by David Holzel
In 1970, the Jews of Washington were becoming aware of discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union and the desire of many to emigrate. Washingtonians who wanted to take their outrage to the Soviets were frustrated by the law that made it illegal to demonstrate within 500 feet of the Soviet Embassy. So some Soviet Jewry activists had an idea.
“They said, ‘What would happen if we stood across the street [from the embassy] and just stood there?’ ” says Wendy Turman, curator at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
That was the beginning of a daily vigil for Soviet Jews across from the embassy. It was organized by Washington’s Jewish Community Council, now the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. In 1972, the group organized a rally on the Ellipse for Soviet Jews just before the elections. And when 250,000 came to Washington in 1987 to march for Soviet Jewry, the Jewish Community Council coordinated the participation of 50,000 local demonstrators.
The daily vigils continued for 21 years, until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the gates to emigration fully opened.
By then, the Jewish Community Council was more than a half-century old. Founded in 1938, it was a venue for the groups of a growing Washington Jewish community to hammer out common positions on the issues of the day.
Tonight, as it celebrates its 75th anniversary at a gala dinner at Washington Hebrew Congregation, the JCRC is the community’s link to other faith groups, to local governments and to the public at large, conveying the organized Jewish community’s point of view.
“The JCRC is a relationship-making machine,” says Ron Halber, the agency’s executive director.
Through those relationships, the JCRC has secured millions of thousands of dollars in public funds for Jewish organizations. It has raised the profile of Alan Gross, the Jewish community development worker from Potomac who is imprisoned in Cuba. And, in the person of Halber, it has been at the elbow of politicians visiting Israel, trying to nurture stronger ties between officials and the Jewish state.
During the past year, the JCRC organized Jewish support in Maryland for the Dream Act, benefiting children of illegal immigrants; for marriage equality; and for repeal of the death penalty, says Joseph Sandler, the group’s president.
“The JCRC is the advocacy arm of the Jewish community in the halls of government and to other ethnic and religious communities in the area,” he adds.
Through its lobbyists in Annapolis and Richmond, and the community members it sends to state houses on “advocacy days,” the JCRC advocates for its agenda, one that ultimately benefits the Jewish community and those in need in the general community.
In Maryland, for example, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) budget included $1 million to expand and renovate the Hillel building at the University of Maryland, College Park; $450,000 to support aging in place programs in suburban Washington and Baltimore; and $275,000 to support the Maryland-Israel Development Center (MIDC), among other support.
In April, 50 people sent by the JCRC urged the Montgomery County Council to set aside more than $650,000 to fund programs and services of Jewish agencies. Michael Friedman, JCRC’s Maryland Commission co-chair, attributed JCRC’s success in winning such funding to the fact that Jewish groups in the county represent not just needy Jews but “the broader community. We advocate on behalf of the nonprofit sector,” he said at the time.
“We’ve obtained funds for Jewish Social Service Agency, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the Jewish Community Center,” Sandler says. “Anyone who uses them has benefited from the public funds we have won for programs and capital funds.”
The public-private partnership that the JCRC nurtures has a multiplier effect, says Ron Glancz, a former president. To which Halber adds, “We look for opportunities. We look at how we can use government money to leverage other money.”
William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, says the JCRC is “a national leader in engaging the Jewish community on behalf of communal goals. Many JCRCs see the Washington JCRC as a model for what they would like to become.”
To speak with a single voice
The fate of Jews in Nazi Germany was one of the concerns that brought together representatives of 25 Jewish organizations in 1938 to form the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. These local leaders sought a mechanism to address the community’s needs in an organized way.
There was not always a consensus. In 1942, the S.S. Struma sank after the British had refused entry to Palestine for the 767 Romanian Jews on board. Only one person survived the disaster and the council “agonized over a fitting response,” according to Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community.
“Unable to act unanimously, the council resolved that memorial services could be held at synagogues, but protests would be inappropriate. Chairman Hymen Goldman, upset at the council’s discord, left the meeting in tears.”
There were other historic issues to grapple with. In the racially segregated Washington of the 1950s, the council stood firmly in favor of African Americans being free to patronize white-owned stores. It filed a friend of the court brief in favor of business integration.
But there were complications. “The council had a debate over whether they should push Jewish businesses to integrate,” says David McKenzie, interpretive programs manager for the Jewish Historical Society.
Hecht’s department store was at the center of their discussions. “Hecht’s had a segregated lunch counter,” McKenzie says.
Council members sat down with Hecht’s executives, but got nowhere. “The council debated how they should treat Hecht’s when others threw up picket signs against it,” he says.
In the end, the council tried to minimize anti-Semitic fallout from Hecht’s refusal to integrate by arranging a meeting with the editor of the Washington Afro-American newspaper. They emphasized that although Hecht’s was a Jewish-owned business, the Jewish community opposed Hecht’s policy, McKenzie says.
