The following is a transcript of Episode 152 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Thursday, August 3rd, 2023.
Hannah Arendt has a haunting essay from the early 1940s that I go back and read pretty often. The essay is called Jewish Politics and it’s her scathing indictment of Jewish leaders in Europe for what she saw as their failure to properly mobilize Jews in Europe to respond adequately to the rise of Nazism. Arendt had advocated for a Jewish army, which would have been a stateless entity that would fight under the banner of the Allies, and she wanted Jewish communal leaders to devote their significant social and financial capital to that kind of response.
Arendt was a Zionist at the time. It’s not that she thought that the army would necessarily win, but that having an army would grant the Jewish people in Europe a sense of agency in fighting back against their enemies. Instead, Arendt watched as Jewish leaders in Europe hemmed and hawed. They hoped against hope that their relationships and their leverage would help avert the impending tragedy, and at times they even wound up cooperating with their oppressors.
Arendt saw all of this as a kind of hopeless and even immoral politics, which she calls Realpolitik. In contrast, she argued, an oppressed people, of all people, should be passionate, most of all, about democracy and justice.
Near the end of her essay, she writes, “Almost across the board, Jewish politics, to the extent that it exists at all, is run by people who have likewise grown up without ever growing powerful, worshiping power and opportunistic success. Their abhorrence for principles, their fear of betting on the wrong horse, their admiration of those who hold power on this earth and their reluctance to mobilize the energies of their own people. have cost us the deployment of a Jewish army. In the midst of the monstrous turmoil the world now finds itself in, those who are unwilling to take any risks are certain to lose everything.”
I want to separate the crux of Arendt’s philosophical argument about what Jewish politics should be from the specific idea she was advancing about a Jewish army. I have no idea whether a Jewish army would have worked or made a difference, and I think it’s besides the point. Arendt is making a more powerful argument about why Jews need politics and what those politics are supposed to look like. She’s observing that there’s a natural consequence that Jews are proximate to power, like our communal leaders who hang around in the halls of government, that they’re very likely to ultimately imitate the very power structures they’re in relationship with and maybe even to imitate their values.
In response, she actually wants Jewish politics to look really different, to be motivated by the kinds of values that would correlate to our moral commitments. Will it make for better outcomes? Who knows? But will it make us feel better about what we stand for? Will we feel a greater sense of dignity about how we stood up for our principles? I think it absolutely would.
I think about this essay a lot because I think a lot about Jewish politics and power today and I wonder whether we’re doing it right. See, power is a strange thing. It seems to me that the more you have of it, the less secure you tend to feel. Maybe that’s because you remember a time when you didn’t have it before. Maybe because you get nervous about losing it. And the popular term to express this kind of skepticism about how power operates is the phrase “the establishment,” which as far as I can tell, comes from a line in Emerson, but it only starts getting popularized in the 1950s and 60s. And it only makes sense as a kind of insult against people with power said by people without it. Nobody wants to see themselves as the establishment, whatever it means, the same way that no one wants to be “The Man,” against which thousands of rock anthems have positioned themselves.
The term “the establishment” suggests a small enclosed group of insiders with some combination of power, affluence, and influence. They’re kingmakers in one way or the other, either determining slates for party elections, or preferences among contenders, or establishing priorities for communities based on their own instincts of the community’s interests, even though their choices implicate many others. The idea of the establishment as imagined by its critics is inherently somewhat conservative, in that part of its objective seems to be to preserve and conserve power in the status quo. And the idea of the establishment makes most sense when it’s weaponized by its critics. Like Arendt did about Jewish leaders in Europe, and is as commonly used against the so-called American Jewish establishment by outsiders to that establishment here in America.
I struggle with this term as relates to the American Jewish community. On one hand, there’s no doubt a small enclosed network of organizations that control a lot of Jewish philanthropic capital, which makes them capable of advancing a set of priorities for the Jewish community without a full instrument of democratic accountability to that community. Some of those organizations are almost unabashed with their establishment-ness, such as the amazingly named Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which has two separate layers of elitism baked into one organizational title. This small network of organizations has one source of power in the ability to shape financial decisions on behalf of the Jewish community, but it also benefits from a second source of power in its proximity to power, through lobbying arms in Washington, its relationship to senior elected officials in Israel or around the world.
Because power is not always a commodity, it’s often a transaction. And so-called establishment Jewish organizations traffic in both. But on the other hand, it’s not the 1950s anymore. Back then, the American Jewish community was far more organized under the framework of these organizations because American Jewish belonging in America was far more vulnerable. We depended on organizations for belonging and for power. and for communal priorities to be navigated and negotiated on our behalf.
Now, most American Jews wouldn’t even know that there is such a thing as a Jewish Federation in their community, much less feel implicated by it or represented by it in some way. Our small and closed organizations ultimately represent a small and closed network of Jews. And while their decisions sometimes have implications on behalf of Jews in much larger ways than some of those Jews would want, I sometimes wonder whether criticism of the establishment grants a lot more power to the establishment than the establishment actually has. It’s a weird loop, actually. In order for an establishment to be powerful, it has to generate the myth of power, and a lot of that, ironically, comes from its critics.
One interesting example of this was when J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel organization, applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents. For what it’s worth, the conference itself is made up of some organizations that can properly be considered major, and a bunch that are not. Actually, one such organization quit the conference this week, and my first reaction was, is that actually a major Jewish organization? Anyway, J Street was famously denied entrance to the conference, and the conference got a lot of, what was in my opinion, deserved criticism for that decision. But at the same time, during the Obama administration, J Street wound up getting invited to the same closed-door briefings together with the leadership of the conference.
