As the CEO of a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area, my job is to create healthy communities inspired by Jewish values, culture, and tradition. We are an expansive place defined by inclusivity and accessibility. During my tenure, I have learned that community centers are expected by many to be neutral spaces — not defined by denomination and welcoming to everyone.
The JCC serves Berkeley, Oakland, and other towns and cities in the East Bay. Our community happily includes queer Jews and people of color, intermixed Jews and non-Jews. We are home to families, sophisticated boomers, and 30-somethings who question everything.
In the fall of 2016, our community was stunned when a man who had degraded women, signaled support for white supremacy, and insulted people of color, Muslims, and people with disabilities, was elected president of the United States.
At the JCC, we began to investigate our responsibilities as a Jewish communal organization in this historic moment. Did we, as a community center, have a point of view? And if so, how would be a space for those with different opinions?
The paradox of the JCC is to be pulled by conflicting meanings of “inclusive.” We are a place to bridge divides through a shared commitment to Jewish values. There is enormous pressure on communal spaces to avoid being political. Having a point of view about anything — immigration, racial justice, women’s rights, guns, or even God — threatens the ideal of inclusivity. Yet we recognize that some people are more marginalized, at risk, and still striving for basic rights and equality. The other side of inclusive also means to recognize historic and current forces that stand in the way of equal rights for all and to be vocal about standing up for them.
In response to the national conversation, our Board of Directors developed a civic engagement position with two pillars. We first commit to welcoming everyone. We want to make space and opportunities for civic discourse, to provide a place for people to have difficult conversations and discover shared values. We also have a moral obligation to stand for equal rights and safety for all. We welcome and support people of all religions, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, communities of color, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community.
A tension exists between the two pillars of this position. How can we truly be a place for dialogue across difference and also have a point of view? Can we express this view and still be a place for everyone? What about people who agree with the positions of the current administration? And aren’t we supposed to be neutral?
This tension is healthy and important. Jewish community centers are the Jewish town square, a place for the many voices in our communities. But each JCC has its own voice and a responsibility to use that voice.
If we are tone-deaf to the national forces that affect us, we are irrelevant.
Today we actively weave these principles into our programs. We are willing to face the complexities and contradictions that come with striving to do what’s right. Jewish tradition has prepared us for this moment. We know how to argue over ideas. We are familiar with the messiness of painful divisions, whether over how we express our support and concern for Israel or how we stand against antisemitism on the right and the left.
I believe the American Jewish community can recognize when it’s time to come together around our core values. As a mainstream, longstanding communal organization, we want to amplify the national conversation about the Jewish obligation to create equal rights and safety for all: to be anything but silent, and to listen to our legacy.
When tested against Jewish values, we found that “neutral” is utterly impossible in 2018. As Jews, we know what it means to be the outsider, the oppressed. We will never forget how we have lived in mortal danger, quietly and creatively assimilating to survive. We have seen history, and we have survived it. To look away from the actions of the current administration is to look away from our Jewish and moral education.
Amy Tobin is CEO of the JCC East Bay. She has consulted with arts and Jewish organizations, currently serves on the UpStart Alumni Advisory Council, and has served on boards including the Nonprofit Centers Network, Joshua Venture Group, and Be’chol Lashon. A songwriter and performer, Amy has toured nationally with “The Esther Show,” a cabaret rock opera based on the Book of Esther.