nacha Cattan

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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A major restructuring in Philadelphia could doom one of American Jewry’s most storied public-policy groups.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has decided to take control of the independent Jewish Community Relations Council, an organization that acts on behalf of a range of community agencies to foster relations with other religious and ethnic groups, and lobbies local politicians on a variety of policy issues.

Several board members of the community council are predicting that the move will lead to the demise of the organization, which developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most influential local councils during the fight to free Soviet Jewry. The 64-year old council, funded mainly by the Jewish federation, has produced several staff alumni who have gone on to become national leaders, including arguably the most influential Jewish communal professional in the country, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

News of the plan drew criticism from area politicians, who worried that the council’s new form would downgrade intergroup efforts.

“If you try to fix something that doesn’t need fixing, the end result is to hamper it,” said David Cohen, the only Jewish member of Philadelphia’s city council. Cohen, an outspoken liberal Democrat, introduced a city council resolution praising the community relations council, passed last week.

The reorganization in Philadelphia comes at a time when the 123 local community-relations councils around the country and their national coordinating body, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, appear to be ceding much of their influence and independence to the Jewish federations that fund them. Only seven local councils remain independent.

While at times this shift has been cast as a victory of the conservative federation leaders over the liberal councils, several observers rejected this explanation as simplistic. Instead, observers said, federations are motivated primarily by their struggle to fund social-service agencies in the face of rising needs and cuts in government funding. And recently, federation leaders in some cities have been pushing even harder for councils to focus primarily on lobbying state legislatures for more aid to social services, even if it means severely cutting back on intergroup activities and other public-policy efforts.

A similar dynamic appears to be at work in Philadelphia, where the federation’s decision to absorb the council seems to be motivated by a desire to improve lobbying efforts in Harrisburg, the state capital, in addition to a dissatisfaction among federation leaders with the overall performance of the council.

Council leaders, meanwhile, are responding with their own criticisms of the federation.

“I’m profoundly disappointed with the federation,” said Ruth Laibson, a former president of the council and current board member. “The incremental coalition building, which has gone on for 65 years, must not be decimated in a restructuring effort that is only focused on looking for funding for social-service needs.”

The federation system, Laibson said, “is becoming more insular and mostly concerned with protecting our own flank. That doesn’t build a healthy community.”

Despite such sentiments, council officials said that financial considerations would force them to accept the federation’s decision. The federation covers more than 75% of the council’s $750,000 annual budget.

The council’s executive director, Burt Siegel, warned that too great a shift away from intergroup activities could harm future lobbying efforts to secure government aid for federation-run social services.

“You cannot say to someone, ‘We want you to care about what we care about but we don’t care about what you care about,’” said Siegel, who has worked in various capacities at the council for 30 years. “A community as small as the Jewish community needs as many friends as possible.”

Siegel, who told the Forward that his future at the council is uncertain, acknowledged that lobbying the state for social-service funding has not been the council’s “highest priority.” But he noted that the council’s long record of working with other ethnic groups has made it easier to mobilize non-Jewish groups on behalf of Israel. For example, he said, African American ministers in the council’s black-Jewish coalition have traveled to Israel on council missions. “If we decide to do Israel advocacy, but not interfaith, the fact is we’ll lose the relationships with other communities, which will harm our Israel advocacy,” Siegel said.

Federation leaders, however, insisted that the council’s community-relations efforts would not be diminished. In fact, they said, it would only be enhanced by the takeover because federation staffers would handle fundraising and daily management tasks.

“Federation looks forward to working with JCRC leadership in the challenging times ahead to strengthen the essential areas of community relations, government affairs and advocacy,” said Harold Goldman, the federation president.

Joseph Smukler, immediate past chairman of the federation and onetime council president, said the change would better serve the interests of the Jewish community. But Smukler and other federation officials declined to identify ways in which the council needed to improve its performance. In other cities, critics have complained that the local councils and their national body have tended to serve as a sort of playpen for a small group of liberal Jewish activists rather than as a vehicle for lobbying government on behalf of federations.

The overhaul in Philadelphia, which is part of a larger plan to restructure the federation, comes a year after the council conducted a “self-study.” According to Siegel, the study found that the council was not successful in involving certain segments of the Jewish population, mainly the Orthodox and Jewish residents in their 20s. The council also found that it needed to reevaluate the community’s needs, but that the organization was “by and large doing a good job,” Siegel said.

Federation officials were unhappy with the results of the study, according to federation and council sources. But Laibson argued that improvements were being implemented and that the federation should have registered its dissatisfaction sooner — rather than put the council on the chopping block without warning.

While the council’s future remains unclear, it boasts a storied past. Hoenlein ran the council’s Israel advocacy activities and its efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s. Two of the four people who have served as professional heads of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and its forerunner, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, previously served as executive directors of the Philadelphia council: Albert Chernin and Lawrence Rubin.

“It was a pioneering agency among the JCRCs,” Hoenlein told the Forward. “It’s a respected agency in Philadelphia, certainly on Soviet Jewry.”

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