Over the past few months, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) has been allocating more resources into servicing the Washington D.C. area to reflect the city’s growing Jewish community.
The organization’s renewed efforts include hiring Rachel Feinstein approximately two months ago to be the Director of D.C. Government and Community Relations. Feinstein became the first person to fill that position in the 80-year history of the JCRC.
“We had robust operations in both Virginia and Maryland. We said wait a second, we can’t leave D.C. unanswered – it’s not moral. It’s not ethical. It’s not proper,” JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber said. “It became sort of a very private initiative that we did very slowly. And among 15 donors, we raised the money to hire a D.C. Director of Government Relations.”
The need for increased D.C. community coverage became apparent due to a 2017 demographic study that reported the Washington D.C. Jewish population had doubled since 2003 to reach about 57,000 Jews, according to Halber.
Previously, the JCRC’s operations in Washington D.C. were overseen by their Virigina representative, which didn’t allow for nearly the same level of attention that a dedicated director could provide.
“It’s difficult to cover two jurisdictions and you can only do so much with the time and resources that we have. So being able to have a dedicated person, I can be up at the City Council once or twice a week and be actively meeting with council members and staff,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein also said the position gives her the opportunity to attend local synagogue events and spend more time building up community partnerships, such as interfaith relations and community building work with the Jewish and Black communities.
“Part of my role is connecting the different communities within Jewish life of the city and working to support different policy activities, different social action activities that our synagogues are undertaking, working with our partners in the community and other interfaith groups and working with the council on policies that would support the work that’s being done there,” Feinstein said.
Living locally also grants a more concentrated effort for the JCRC to collaborate with the D.C. City Council, where the group can discuss their policy positions directly with council members and help craft resolutions to address community issues.
Currently, Feinstein and her team are working on a project with the Uyghur community.
And living locally provides a greater sense of responsibility and pride in Feinstein when she’s working, a feeling that hits with more impact from being able to advocate for policies that will benefit her neighbors.
“There’s something about living in the district. And working and talking with others in the district, these are my neighbors. Basically, we all live in the city and I see everyone that I talk with who lives in the district as a neighbor, as a fellow community member,” Feinstein said. “So having that deeper connection … it makes it hit deeper, and it’s exciting to be able to help your neighbors too.”
The hiring and increased resource allocation to D.C. comes at a time when the JCRC released a new policy paper outlining the importance of protecting the Jewish community through efforts to preserve democracy.
“The Jewish communities will prosper in this nation, so long as we are a democracy. If we ever slip into authoritarianism, the Jewish community will suffer in ways that they can’t even begin to imagine,” Halber said.
The policy paper, published on Sept. 6, is a reaffirmation of previous JCRC goals across the United States, but considers what Halber calls a “seething anger” he says he’s detected in the Jewish community over the state of U.S. politics.
The paper will be an important driver of JCRC strategy in D.C., as it gives Feinstein and her team a framework upon which to base their advocacy and policy goals. She said it empowers people to act on specific issues outlined in the paper when they raise them with the D.C. City Council or work in other areas to help solve them.
“The policy paper will allow us to have a more active voice and role in D.C., as these very salient issues arise day to day,” Feinstein said.
The paper and a shift in attention toward D.C. will likely increase the group’s role in the area, which they hope will provide consistency and results for the local Jewish community.
“And as we look further over the horizon, [we’ll] ensure that number one, the JCRC becomes a place and a common name among the D.C. Jewish community for where they feel that their needs are served, and that their desires and their advocacies were appropriately represented,” Halber said.