Community relations councils debate national groups future

ST. LOUIS — This year's annual conference of National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council managed to avoid past rancor.

A new plan to reform NJCRAC that proponents say would do away the umbrella group and increase services to the 117 local community relations councils received scant attention, after being put off for a June vote.

Controversy was avoided in the wake of intense protest by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee — three of NJCRAC's 13 national member agencies.

Much of the focus of the meeting, which drew about 400 delegates from Feb. 11 to 14, remained NJCRAC's efforts to recast itself.

"The instrument needs refining" for NJCRAC to shape "a communal vision of a just society," said Lawrence Rubin, NJCRAC executive vice chairman and an ardent reform backer.

For Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC, the mandate for change is evident in the "diminished urgency in the issues typically associated with the JCRCs: the Middle East, Soviet Jewry and anti-Semitism," he said.

"CRCs have been viewed as the insurance policy for the Jewish community, there to address crises and external threats," Kahn said.

Now these groups must reposition themselves, he added. JCRCs already have worked in "Jewish outreach," and "public advocacy," among other areas, he added.

At a time when local federations' budgets are squeezed, CRCs are eager to prove their value. Most JCRCs are attached to and are funded by their local federations, which then contribute some 80 percent of NJCRAC's funding.

Several JCRCs have begun lending their advocacy skills to federations at a time when the federal government is shifting responsibility for funding social programs to the states and federation-supported agencies are at risk for cuts.

Some called for heightened Jewish content in the pursuit of social action by both JCRCs and the national agencies. But others warned against retreating from a broad-based social-justice agenda.

Some urged NJCRAC to broaden the liberal organization's tent politically and reach out more aggressively to conservative politicians and policy-makers.

As for the plan to reform NJCRAC, discussions with the ADL, the AJCongress and the AJCommittee are slated in the coming weeks.

The plan calls for NJCRAC to open a Washington, D.C., office, oversee funds now distributed by federations to the national agencies and eliminate veto power now accorded to the national member groups over public expressions of NJCRAC policy.