Very few things could tear Julie Bernstein away from her hometown of San Francisco. Among them, apparently, is the chance to build a new Israel advocacy network from the ground up.
After four and a half years at the helm of the Middle East Project, a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, Bernstein recently moved to New York to help launch the Israel Action Network. A program of the Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the initiative aims to serve as a hub for Israel education and advocacy nationwide.
Bernstein said her time at JCRC — another organization under the JCPA umbrella — prepared her well for such an endeavor.
“San Francisco has really set the standard in the CRC [Community Relations Committee] world, in terms of education, relationship-building, having the difficult conversations,” Bernstein said. “That’s out of necessity. It’s really a hotspot, ground zero — for lack of a better term — for anti-Israel advocacy in this country, so we’ve had to come up with the model for how to combat that: everything from trips to Israel, interfaith relationship-building, finding common ground and issues of concern with other ethnic minorities … so that when it comes to needing support for Israel, they’re there.”
She said her goal at IAN is to take the model that San Francisco has set and bring it to the rest of the U.S. and Canada, everywhere the federation system has a presence. One of the most interesting parts of the challenge, she said, is responding to different needs in different cities.
“I’m finding that different communities are at different places with Israel,” she said. “New York, Boston, Chicago all have a strong Israel presence — but beyond that, a lot of the CRCs don’t have a lot of staff to put into these issues. We want to come in and help them build their capacity to deal with anti-Israel challenges as they come, so that they’re able to do response work, whether it’s an issue on campus or a city council resolution.”
Bernstein acknowledged that living in New York would take some getting used to. Born in San Francisco, she attended Brandeis Hillel Day School in the city, then started the first Students for Israel group at USC as an undergrad. She moved back to San Francisco in 2003, and found herself drawn to Israel advocacy as a career around the time of the second Lebanon war.
Her time at the JCRC was invaluable, she said. “People have been asking what ‘success’ would mean to me here [at IAN], and I think back to there were rumors of divestment at Stanford, and the first call Hillel staff members made was to JCRC, knowing that we would say ‘How can we help you?’ ” she recalled. “It’s about being the nucleus of the community. Being the first responder, providing that service when people need us.”
While the move is an adjustment, she’s nothing but excited at the prospect of taking that attitude into a whole new project and watching it grow. As part of a five-person team drawn from diverse backgrounds, she’s eager to work with those bringing a fresh perspective to advocacy efforts.