Once other Jewish organizations can compete effectively with the quote, establishment for access to the same power structures at which the establishment ostensibly represents the Jewish community and from which it derives its power, the whole idea of the establishment needs to be reinvestigated. I wrote an article a few years ago called “The Establishment Has No Clothes,” which I made this argument more transiently, we’ll link to it in the notes, that we’re better off thinking today about an influence economy for American Jews than about a system that has clear insiders and outsiders. A lot is changing around American Jewish power and politics all around us. We need a lot better guides and better language to make sense of the players and to hope that they’re representing us.
I’m talking about this and more today with one of the Jewish community’s most important insiders, Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. JFNA is an American Jewish umbrella organization for the Jewish Federation System, representing over 350 independent Jewish communities across North America that raise and distribute over $1 billion annually through planned giving and endowment programs as well to support social welfare, social services, and educational needs for the American Jewish community. Eric was previously CEO of Hillel International following a successful career in the public sector, both in higher education as well as a member of the United States House of Representatives for Ohio’s 19th Congressional District. He’s also the host of a new podcast called The Glue.
I wanted to talk to Eric about a whole set of American Jewish concerns right now and what it means to represent the Jewish community and to lead on those issues, but also, more generally, his take on how Jewish power and politics work right now in the Jewish community and how they should.
So, Eric. Thank you for being on the show today. Thank you for listening to me riff on Hannah Arendt. Let me start, if I can, in a complicated place. We’ll go to the hard question first, and then we’ll kind of walk back to the process. This has been a really hard summer for not only the state of Israel, but for Jewish communal leaders trying to figure out how to be in relationship to Israel and how to represent our community. JFNA, the organization that you lead, was very supportive of negotiations between the parties around judicial reform under the auspices of the president of Israel, President Herzog, offered a statement this past week after the reasonableness clause legislation passed in Israel, which was a kind of, I would say, tempered criticism that the Israeli government should not continue to move forward, which is unusual. Can you talk a little bit about the place that you found yourself in as a leader and how the Federation system is negotiating this moment of, on one hand, standing, as it historically has, with the state of Israel and the people of Israel, and on the other hand trying to find a place of some amount of criticism relative to the political processes that’s unfolding.
Eric: Sure. And Yehuda, thanks for having me. It’s really an honor and a privilege to be on your podcast and be in conversation with you. And I hope we’ll have a chance to discuss some of the comments and thoughts you offered in your opening monologue.
It’s a very complicated time, as you suggest. And of course, even though it’s easy to lump all you know, major Jewish organizations together as part of the establishment. We, of course, each are very different and have different missions and different goals and people that we represent. You know, the mission of the Jewish Federation system, each Jewish Federation in its own community is to build a strong and flourishing and sustainable Jewish community. What’s healthy, safe, you know, caring, educated, engaged, etc.
But what’s unique about the Jewish Federation system and always has been is that part of that sense of what makes each community a successful Jewish community is that it has to be connected to Israel and the global Jewish people. And not just through my office, right? But that they should feel directly connected. Because we think that’s part of what makes you a vibrant Jewish community in the diaspora today, is to be connected. Indeed, there’s actually very few criteria for a federation to belong to the Jewish Federations of North America umbrella. One of those very few is that a minimum of 10% of our annual campaigns are given to some global or Israel-related Jewish cause.
So this is a very important principle for us. So when we approach this question we approach it as people who for a century have been involved in the project of building the state of Israel and also supporting it in America, making the case and raising funds to send our kids to Israel and advocating for Israel and ourselves, sending our leadership to Israel. You know, we just had our General Assembly there on the 75th anniversary of Israel. So that’s the frame that we approach this. And of course, the baseline is everything we’ve said or thought during this time began with our support for Israel’s unconditional and unbreakable, no matter what happens.
And by the way, that gets criticism, as you can imagine, Yehuda, because people say, really? What if it’s really undemocratic? Or what if they become a total theocracy and exclude people who don’t practice a certain way? But that’s our baseline, right, is that. And then, I’ll be really very transparent and say to you that we started our thinking about this from the perspective of trying to help make sure that Israeli leaders, many of them in the new government who have very little experience and knowledge of the diaspora, new to major government positions, as you know, that they understood the impact of what they were doing and saying on our communities. Because that impact was very dramatic.
The original package of bills included, for example, we lifted out the issue of the override, right? That 61 votes of the Knesset could override a decision of the Supreme Court. And there were actually those in Israel who were saying, well, this makes us more democratic, right? Because we won the election. We get to decide. And we really felt an obligation to explain to them why, certainly in the American context, that would be the opposite, right, the opposite would be the case. That would be viewed as a destruction of democracy. And so we started that way. But then the more we were engaged, Yehuda, the more it just became clear that Israel was really tearing itself apart over this and that these social divisions were real. And so what I think started surfacing even more was our love of Israel and our stake in having helped build the state of Israel and our desire to not see it destroy itself from within. And of course, that’s why we began to really emphasize negotiations.
And as it happens, as you probably know, not only do many people have a great respect for president Herzog, but we happen to have a special relationship with him because prior to becoming president, he was the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is a major partner of the Jewish Federation system. So many of us have this very close affinity. And when he stepped in and began his attempts to lead negotiations and to mediate, that became a place where we really very much wanted to support him on that. And felt that there was middle ground. There is certainly always a case. There’s a case for some reforms. We’re not in the camp of not understanding what the case is.
I’ll make one last comment about this week because you referenced our statement about the reasonableness bill. That in addition to being disappointed that there wasn’t consensus, you know, look, I was in the legislature, as you mentioned on your very nice brief bio of me that, I was in Congress, I also served 10 years in the state legislature. So I do kind of think like a legislator. And I know that often deals come together at the last minute, right? It’s a deadline that forces people to compromise. And there was that last-minute flurry of negotiations and the Jewish People’s Policy Institute, which is another organization that the Federation system has long supported in Israel led by Professor Yedidia Stern now, who’s a very thoughtful scholar on this subject, was actually asked, you remember the Histadrut, the Labor Federation got involved in seeking compromise. It was Professor Stern who actually wrote their draft compromise. And as far as we knew, there was a lot of support for that compromise on both sides, including by the opposition leaders, Lapid and Gantz. And we were very hopeful that that was going to happen. And then at the last minute, it appears to us based on everything we can tell that it was the more extreme factions within the current government coalition that rejected that. And so we were particularly disappointed that what felt like it could have been a moment of compromise was rejected.
