Alan van Capelle, a well-connected political activist with roots in the labor and gay and lesbian rights movements, will become president and CEO of the recently merged Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice, the group announced October 3. Van Capelle, 36, will assume leadership of the organization in January 2012. JFSJ, which has been growing rapidly, drew wide attention in January for demanding that Fox News fire host Glenn Beck for alleged anti-Semitism. Beck eventually left the network in June.
Van Capelle is a former executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a leading gay rights lobby, and a former deputy political director of SEIU Local 32BJ, the massive building workers union.
Simon Greer, the current president and CEO of the recently merged group, has been a highly public face of the organization and of the Jewish social justice movement, promoted by JFSJ as a sort of progressive version of the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman. Van Capelle said he was eager to take on that mantle.
“I’m not shy,” he said. JFSJ, founded in 1984, has focused on grant making and community organizing to combat poverty through a Jewish lens. Led by Greer since 2005, the organization now has a $6.5 million budget. It merged in June with the Los Angeles-based PJA.
Greer will leave in January to head the Nathan Cummings Foundation, perhaps the most influential post in Jewish social justice activism. The Cummings Foundation, with assets of $414 million, provides major support to a range of progressive Jewish groups, including American Jewish World Service and Repair the World. In 2009 the foundation gave more than half a million dollars to JFSJ and another $150,000 to PJA.
A number of top JFSJ officials have recently left the organization, including Mik Moore, its former chief strategy officer, and Jeremy Burton, the group’s senior vice president of philanthropic initiatives. Burton is now executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.
Though van Capelle has never worked for a Jewish organization, he has ties to JFSJ and even deeper personal ties to its recent leaders. He briefly served on the organization’s board and is a longtime friend of Greer’s. Van Capelle signed Greer’s ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, as a witness, and JFSJ’s Moore co-officiated at van Capelle’s 2007 commitment ceremony.
Van Capelle was born in Commack, N.Y. His father, a mechanical engineer, was born to a Dutch-Jewish family in Surabaya, Indonesia; his mother, an office manager, was born in Brooklyn. He attended the City University of New York and then worked for years as a labor organizer, organizing health workers. At SEIU 32BJ, a 120,000-member New York-based building workers union, van Capelle directed day-to-day political operations.
In 2003 van Capelle shifted to the gay rights sphere, running Empire State Pride Agenda, the civil rights group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers, until 2010. Though van Capelle left before the July 2011 legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State, Greer attributed the legislative victory to his advocacy in a letter announcing his selection to succeed him at PJA & JFSJ.
“The recent vote by the New York State Senate to legalize gay marriage in New York was made possible in no small part by Alan’s leadership while at Empire State Pride,” Greer wrote.
Since leaving Empire State Pride, van Capelle has served as deputy comptroller for public affairs under New York City Comptroller John Liu.
“I don’t think the work of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice has ever been more important or necessary than it is right now,” van Capelle said on October 3. He cited growing poverty rates in the United States. “Our Jewish values demand of us that we help solve the problem of poverty,” van Capelle said.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.