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Parkland-Area Jewish Federation Bucks National Organization’s Advice To Steer Clear Of Gun Debate

The national leaders of the Jewish federation system are advising their local members not to take positions on gun control amidst a new national movement on the issue. But the local federation near where the Parkland massacre took place last week isn’t listening.

In an internal email sent Thursday, the national umbrella group for Jewish federations, the fundraising and social service agencies that serve local Jewish communities, suggested that the federations refrain from wading into the gun control policy debate. The email came as American Jewish groups lined up to call for gun reform.

“While the policy issues go right to the heart of cultural and political divides in this country, we want to make sure that Federations remain focused on the essential and critical work they are responsible for in such moments – taking care of the vulnerable in our midst and building community,” wrote Mark Gurvis, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federations of North America, in an email obtained by the Forward.

Virtually all of the local federations have followed the directive, staying mum even as their colleagues at national Jewish organizations like Hadassah, B’nai Brith, and the Anti-Defamation League have made separate calls for action amid a new nationwide push for gun control.

That changed on Friday, when the federation directly affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School put out a lengthy statement calling for “bi-partisan action” and “common sense gun reform,” in addition to school safety and mental health policy changes.

The dispute over whether to comment on gun control speaks to a tension at the root of the federation system, which is increasingly reliant on a few wealthy donors, over how to take public positions without alienating key backers. While federations are often vocal on Israel, they resist taking positions that may be controversial.

“The issue that we face, especially around political matters … is [that] the role of federation is to be a community convener, but also [to] convene resources to assist the community tackle the needs of the day,” said Michael Balaban, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Broward County, where Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located.

Balaban said that his organization has to provide social services to its needy clients, and has to be able to raise money to do so. But he said that the organization has other priorities, as well.

“We also subscribe to a series of Jewish values,” he said. “Sanctity of life.”

So, on Friday, a week after a gunman murdered 17 people, some of them Jewish, at a high school just miles from the Browdard federation’s office, the organization put out a policy statement calling for gun control.

“If we’re not the voice of leadership, then really what are we standing for?” Balaban said.

His appears to be the first Jewish federation in the country to buck the JFNA’s guidance to stick to providing social services.

“We’ve been focused on healing, but part of healing is understanding what action steps you can take,” Balaban said.

In its statement, the Broward federation calls for raising the age to buy guns to 21, banning bump stocks and “military-style firearms,” and expanding background checks, among other things. It also calls for school safety improvements, mental health reforms, and increased funding for mental health services.

“The horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland demands bi-partisan action by us and by policymakers at all levels,” the statement reads. “Students should be guaranteed safety and security as they learn to be responsible, productive citizens of tomorrow.”

No survey has been done of Jewish attitudes on gun control. But while there are Jews on all sides of the issue, it’s one on which the vast majority of the organized Jewish community appears to be in general agreement. Official bodies of the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative movements have all called for reform of current gun laws, with varying degrees of specificity. The youth organizations of the three movements joined together earlier this week in support of the new student-led effort to change the country’s gun laws. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which arrives at its positions through a consensus process involving a large number of Jewish organizations, has supported various forms of gun control over the years.

The JFNA, however, has steadfastly declined to take a position on the issue. “At a time like this the role of Jewish Federations is clear: to aid the most vulnerable and build community,” the JFNA said in a statement to the Forward.

The JFNA said it was not giving orders to local federations in the email it sent on Thursday advising them to focus on social services. “JFNA does not tell Federations what to do,” the organization said. “Locally Federations make decisions that meet the needs and priorities of their communities. A substantial part of Federation annual campaigns has always supported human service needs.”

The JFNA does, however, take positions on domestic issues. According to a document provided to the Forward, the 2018 priorities include protecting tax benefits enjoyed by charities, advocating for funding for poor Jews, and advocating for Medicaid and Medicare funding. The group did not say why it did not take a position on gun control, which many advocates consider a public health concern.

“As the issue of gun control is not part of our established domestic public policy priorities, JFNA has not issued a statement,” Gurvis wrote in his email to local federations.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.

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