Yehuda: So I was fascinated actually what you said at the beginning where you kind of laid out the ways that Israel constitutes a core principle, a core commitment of JFNA. And you said, you know, someone might ask, really? And I want to ask that question. Really?
Yehuda: I really want to ask, like, why? And it’s not because I oppose that as a principle, obviously. But someone might look back at 100 years ago and the founding of the first federations in North America and say, these were effectively ways for the Jewish community to function more effectively locally in a diaspora context, right? Let’s have one central entity that can raise money on behalf of the community, one central entity that can care for the social safety net for the most vulnerable who no particular organization will necessarily take responsibility for, one community organization that can stay away from the political in order to assure, to ensure the kind of collective thriving of us Jews locally.
And the choice to center as a key principle, support for the state of Israel, not only feels like a shift away from that, and maybe you can tell me I’m totally wrong on the history, not only feels like a shift away from it, but it pulls you almost by definition into much more of the very politics that make it harder to be the shared organizing principle for a local Jewish community. So can you, so my real question is really
Eric: It’s a, it’s a fair question, especially since I even suggested it. And I do think that it comes back to our sense of what it means to be a thriving, flourishing Jewish community. You’re quite right that our essential commitment is to make sure that the health and social service and education needs, security now, of course, major area of investment, community relations, government relations, all of these things, that these are managed effectively on behalf of the community. And by the way, you know, when you’re opening to two things, you described us as part of a closed network, you know, we’re, I don’t see it that way at all. The, you know, we may not elect our leaders through a, you know, an election in the community, but, you know, de facto tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of donors are making, you know, their commitments.
By the way, the actual total now going into Jewish communal life is close to 2 billion when you add $1.2 billion in annual campaigns plus what comes out of donor advice funds and endowment funds into the Jewish community. And, you know, that’s like the core infrastructure of every school, every JCC, the baseline
Yehuda: Yep. Every synagogue.
Eric: On which everything starts. But yet, and certainly had either of us lived at the time, the coming out of World War II, the time period between World War I and World War II was a time of massive assimilation into American life of these millions of immigrants who came primarily from Eastern Europe. And so you had a huge emphasis on social integration. You also still had, remember, I was talking to somebody about this the other day, we built Jewish hospitals, right? Because doctors couldn’t practice in the mainstream hospitals. And then now we don’t need those anymore. Then we built Jewish nursing homes, right? Because people, you know, you couldn’t in a nursing home context get, you know, the kosher food in the Jewish life. And now, and now that’s starting to, you know, to wane and other priorities are replacing.
So, so that was the primary context. But, you know, coming after World War II, when the Jewish community mobilized through organizations like the Joint, which of course has always received, you know, overwhelmingly significant unrestricted support, you know, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the support of the Jewish Federation system and of course the Jewish agency. This collection of the remnants of Jews from Europe, from around the world, and bringing them both to Israel and to America and as you know well and I’m sure you’ve talked about many times, the sort of consolidation of the American Jewish community from disparate opinions to ultimately around the idea of Zionism and Israel as a Jewish state. And it being the sort of a rock and, you know, an essential nature of assuring that the Jewish people never again find themselves in a position of vulnerability such as, you know, occurred in Europe in World War II, that, you know, our communities completely embraced that notion and therefore, it became an essential idea that for us to be really caring for all the needs of our Jewish community, we are connected to the broader Jewish people.
After all, why do we care about our Jewish community if we’re not part of the broader Jewish mission all the way from Sinai? And that today means being connected to one of the most significant Jewish projects in the entire history of our people, and that’s the state of Israel. So it is, it’s never about because we want to be involved in the politics of the state of Israel. It’s because we believe in the essentialness. For most of the 75 years that the state of Israel has existed, it’s not been a controversial subject. We haven’t been. drawn into politics. Of course, there have been moments, I’m sure, when this person or that person got elected in Israel or where, and of course, we’ve had challenges on specific issues like religious pluralism as reflected perhaps in the Kotel discussion or some of the conversion discussions, et cetera. But mostly, it’s been a unifying theme that makes it feel complete.
And that’s why, back to your original, why you brought this up, you know, we were enormously careful this summer and our default and our instinct is to not be, you know, not be commenting or involving ourselves in this conversation. But there was something about it, Yehuda, that clearly felt to us and coming from our communities and the feedback we were receiving that this felt, you know, really important and challenging and that the Jewish community that we represent felt they wanted their voices, their opinions communicated.
And by the way, one of the things you know that we did was we actually brought communal leaders from, I think it was over 25 or 30 communities we represent, top leaders, board chairs, CEOs, et cetera, to Jerusalem, to the Knesset, in the heat, like in some of the hottest days of this and met with all the top people involved on both sides of the issue, because we were wanting them to see directly that this is the view of New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Atlanta and, you know, et cetera, Cleveland and Detroit, and not just me sitting on the top of, who looks like, you know, just one of these CEOs who sits at the conference of presidents table, you know, that kind of thing.
Yehuda: Right. And what’s been so powerful about the last couple of months is that there has been a huge breakthrough among Israelis in terms of their openness and receptivity to the voices and the participation of American Jews right now in ways that I haven’t ever seen. I remember for so many years it was like kind of support us but stay out. Except on the political extremes where they wanted to leverage American Jews for philanthropic support or political support in one way or the other and I see a much more kind of mainstream embrace of yeah, American Jews should get involved and be passionate about this.
