Dede Feinberg is sitting at a cafe sandwiched between a stationary boutique and fast fashion outlet in Union Station. Feinberg, a longtime patron of Jewish causes, had just returned from an event honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and is unfazed by the noisy crowds and pigeons pecking around the table as she reviewed the Jewish Agency for Israel’s new agenda.
Feinberg, who sits on the Jewish Agency board, explained that the storied quasi-governmental organization is moving away from its traditional role of funneling the Jewish Diaspora’s resources to an increasingly wealthy Israel.
She ticked off a who’s who of the Israeli billionaire class: Ofer, Strauss, Wertheimer.
“It’s not our job — it’s their job — to support their country,” she said. “For the Jewish Agency to stay mired in what it was, and not move with the times, is really making us a dinosaur.”
Instead, the Jewish Agency is trying to address growing alienation between Diaspora Jews and those in Israel, who often view religious practice in starkly different terms.
“Nobody ever thought about connecting Israelis to the Diaspora,” Feinberg said. “But when you think about some of the things going on in Israel that are alienating the Diaspora: the who is a Jew issue, the Women of the Wall issue, religious divorce, you sit and you wonder, how are we going to bring them together?”
Feinberg hopes a recent Jewish Agency program bringing school administrators and youth group leaders to the United States may help a younger generation of Israeli Jews better understand Diaspora Judaism.
And the status of Diaspora Jewry is something Feinberg, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, is quite familiar with.
“It’s clearly alive and well,” she said, with no hint of the concern many leaders of Jewish institutions show over falling synagogue affiliation rates or rising levels of intermarriage.
“I decided early on was that I wanted to make this a world where people would be comfortable to practice their Judaism as they saw fit,” Feinberg said. “I do not have the right to decide what type of Jew you’re going to be.”
Feinberg said many of the supposedly alarming metrics community leaders point to, like intermarriage, fail to capture Jewish life as it is lived.
“I see people, often in mixed marriages, who are living much more ‘Jewish’ lives than just two people who were married under a chuppah,” she said. “Absolutely I’m not frightened for the future of the Jewish people, I think we’re redefining ourselves as we have always done.”
Yet when it comes to external threats to the American Jewish community, Feinberg does worry about rising levels of antisemitism.
“You have to hide your head in the sand not to be disturbed by what’s going on,” she said.
“This degree of blatant anti-Semitism, from Charlottesville to half the things that have come out of Trump’s mouth, I never saw anything like this growing up, or as an adult, until now,” she said. “I wear my Judaism on my sleeve. It’s never occurred to me to do anything else, and for the first time you think.”
“I’m not about to stop, but you think about it.”
After the 2016 election, Feinberg became a founding board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, an organization meant both to combat Trump and back candidates who support “Jewish and Democratic values,” including the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Feinberg said the organization gives voice to the American Jewish community’s long standing majority support for liberal political policies.
“Immigration, health care, social services — I think you can see we’re more liberal than the right, so those would be the values,” Feinberg said. “I’m not religious, so I can’t get into where you actually find them and what part of the Bible.”
Feinberg, who belongs to Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, said her connection to Judaism has long been one more focused on community than religious practice.
“It just always felt like home,” Feinberg said. “It always answered my needs and I liked that it.”
Feinberg has been raising money for Jewish causes since high school, when she fundraised for the United Jewish Appeal in New Jersey, and said her contributions to the local federation continue to be her “most meaningful gift.”
As philanthropists gravitate toward funding single organizations, or even distinct functions within a non-profit, Feinberg is adamant that groups seeking to systematically support an entire community, like Jewish federations, not be forsaken.
“There’s a tendency to do directed giving and it’s wonderful,” Feinberg said. “God bless ‘em.”
“But you can’t build a community on just designated giving, and I hope people in this climate of great affluence — and I’m not just talking about your net worth, we’re in a country where, by-and-large, we do live very good lives and we do have the freedom to do most of what we want — that we think about those who are truly in need, and who need a community, and to help ensure a Jewish future.”
As for whether the Jewish community is the one most in need of financial contributions in 2019, Feinberg is ready with an answer.
“There is a whole world out there who can support the community at large. We’re a very small world, and only Jews are going to help Jews.”
“I give to food banks, I give to homeless shelters, I give to the opera,” she said. “I’m not saying, ‘Don’t support the general community.’ I’m saying, ‘Don’t forget the foundation on which you started.’”
Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.