Monday, January 21, 2002

How Many Tables Please?

Since I was somehow involved in its creation, it was good to get an invitation to the 25th Anniversary Dinner of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, scheduled for February 27 at the Plaza. The accompanying “Dear Marvin” letter had the specimen signatures of eight past presidents of the JCRC, all people of distinction, and it concluded, “We look forward to speaking with you about your important contribution to this worthwhile cause.”

Except for money, the JCRC is not interested in my contribution or anyone else’s. In any case, I made an important contribution to the cause long ago and it was ignored and forgotten long ago. JCRC has embraced an elitism that is, to be generous, unbecoming for an agency that purports to represent Jews around the city. Although it has some good people on staff and some useful accomplishments, by being Manhattan-based in as extreme a manner as can be imagined and by confusing fame and wealth with Jewish leadership, JCRC has distanced itself from the mission that was central to its establishment and has violated its trust.

What’s wrong is immediately evident in the dinner invitation. For a mere $100,000, the “dinner sponsor” gets two tables for ten and the back cover of the dinner journal. Half of this amount gets the inside back cover and one table. The ordinary folks – if any show up – can have tickets at the bargain basement charge of $750 per seat. In all, the dinner is an exercise in fundraising overkill, a distortion of what charity is about or for. The JCRC does not need or deserve the funds that it is soliciting.

When New York Jews first established a community council or the Kehillah in the early years of the last century, Dr. Judah Magnes who was its key leader insisted on the inclusion in a significant way of Lower East Side Jews. He did not want the group to be the exclusive province of uptown, affluent Jews. The Kehillah eventually ran out of steam about 1920 and for a half-century there was no Jewish coordinating council in New York, an anomaly in view of the existence of such agencies in nearly every city in the country with a modest-sized Jewish community.

In the early 1970’s, I suggested to Jack Weiler of blessed memory that he convene an ad hoc group of New York Jewish leaders to meet as necessary to deal with issues of importance to the city’s Jews. The group always met in Mr. Weiler’s office and it had an impact. While I preferred a continuation of this arrangement, in line with my lifelong view of organizational life, others understandably felt that a full-fledged council was needed and so the JCRC came into being.

Mr. Weiler was its principal founder and its major funder. In the more than twenty years of our close friendship, he spoke often of the necessity to avoid an elitist orientation. He wanted a body that would give prominence to those who worked in the community and particularly staff members of local Jewish agencies and not to people whose main claim was their wealth and fame. As one illustration of this feeling, he made a significant gift to allow the JCRC to give recognition and monetary awards to local activists. In the early years of the JCRC, there were, I believe, two modest ceremonies that fulfilled his wishes but there has not been any follow-up since.

What happened with the funds provided by Mr. Weiler remains a mystery. When the JCRC honors Jessica M. Bibliowicz and Rupert Murdoch at the dinner, it might find the rectitude to fulfill its moral and fiduciary obligation and the commitment it gave to Jack Weiler when it accepted his gift.

A key figure in Jewish life who has been involved in the JCRC said to me the other day that the agency is no longer relevant because it has cut itself off from the community. As I have said, there are good staff members who have struggled to keep the agency true to its mission. What is wrong emanates from the top. There is an elitist attitude that elevates celebrityship as it ignores and in a way denigrates those who work in the field.

The JCRC needs a geography lesson and maybe also a history lesson. Of the more than 25 names included in the invitation letter, only one or two live in the boroughs outside of Manhattan. What the Council does not seem to understand is that the serious issues confronting New York Jews arise in their neighborhoods, not in the major brokerage houses, Wall Street law firms, executive suites, Manhattan townhouses or Upper East Side penthouses.

What is at stake is more than propriety or JCRC’s snobbishness as it chooses its leaders, honorees, etc. Crown Heights demonstrates what can go wrong because the agency is out of touch. It is widely recognized that when the riots erupted, JCRC was asleep at the wheel. Its initial reaction was to play down, if not to ignore, the pleas of local Jews for help.

This is but the most painful example of a painful reality. Whatever the reasons for elitism elsewhere in organized American Jewish life, the Jewish Relations Council must operate differently. That was the original intention. It’s sad to see a trust so badly violated.

Of course, JCRC’s machers don’t see it this way. They’ll have some unkind words to say about me and go about their dinner with speeches extolling themselves. Doubtlessly, the event will be a financial success. But after all of the self-congratulation, what will remain of the JCRC’s legacy is another matter.

These lines are written in memory of Jack D. Weiler, a great philanthropist whose friendship and kindness I shall always cherish.