Eric: Yeah, I can affirm that. I expected to hear that a lot more when we’ve made our visits on this issue and really haven’t heard it at all, even from those who disagreed with what we were saying. They listened respectfully and understood why it was having an impact on us. And I also have seen, and I’m sure you’ve seen this too, that both sides have more affirmatively reached out to the American Jewish community for alliances and support of their position.
As you know, we had our General Assembly in Israel. It happened to be right in the middle of this very controversial period. But of course, we had planned it years ago, right? The idea was to be in Israel on Yom Haatzmaut on the 75th, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Haatzmaut. So it’s not like we planned it to be there, but, but as it turns out, we were there. And so what actually happened was the opposition, knowing that the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America was going to be there, really saw us as a place where they could make their case to the American Jewish community. And so they really organized protests and they organized people to sign up to come inside. They had people greeting our delegates at the airport. They knew what hotels people were staying at and were at the hotels handing out leaflets.
By the way, I’d say 95% of it was very respectful and open and really seeking dialogue.
We had, you know, a couple of sessions that people were clanging drums and disrupting inside the hall, which was unfortunate and doesn’t help the case, I don’t think, in any way. It wasn’t just that they listened to us respectfully, they literally did want American Jewish community to know what was going on and to get involved.
Yehuda: Yeah. So what would you say then to those who would argue, and I think I kind of am on this, although I’m actually more sympathetic than it might appear to organizations staying in their lanes, right? Like I get it, right? The carefulness of we need to represent the broad mainstream of the Jewish community. We have to be able to do our core work, and therefore we have to be cautious. I totally understand it.
What would you say though to the argument that would say, it’s not just tempered criticism right now. It’s not just nudging to the negotiation table, that this is actually a moment for it’s not just that we care about the preservation of liberal democracy in Israel as a kind of small feature of our Zionism, but that it’s actually in a critical nature of what we’ve been trying to build as American Jews when we’ve been supportive of Israel, precisely because we, more than anyone else in the world, have seen the ways that liberal democracy has helped us in America. We have learned this lesson by virtue of the fact that we are the minorities here and therefore we need to be much more full-throated even to be part of the opposition in Israel in a moment like this, even if the long-term risk that comes from being much more partisan right now as it relates to Israel is that it will damage our ability in the future to work together with the people who are currently in the coalition.
Eric: Yeah. So first of all, I hear that, I understand it, and I hear it from many people. And also, if you’ll allow me to just once again, just say a little bit how our organization is different than some of the other major Jewish organizations, which is, we weren’t formed to coalesce around the advocacy of a particular political issue like ADL on anti-Semitism or AJC on global affairs or whatever it might be. It is part of our goal to be inclusive of the broadest range possible of the Jewish community, both so they’ll support the needs of the community, and that we can then act collectively.
So I am absolutely hearing from and listening to a wide range of voices all the time on these issues, as are my colleagues who are leading each community, who are striving to keep everybody in the tent who have different opinions. So for sure, Yehuda, one of the opinions that we hear all the time is, this is an existential moment and therefore the times are different. That’s why, for example, if I meet with an official and I’m being criticized, normally we understand why you meet with people, but now you shouldn’t. Now it’s different. This is different. And so, you know, my response is twofold.
One is, I do absolutely see how if the entire agenda that was originally proposed, you know, were adopted, that it would be that kind of existential moment for, you know, Israel as a Jewish democratic state, which is why we, you know, which is why we leaned in at all. But then what is the most effective way for us, as a Jewish Federation system, to communicate that, that has to be, you made the comment about staying in your lane, it also has to be in accordance with the tone and tenor and the approach of an organization for us to try to sound like an organization that has a different approach.
And so one of the things I just say and I hear this every day and I hope I respond respectfully is, you know, there’s different organizations responding in accordance with their approach. And I believe it’s the collection of all of those approaches and all of those responses that have actually had some success. I mean, if you look at where we are today, it’s a very different place than where the government coalition wanted to be three weeks or six weeks into their term.
Yehuda: So one of the things that’s interesting and differentiating about federations, as you’ve been mentioning, is that you are not, it’s not a fully democratic, but much more of a representative system of American Jews and many other organizations of the alphabet soup of organizations that can only be described as representing the stakeholders who choose to opt in. Federations by their definition.
Yehuda: So how do you do that? I mean, what does that look like? I mean, very technically for you as a leader of this movement and the system, how do you stay attuned to what the stakeholders of American Judaism who are connected to the Federation system, which is a vast number of people in totally different Jewish communities with different professional leaders, how do you do that so that when you do speak to public officials and can be seen as representing a critical mass of the American Jewish community, you’re doing so in ways that both honor your own expertise, as a person who has opinions and a track record and credibility, but also honoring the fact that people want to feel as though you’re representing their views
Eric: Yeah. Well, look, as a former political elected official, you know, representation is never perfect, even if you’re the product of an election, right? So the leaders in our communities do the very best they possibly can to be in touch with every piece of the Jewish community, as well as, of course, you know, through their community relations and government relations efforts to be in touch with the non-Jewish community as well. And to reflect those. And then we do our very best as a Jewish Federation system to provide as many forms as possible to coalesce those views.
So that’s why we have so many conferences and gatherings of all kinds. It’s also why you can make fun of all of our committees, but we do have a public affairs committee that every year is surveying every Federation as to what our government affairs agenda should be in Washington, DC or in state capitals. Our overseas committee is representative of all of our federations. So we’re always trying to take those soundings.
Then on things like this, you reference the statement about the passage of the reasonableness clause. We actually have a process for that, for making formal statements. It involves a committee that is representative of large cities and small cities and professionals and lay leaders. And then my wonderful talented communications people usually offer what they think is an opening draft with two or three options, small, medium, and large or warm, hot, cold. And we decide as a system on those things. By the time that I’m in front of a public official, whether it’s in America or in Israel, I do hope that I do have a strong sense of what our community needs and wants and believes.
