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The Iran Letter I’d Write If I Were Still a Federation CEO

As a lifelong Zionist and a former 19-year Jewish federation chief executive, I was dismayed by to encourage members to urge their congressional representatives to vote against the Iran nuclear deal.

While I can imagine that federation boards and executives are under no small amount of pressure to weigh in on this important issue, I believe that it’s a mistake for organizations established to represent the shared interests of their diverse Jewish communities to take such intensely political and largely partisan positions.

Were I still serving as a federation CEO, this is the letter that I hope I would have the courage to send to my donors and community members:

Dear federation friends,

It is no secret that our American Jewish community is facing profound challenges of a magnitude perhaps unseen in modern times. Our response to these challenges, as a local federation and as a national Jewish community, will either make us stronger or tear us apart.

Polarization of attitudes toward Israel. Increasing ideological strains within our Jewish communities. Large swaths of younger generations whose identification with Jewish life and Jewish institutions is marginal or worse. A shrinking base of federation contributors, partially obscured by large endowment gifts from an aging boomer generation. I could go on, and so could you.

Added to this imposing agenda today is the acrimonious debate raging within our country on the wisdom of the recent nuclear arms deal reached between the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China and the European Union with Iran.

With a congressional debate and vote on the horizon, rhetoric both for and against the deal is heating up among the public at large and within the American Jewish community. It should not be surprising, then, that we at federation have heard from a number of deeply committed community members urging us to weigh in on this divisive political issue.

I hope it will also not come as a surprise that I believe federation is not the proper address for taking a position on such an intensely political matter.

The federation movement was established more than a hundred years ago to provide a communal table around which shared community priorities could be addressed. We are rightfully proud of the work our system has accomplished throughout the years: rescuing Jews from lands of distress, up-building Israeli society and providing for the needs of our local and global Jewish communities.

At times, we’ve advocated for social legislation that impacted the quality of life for American Jews and for our neighbors, whether standing behind food stamps or promoting anti-discrimination laws. But taking political positions on matters of U.S. government policy, particularly those divided along substantially partisan lines, is not where our federation should be.

Thankfully, every member of our Jewish community has a wide range of options for being heard on the Iranian issue. Whether by contacting your elected representatives or by writing letters to the editor or by joining with one of the many Jewish and Israel-centered political advocacy groups within our community (AIPAC, J Street and others), I encourage you to make your views known.

Thank you for your support and commitment. And, needless to say, I am available to help you find the way to make your voice heard on this and any other issues that matter to you.

Sincerely,

Ami Nahshon Federation Executive Director

Ami Nahshon served as CEO of the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay (Northern California) from 1984-2003. During that time, he served a term as national chairman of the Large-Intermediate Federation Executive Directors Forum.

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