The council also supported integrating District schools and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
And as the 1963 March on Washington approached, the council’s executive director, Isaac Franck, convened a meeting of local leaders with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz was the council’s executive director from 1984-1988, during the vigils across from the Soviet Embassy and the mammoth march for Soviet Jews. During those years, the agency began “community relations missions to Israel for public officials who we identified as rising stars,” he says. “The goal was to influence future policy leaders in ways that would insure that they would be allies in the future.”
But after Schwarz’s departure, at the time of its 50th anniversary in 1988, the council was looking for a new direction. An editorial in Washington Jewish Week was blunt: An analysis of the organization showed that “while the council is programmatically well functioning and industrious … it is perceived by the community as lacking in mission and it is losing influential and young leadership to organizations considered more glamorous – such as UJA Federation [now The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington].”
The council had gone without an executive director for nearly a year, and its relationship with The Federation, the editorial said, was “rocky.”
That relationship hadn’t improved by the time Andy Stern became president in 2004. “We had strained relations with our major funder – Federation,” he says. So he and Halber, who had been on staff since 1997 and had become executive director in 2002, sat down with Federation leaders to reset the relationship.
The Federation told Stern and Halber that it couldn’t fund any growth in the council. So for the first time in its history, the agency would have to raise its own funds. “The first year we raised $35,000-$40,000,” Stern says. “This year we raised close to half a million.”
Fundraising “was the best thing we ever did,” Halber says, because it forced the agency to scrutinize its priorities and measure its accomplishments. It led to hiring additional staff at the offices in Rockville, Fairfax and Washington to extend the JCRC’s reach.
Stern also led the rebranding of the organization. “Jewish Community Council – no one knew what that was,” he says. “And we couldn’t call ourselves the JCC – that’s the Jewish Community Center.” That’s when the agency became the Jewish Community Relations Council.
“Relations is the pivotal point of what we do,” Halber says, “to advance the interests of the Jewish community.”
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett describes “a very good, long relationship” with the JCRC, dating back to his time on the County Council. The JCRC “provides value to the broad community,” because its input on the county’s budget process helps not just Jewish recipients of county funds.
He recalls being “almost in tears” at the Yom Hashoah program the JCRC sponsors annually. And he took three trips to Israel that were facilitated by the JCRC. “They provided background and texture for what we were seeing,” he says.
U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) calls the JCRC “a terrific voice of the Jewish community. We’ve used them as a resource to understand some issues.”
Before he was elected to Congress in 2012, Delaney took a lightning two-day trip to Israel, accompanied by Halber.
“I had an eye-opening 2-1/2-hour helicopter ride from Tel Aviv over Jerusalem and down to the Gaza border,” Delaney told Washington Jewish Week after his return.
“This is a service we offer” to those interested, Halber said at the time.
“Ron is our not-so-secret weapon,” says Sandler, the JCRC’s current president. “He’s energetic, uniquely talented, forceful and effective. He’s developed relationships at all levels of government and it pays off.”
“He’s forged bonds with other communities and formed formidable legislative coalitions,” adds Peter Krausner, a president during the 1990s. “It is a remarkable transformation, and Ron and his staff deserve the credit.”
“Ron is a master coalition-builder who sees the big picture,” says Daroff of Jewish Federations of North America. “While most people are focused on the crisis of the moment, Ron is looking five or 10 moves ahead.”
Halber ticks off a half-dozen projects the JCRC is working on or sees on the horizon: Bringing in scholars-in-residence on Israel who can speak at area synagogues, which can’t afford a speaker on their own. Opposing the boycott, sanctions and divestment from Israel movement – “We won’t stand for it.” He anticipates a shift over the next several years in Holocaust education to “how to make the lessons of the Holocaust meaningful to younger people.” And he predicts, “Food advocacy will become the issue of the Jewish community.”
Seventy-five years after the leaders of Jewish organizations formed a council to give a voice to their common concerns, the JCRC is poised to tackle whatever’s next.
Says Halber, “We’re not afraid of change here.”
Staff writer Suzanne Pollak contributed to this story.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington will present three awards tonight at its gala.
Carol and Gary Berman will receive the Breslau-Goldman Award. “Carol and Gary are two of the most humble, amazing individuals,” says Ron Halber, JCRC executive director. “They are tremendous philanthropists and personally engaged. When the economic downturn hit, Gary conceived the idea of an emergency campaign.” Carol Berman conceived the idea that became the Mashkon Initiative and the Initiative in congregational education, two programs to energize family education.
Cindy and Rick Zitelman will receive the Community Leadership Award. “They’re involved in creating a new generation of young Jewish leaders,” Halber says. Rick Zitelman mentors, advises and funds Israeli and Jewish nonprofits and start-ups and their senior management. Cindy Zitelman is a past president of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA) and has overseen a number of projects in greater Washington’s sister city of Beit Shemesh/Mate Yehudah.
Alan Gross, an international community development specialist now imprisoned in Cuba, will receive the Distinguished Service Award. “Alan really is a part of the Jewish community,” Halber says. “He worked for The Federation. He worked for B’nai B’rith. He’s gone to 50 countries to do humanitarian work.”