Obviously, you have to react quickly to emergencies and crises, and that’s where I also hope I fall back on, who are we, what are we trying to accomplish? And as I said at the top of this discussion, what we’re trying to do is build these strong and sustainable and flourishing Jewish communities, both at home and through our collective contributions to the Jewish people. And so that’s always front and center. Does whatever it is we’re being called upon to comment on or to become involved in, is that a critical element for us to be able to achieve our mission?
Yehuda: Do you ever feel that it holds you back? I mean, there was this amazing statement that Abe Foxman said 15 years ago. I couldn’t believe he said it on the record where he had been, he was talking about some issue, I don’t remember what it was, and the reporter said to him, you know, the vast majority of American Jews disagree with your position on this issue. And he said the vast majority of them are ignorant. It was amazing. So I’m wondering whether, what,
Eric: Well, that’s Abe.
Yehuda: I know, but I love that. I love that. I loved how honest it was. I wonder whether sometimes you feel like you know what actually the Jewish community’s position on something should be, and the process of having to source all of this stuff from different people is gonna not only be slow, but it might be wrong. I’m curious what that feels like.
Eric: Yeah, you know, it’s look, you could look at it as slowing you down or, or look at it as I do as the process of being, you know, ultimately being effective. Again, if I can go back to the fact that I was in politics, I was in the legislature, passing a bill is never easy. It wasn’t intended to be easy, right? Every time somebody tells me, why, the American government is so broken, we can’t get anything done. Well, it was designed to be hard, to force to form consensus. I won’t send us all back to our ninth-grade civics classes, but we all understand, the goal was to not make it easy to do things. And so that’s number one.
The other thing that I want to say is, and this is if I could just be personal for a second, look, this is the third time that I’ve been the CEO of a large decentralized establishment to use the word you used in the opening organization. I was chancellor of the public university system in Ohio, which had 16 public universities, 23 community colleges, 650,000 students altogether. There’s nothing more decentralized than a single university with all its departments and schools, let alone an entire university system. And then of course Hillel has 600 Hillels from the largest, the University of Florida or Ohio State or Michigan to Oberlins and Wellesleys of the world, and now of course the Jewish Federation system.
So you might say I’m either a glutton for punishment, which might be, or the way I look at it, if your goal in life is to make an impact on the world in which you live, which has always been your mind to be in a position to be able to be impactful in the work I do, you can start a new company in your garage and maybe you know, you’ll be as lucky Steve Jobs and or as talented and end up changing the world, you know, from your garage. And that’s, that’s certainly one way to change the world.
But these large institutional entities have unbelievable reach, capacity, and opportunity. And so to be the leader of an organization that has such a reach and such depth and such capacity and to mobilize that, to rev up that engine, to address as we did with COVID, for example, or as we did with Ukraine relief. This is the first time in the history of the world that a war in Europe, which affected Jews, and every single Jew that needed help was helped. We learned the lessons of the past and we mobilized ourselves. So I find that enormously rewarding. And ultimately, the ability to make an impact through an organization, even if it means that you’ve got to listen to leaders, professionally, and 146 communities, the ability to make an impact once you do that listening and you mobilize and coalesce around a common objective and you tackle that objective together, there’s nothing more powerful in the world than seeing that kind of response.
Yehuda: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the public and the private nature of the work. There was an interesting controversy a couple of months ago where a number of organizations, JFNA among them, were part of a kind of wall-to-wall refusal by American Jewish organizations to meet with Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party when he was in America, largely in response to his most recent outrageous comments, which had been right after the pogrom in Huwara, where he had said we should wipe Huwara off the map.
And I, with, you know, many Jewish organizations, almost all of them with a handful of exceptions, said we won’t meet with you in public. JFNA, it was later revealed, met with Smotrich privately. For what it’s worth, Eric, I agreed with that decision. We take the same approach here at the Institute. We’ll talk to anybody privately. If you refuse to talk to people, you’re engaging in a kind of anti-normalization that everybody loses from, but there are important symbolic activities, including denying somebody the photo op that goes into Israeli newspapers, that actually matters in some way.
So this isn’t a criticism, this is,
Eric: No, I appreciate it.
Yehuda: I actually agree, but it was a window into something that I think is probably a much bigger part of this work than is visible, which is how much of the work is about the kind of public stuff, the visible meetings, the statements that you put out, major policy decisions that are being undertaken. What’s the relative size of the iceberg that’s not visible which is relational, negotiated, quiet, and so forth.
Eric: It’s a great question. First of all, if I could just say one thing about the meeting with Smotrich, with Finance Minister Smotrich, first of all, it was just me. It wasn’t JFNA writ large. I made the decision to do that because once again, reflecting back on the earlier conversation we had about the judicial reform issues, it happened to come at a particular boiling point in, you know, I don’t remember the exact moment, but it was it was a hot moment. And I remember thinking to myself, there’s probably only three or four people in Israeli politics who could stop this right now.
Simcha Rothman, if I’m not mistaken, is a member of Smotrich’s party, you know, and so I just felt that if I didn’t make that appeal, then I wasn’t doing my job. And so I sat across from him in a very, very private setting and said exactly that. I said, this is tearing apart the Jewish people, not only in Israel, but in every one of our communities. It’s tearing apart our communities. And there’s only a few people who could say, I’m gonna put the unity of the Jewish people ahead of whatever it is, the agenda that I’m trying to pass legislatively and you’re one of them. And I appealed on him to do it and obviously it didn’t succeed, but I don’t regret trying to do that.
On the iceberg, it’s such a great question, but what’s below the water level is actually different than I think what you’re implying in your question. The tip of the iceberg is the amount of time spent on statements and politics and stuff like that. And it gets all the attention.
