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Presidents Conference Eases Membership Rules After J Street Flap

The Jewish community’s umbrella organization is about to undergo structural changes following complaints by members that in its current makeup fails to fully represent the community.

Under the proposed changes, which will be brought to a vote next week, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will lower the threshold for membership, provide more representation to Jewish federations, and will create an executive committee to guide the group’s policy making.

“This action sends a message to the broader Jewish community that what the Conference says comes out of a consultation process and does reflect the Jewish world,” said Alan Solow, a past president of the Conference of Presidents who co-chaired the committee debating these procedural changes.

Calls for overhauling the umbrella organization’s practices surfaced following its vote last April rejecting a bid by the dovish lobby J Street to join as a member. Groups supportive of J Street argued the process, which required a two-thirds majority for adding new members, as well as the structure of the Conference, which gave equal weight to all organizations regardless of their size, were flawed. The Reform Movement even threatened to pull out of the Conference if changes in its structure are not made.

The proposed modifications in the rules that govern the Conference will make it easier for new organizations to join, by reducing the number of members needed for a quorum to two-thirds and lowering the majority required for acceptance to 55%. Previously, a 75% quorum and a two-thirds majority was needed.

Another recommendation will significantly increase the weight of local federations in the umbrella organization. Currently there is only one seat for the Jewish Federations of North America, but under the new proposed rules, JFNA will be able to choose three local federations to get a voting seat.

The most significant structural change will be the creation of an executive committee, made up of 13 members which will meet once a month and will be in charge of daily decision making. According to existing rules, much of this process is carried by the Conference’s chairman, currently Robert Sugarman, and the executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who informally consult with leaders of several key organizations.

“It formalizes the consultative process,” said Sugarman in a January 15 press call, “we had such a process when issues came up, and this formulizes it.” Initially, major groups had hoped to receive a permanent seat on the executive committee but the final recommendations do not name members of the executive committee, setting only general guidelines. According to these guidelines, the committee will be made up of the Conference chairman, his two immediate predecessors and ten members chosen by a nominating committee which will “take into account diversity of age, gender, expertise and size” of the organization.

The Conference of President insists that J Street’s rejection was not the sole trigger for these structural changes and that they were a result of an understanding that it is time to review the group’s bylaws. The Conference does not intend to invite J Street to re-apply, but noted that the door is open for any organization rejected in the past to try and apply again.

Still, it is not clear that even under the new rules J Street would win its membership bid. In the vote last April, 22 member organizations voted against J Street’s membership, 17 supported it and 3 groups abstained. In order to pass the new lowered threshold of 55%, J Street would still have to convince some of the organizations that voted against them last year to reverse their vote.

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