An organization claiming to represent Reform and Conservative congregants has published full-page ads in Jewish newspapers around the country, blasting their denomination’s leaders for supporting the inclusion of the “pro-peace pro-Israel” group J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
While the criticism of the religious leadership is clear, it is unclear to what
extent the group represents the views of the estimated 1.5 million Reform and Conservative congregants.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organization last month voted
22-17, with three abstentions, to reject J Street’s bid to join the umbrella group, often called the spokesperson of the Jewish community. Despite the rejection, Jews Against Divisive Leadership, led by Carole Greenwald of Potomac, launched the attack ads.
“Voting to include J Street in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was not advocating for diversity. It was falling for duplicity,” said the Conservative version of the ad, which ran in the New York Jewish Week, New York Jewish Press, Boston Jewish Advocate, Washington Jewish Week and Baltimore Jewish Times. It was signed by 60 people, 23 of whom are Washington-area residents, along with the congregations they belong to.
The Reform version of the ad, printed a week earlier, went after Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), calling him a “divisive leader.” It was signed by 40 people, none from the Washington area.
“We told you that he would use his position to bolster the anti-Israel J Street. We told you that he would try to diminish American Jewry’s support for Israel,” the ad admonished, apparently alluding to opposition before Jacobs became URJ head in 2012. “But we did not know quite how divisive Rabbi Jacobs would be. We did not expect that when he failed to persuade the Conference of Presidents to accept J Street as a major Jewish organization – which it is not – he would threaten to take the URJ out of the Conference and ask others to leave, too, over differences about Israeli foreign policy.”
In a statement following the Conference of Presidents vote, Jacobs said the conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” He hinted that after due consideration, the URJ may decide to leave the conference.
Greenwald was out of the country at press time and unavailable for comment. She is a prominent member of COPMA, the local group that led a boycott of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for its support of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, whose Theater J presented a play the group considered anti-Israel.
In the Presidents’ Conference vote, all four groups representing Reform Judaism and all but one representing Conservative Judaism voted in favor of J Street, saying that even if some do not agree with J Street’s perspective, the Conference of Presidents should reflect the full spectrum of American Jewish opinion.
Jacobs, who was on J Street’s board of directors before taking the helm at URJ, was one of the most outspoken of the representatives who voted in J Street’s favor.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, where Greenwald and a number of the ad’s signatories are members, said the Conservative leadership moved on J Street without taking the whole movement with them.
“I think part of what upset people really was the fact that certain leaders in the Conservative movement were so out front, advocating so strongly, which seemed not to take into consideration the feelings of various members of Conservative synagogues and rabbis who felt differently,” he said.
He said he was not surprised by the ad’s sentiments.
“These are people who care deeply about Israel, who feel a sense of having been disenfranchised,” Weinblatt said. “Usually most Jewish organizations are driven by consensus and trying to reflect the overall position of its members and in this particular case it’s hard to gauge really how accurate a reflection it was to take the position that they took.”
Rabbi Jessica Kirschner of Temple Sinai in Washington, a Reform congregation, said the ads did not reflect the beliefs of most Reform Jews and agreed with Jacobs’ actions following the vote.
“The thing that I have heard most as a response to Rabbi Jacobs’ actions is an
appreciation that the Reform movement was demonstrating leadership on the issue,” Kirschner said, adding that those she talked to said that they were glad that their movement “was speaking up and saying” that there “needs to be a rich and complicated conversation.” Otherwise, she says, it’s not reflective of the Jewish community.
Kirschner said that she reads most of her Jewish news online and that the method of the group publishing the ads is probably ineffective if it wants to reach young Jews, the group J Street claims to represent most.
Jessica Rosenblum, director of media and communications at J Street, dismissed the ads, saying that it does not surprise her “that there are 40 people in the Reform movement and 60 people in the Conservative movement who are strongly opposed to their respective
leaders’ decisions to support J Street’s admission to the Conference of Presidents.”
“The Reform and Conservative movements voted to admit J Street to the Conference of Presidents, not because they agree with everything J Street says,” Rosenblum wrote in an email. “They did no more than faithfully represent the diversity of opinion within their movements — but such diversity is apparently unacceptable to the signers of these advertisements.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
JNS.org contributed to this story.