So I mean, I have people say to me, why are you spending all your time on this government of Israel thing? And of course, not at all true. But I know that’s what they see because we all refresh the same four apps on our phones all day long. The first thing that gets published is whenever there’s an instance, a Jewish organizations react, right? And then they list every single organization, their statements.
So what’s below it to us, below the water level, is the work of the Jewish Federation system. The work of taking care of our community, of sending our kids to camp, of sending them to Israel, of making sure there’s programs for seniors. And I think you know I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and subsequently then lived in Columbus, Ohio and now my family is in Washington, D.C. My mother was 97, she passed away about a year and a half ago, we obviously miss her deeply, but in the last year of her life she just wanted to live at home. That’s all she wanted to do. In the last few months, my sisters and I were not living in Cleveland. And we came back as much as we could, but it was the Jewish Family Service of Cleveland, Ohio, of which the single largest contributor has always been the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Ohio. They’re like, literally was checking in on my mother for me. So that’s what’s below the water line. And that’s what is the iceberg. And my best hope is that the political issues that people get upset about or either they’re happy, we said something and they’re not happy, that they’ll see that really is just a tiny piece and that the core of the work is caring for our communities. And even the reason we made a statement at all is because of the deep connection and care we have for Israel and the Jewish people around the world.
Yehuda: So it feels to me that agenda, which I also find very moving, that if no one else is going to care for aging and poor Holocaust survivors other than the Federation system at the end of the day, no one else is going to hold up Jewish vocational services and Jewish family services, in some ways the least sexy organizations on the planet. They don’t have high youth engagement numbers, right? It seems to me that there are two forces at work that are pushing really hard against that system and its sustainability.
One is the changing donor culture of the sexy, shiny thing. Give me short-term returns. Show me why somebody is excited about Judaism on the other end. And these types of organizations, they may not be fancy. They’re just doing the kind of work that no one else seems to want to do. That feels to me like a huge trend that has hit these institutions for a long time.
And the second does feel to me like the political climate, which also, number one, draws dollars out of C-3 into C-4 type giving, and also makes people believe that the way that we’re supposed to care about justice in the world is through structural and systems change as opposed to basically caring for the needy. And the fact that federations as well as other organizations have to traffic in the political also, it, sometimes it’s Israel, sometimes it’s Ukraine, sometimes it’s abortion access, sometimes it’s an insurrection. Like, since you have to be in that business, you’re also playing into a shift away in the mindset of a stakeholder group from what’s the work supposed to be. So how does that continue to become a priority and avoid these, what feel like existential traps of where donor attention and donor money might go?
Eric: Well, this very much, I do think, is my job and my responsibility, as well as that of my colleagues who lead each of these amazing federations in their communities. And it’s not easy, and it could be fair to criticize me for any particular decision that maybe went too far one way or the other. The good news is I have a lot of experience at this because I did it in politics and I did it in Hillel. And now doing it for four years, you know, in this world. So hopefully I don’t remember one of my mentors, who’s also a wonderful philanthropist, said, you know, it’s okay to make mistakes. Just don’t make too many.
Yehuda: Great advice.
Eric: I said, okay. Great advice.
So, you know, I’m sure we make mistakes, but I do think that we realize at its core that we have that political change is not our arena, right? That’s not why we exist. And though we end up having to be involved in it because of certain crises or certain issues that do affect us and that we have no choice, but that we always have to remember that’s not the place where ultimately we succeed or fail in building the flourishing communities that we care so deeply about, Jewish communities.
So I think we approach it with great care. And when we do things like we’re going to have a Washington conference and lobbying, we have an advocacy corps, that’s around security funding and then the Holocaust – Congress just doubled the funding for Holocaust survivors as you, you know, thanks to the advocacy work of the Jewish Federation system. So we’re in politics, but hopefully aligned with our goals and we don’t stray too much into the justice world. I try to be as clear as we can about, people can be involved with more than one organization and more than one, it’s not an either/or. You should be, if you care deeply about abortion rights, for example, and that is that you just feel at this moment you need to devote a significant amount of your time and attention to that, my friend Sheila Katz, my former colleague from Hillel and dear friend who’s the head of NCJW, is, I’ll give you her number, you know.
I actually had a colleague from a federation I won’t name, call me and said that a major donor of theirs who has always been a big supporter of our Israel partnerships like the Jewish Agency, global partnerships like JSC, et cetera, really wanted to give to support the protests in Israel and wanted us to do that and was calling me and saying, you know, what should I do? And I said, well, we’re not going to do that. let’s give her the three, four names and phone numbers of the people that they should.
So I’m very comfortable that this is not a zero-sum game, but I do believe, and this is back to your, this is now to the first half of your two-part framework, that I do believe that it is our job, even if it’s out of fashion at a moment, or even if it’s slightly countercultural. keep talking about community as the essential building block of Jewish life.
I’m always struck by the Koren Siddur that has Rabbi Sacks’ beautiful commentary. If you open that one, and under the Barchu, there’s a comment where he talks about, this is the moment at which we bring the community to order. And basically, wherever there are 10 people, the community has now formed. And his last line, which I quote often is, “The community is the microcosm of the nation,” you know, of the people. So we really do believe in community. We believe that everyone has a responsibility to community. We believe we have a responsibility to teach that.
One of the things, I used to say this at Hillel and I say this to Federation execs all the time and professionals is, no one is born with a gene in their body that tells them how the Jewish community functions day to day, right? We have to teach it and every year there’s new people, we have to teach it to it over and over again. So we view that as part of our responsibility. And I will say though that as you certainly have noticed, there are some moments where it’s easier to talk about the need for communal action and collective action than others.
And the last couple of years have actually leaned into that between COVID and Ukraine and security and even the response to the George Floyd murder and the social unrest that followed that. And so I think it’s been a little bit easier under these last few years than perhaps when times are just, you’re living in a time when there’s no sense of communal crisis to remind people why collective action is powerful and why they should, in addition to whatever else they support, that one of the things they should support is the communal priorities.
Yehuda: So the nice thing, the flip side of that Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks is that there are moments when you call the community together, which also helps you remember that most of the time it’s okay that they’re not, right? That, you know, okay, we may be around the same room, but this person’s talking in the back and this person’s out in the hall. And that’s also part of the normal reality. Cause if you spent all of your time constantly mobilizing community to be under one voice, it would feel tyrannical and hegemonic and would feel uncomfortable. So like, that’s okay, right?
Eric: And if you’re a Jewish community organization, you think you could even do that,
Yehuda: I know, it would be a nightmare.
Eric: Then you’re probably…
Yehuda: Right, but I really liked what you said about National Council of Jewish Women, because I think that it goes to the tension that I was introducing at the beginning around the perception by critics that there’s some organized establishment. And what you’re basically saying is there isn’t, there are a number of different organizations, some larger, some smaller, that have their priorities, but that what we really need to start doing is thinking less about an establishment and much more about an ecosystem. So that, here’s what JFNA does. They’re not going to do everything that you care about, and it’s going to be frustrating to you sometimes that they don’t speak exactly on the issues that you want them to speak about with the tone that you want them to speak about. But the reason they’re doing so is so that they can do x, y, and z. And by the way, we can do a little bit of a wink and a nod. There’s an organization over there that’s doing a, b, and c.
But it’s, what’s hard about that right now is that we’re in an open and competitive marketplace. So it incentivizes a lot of organizations to say, I need to get as many people as possible under my umbrella so I’m gonna compete for their attention by addressing as many issues as possible that they’re getting to. So how do you get to that kind of ecosystemic thinking that would actually allow you to do the work that you think the federations need to do and not to feel distracted by these other competing objectives?
Eric: Well, first of all, your example, we actually do talk to each other
Yehuda: I’m sure.
Eric: among Jewish community leaders. Many of us have worked together in different settings. I mentioned Sheila because we were colleagues at Hillel and then each went on to the respective roles we’re in now. But the same is true of, I’ve known Ted Deutsch from politics and I’ve known William from politics in Ohio. And so we do know each other and we try to stay in touch. But yeah, look, I think we live in a competitive marketplace and it’s okay. It’s okay that if we’re both, we see each other at the Jewish Funders Networks conferences and we see each other going in and out of meetings with. I see you going in and out of meetings with those same funders.
Yehuda: Well, that’s not totally what I’m talking about. I’m talking about as to the general public to be able to perceive that this is an ecosystem that’s dependent on one another. Of course, we all know all the players, right? And we like the fact that all of us are doing different things, but in ways that are kind of collaborative and sometimes filling out this picture. But we do have to help our end users understand that there’s
Eric: Well that’s, you know, I take the point. And if I didn’t understand the question, I’m sorry. But I think the, it’s hard. Right. Look, the alphabet soup of Jewish life is hard and complicated. And most people aren’t following it anywhere near as closely as we are. And, you know, I made a note during your opening monologue when you said, you know, most people don’t even know that there’s a federation in their community. And it might surprise you that, of course, we’d like more people to know. I don’t want to say that we don’t, but that’s not actually one of my metrics of success, is how many people know that the Federation did A, B, and C. It can be frustrating to a local leader or a local donor or whatever. If people don’t know, we try our best for them to know.
But what we really care about is, is the community functioning and does it have sufficient resources to do it? If it doesn’t have sufficient resources, then we’ve got a problem, which is we’re not obviously making the most compelling case to the donors that we need to make in order for them to understand why we need to do A, B, or C in a given community. But I agree. I think that for the average Jew in our community going about their business every day, raising a family, to know the difference between the various national Jewish organizations is not something I waste too much time thinking about.
Yehuda: I do have a project I’ve always wanted to do, which is just a better map. Not for the end users of every average Jew in America, but for stakeholders in the Jewish community to be able to really understand the ecosystem. Who’s talking to who? Who has overlapping areas? Who are competitors with each other? I think if we understood this as an ecosystem, less as an establishment, it would help also for us as participants in it to say, I understand what AIPAC does. I don’t agree with them on X, but I know they’re important for this reason. And I could then, as an end user, say, here’s what I get out of this organization. Here’s what I get out of that organization. They’re not driving people crazy that they’re not adhering to the same agenda.
Let me ask you one last question, you’ve been generous with your time, but you raised one other issue that I think it’d be remiss not to mention, which is the whole question of security and anti-Semitism right now. This is going to come out in a couple of weeks, but one of the items in this, obviously on the news cycle this week was the sentencing of the Pittsburgh shooter to death. That’s going to be a whole other episode, not for today. But it’s been one of the huge topics and one of the huge questions of Jewish communal leaders over the last couple of years is what’s going to keep us safe?
It feels to me that there are a lot of different hypotheses that are warring with each other. Is investing in the infrastructure of liberal democracy going to keep us safe? Is fortifying the security of our synagogues gonna keep us safe? And I’m worried that there’s a lot of theater and a lot of money associated with this agenda, but I’m not sold that we have a strategy yet. Could you share a little bit about your own thinking about this, because I’m sure it’s one of the things that keeps you up at night?
Eric: Yeah, and of course, you know, the fact that the community in Pittsburgh is going through this yet again is just so, you know, so painful. But I do think that we have to be honest and say that the shootings at the Tree of Life building were an important moment in the history that the Jewish community in Pittsburgh having had a professional security operation did actually, believe it or not, despite the just overwhelming nature of that, you know, of that tragedy, did actually mitigate it somewhat. And also that we’re nowhere near the level we need to be at, right? And that this could happen anywhere.
And then of course, you know, it was rapidly followed by somebody shot to death in Poway, at a Chabad in Poway. All the way up to the hostage-taking in Colleyville, Texas. How many people ever heard of Poway or Colleyville before, or could have put it on a map, right? So we have a very clear position on this, which is we do believe that there’s a level of communal security infrastructure that every community should have. We believe that in most cases, it’s probably only the Federation that’s able to be able to marshal the resource to make sure that communal umbrella covers every synagogue and every JCC and every Jewish Human Services Agency, et cetera. And so we’ve made a major commitment to that.
There were maybe 15 or so communities that had professionally run community security programs at the time of the shooting of the Tree of Life, which was October 2018. Today there are 93. We’re on a campaign to cover all 146 communities. We’ve had national donors who’ve been enormously generous to this because they recognize, they share the agenda. We have a campaign called Live Secure, which raises the national funds and then uses it as local matches. We also partner and help fund the Secure Community Network to help each community develop.
So this is step one for us. We’re really not conflicted about it. The bad news is, what you don’t hear every day is the sound of lives being saved because something was prevented or something didn’t happen, right? The second question is, then, we all understand that the number of incidents that become violent is the tip of the, back to your iceberg, is the tip of the iceberg and that the much deeper iceberg is the hates and the fervent going on in all aspects of society, a lot of it on social media. And what role can we or should we play in that?
And on that, I will incorporate by reference our entire conversation as to whose role is what. I mean, we’re not the ones who are going to be fighting Kanye on social media or whatever else, but we do have with our roots in every community and our historic role in what we call community relations, which is building the relations between the Jewish community and the other civic and ethnic groups in the community for mutual benefit and protection and government relations. making sure that the mayor takes our calls and the city council and the police chief and all that.
We do feel that those efforts, which maybe were used to deploy to fight quotas at a university years ago, or to open the business association, the Chamber of Commerce to Jewish businesses, is now needing to be deployed to make sure that our local school districts and our local city councils and our local business associations are not permeated by this rising tide event.
To put it another way, I referenced Kanye. It’s a problem that Kanye’s got, I don’t know, how does, he got 50 million followers, whatever it is, and there’s not likely anything we’re going to do about that. But if one of those followers is the principal of a local high school or is a member of city or is on the school board, you know, then, or the minister of the largest church in the city, then we’ve got a problem that is going to directly affect our communities and that we have both the ability and the responsibility to provide some response to. So that’s how we’ve been focusing our attention.
Yehuda: So last question, Eric, which is, I suspect that by nature of the work, you and your organization have to spend a lot of time living in the present, which is a complicated place to be. It means the present is whatever is happening in the news implicates your work. The present also means supporting organizations to visit someone else’s mother today, right? It’s not about quality of life ten years from now, it’s today.
What’s one or two trends in Jewish life that you are watching and participating and helping shape that you feel we are as a community on an upward trend about, that is shaping a different future for us as American Jews?
Eric: So thank you for this very great question to end on. I’ll mention one that I think is sort of domestic, if you will, and one that is diaspora and Israel. The one that is domestic is we are living longer, Baruch Hashem, we are healthier, and I think there’s a growing realization that I don’t know why we sort of assume that if somebody is 60 and their family is now grown or their kids are at least through college and they’ve built a successful business, maybe even getting ready to retire, that somehow they’re obviously connected to Jewish life. Right?
And of course the opposite is the case. If you look at the investment of our resources is overwhelmingly directed at college age and younger. There’s a vast opportunity for us to take advantage of and to connect to the talents and the experiences of the middle age, whatever the right level is. People who are, again, Be’ezrat Hashem, are going to have 20, 30 years of productive lives ahead of them, and it can contribute to Jewish life. So that’s something we’re very excited about.
And in some ways, look, I get questions all the time, what, young people aren’t involved in the Federation world? Well, I’m not sure young people, that’s like the thing, that’s ever, like should they be? They should be raising their kids. They should be, look, I mean, I just came to the Young Leadership Cabinet retreat, so we have an amazing core group of young people. But on a broad basis, we understand why it’s not necessarily the first thing they do.
But when you’re 60 and you’ve built a business and you’ve raised your family and you’ve benefited from everything that the community has to offer, and now you have an opportunity to give back, I think it’s a huge opportunity for us.
On the diaspora Israel side, I think, you know, I didn’t want to go off too much of a tangent when we were discussing this earlier, but one of the reasons why there’s a different attitude when you have a controversy, you know, between Israel and diaspora, in my opinion, is we’re just so much more deeply connected to each other than we’ve ever been before. First of all, there’s, depending on who you believe, numbers you count, there’s maybe a million Israelis living in America. We’re related to each other by marriage, by business, travel’s so easy, social media, instantly connected. We’re the Birthright generation, so almost a million young adults have gone to Israel, been there, had mifgash with soldiers, we’re just in a whole different place now.
My own organization, the Jewish Federation of North America Central Office, my executive vice president is Israeli. She grew up in America, but her mother is Israeli, father American, they got married in Israel, moved to America. My communications director who helped set up my appearance with you on this podcast is Israeli, but grew up in Pittsburgh. Our number two, who also worked with you, is Israeli. And I didn’t go out trying to hire Israelis for the Jewish Federation of America, so I think we’re in a whole different place. And that, I think, can provide enormous opportunities for us to think differently.
By the way, I’m even optimistic about Israeli Judaism. I love being in Israel on Shabbos and Yuntif and walking in Tel Aviv and seeing some people going to shul and some people sitting at the cafe. I know not everybody in Israel loves that. But I think there’s a model for what’s happening that actually is very hopeful for the future.
Yehuda: Well, thank you all today for listening to our show and special thanks to our guest, Eric Fingerhut.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Sarina Shohet. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative and our music is provided by Socalled.
Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what to cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or if you have comments about this episode and by the way we read all of them, please write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week and thanks for listening.