The shock waves created by recent dismissal of Michael Hirschfeld as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) continue to reverberate both locally and throughout the country as JCRC supporters worry about the future of community relations.
"The sky's not falling, but there are some very dark clouds," said Jay Tcath, chair of the National Association of JCRC Directors and head of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council.
The layoff of Hirschfeld, a respected 24-year veteran who lost his job amid a budget crunch and retrenchment at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, comes at a time when many JCRCs have fallen on tough times. Several JCRCs have seen their budgets slashed and staffs shrunk in the past year.
Locally, Hirchfeld's dismissal and what it portends for communal relations were on the minds on many Jewish activists last week. On Sept. 10, Federation President John Fishel discussed the matter with the body's executive committee. The following day, he met with JCRC lay leaders. Fishel, according to several participants, said he hoped JCRC would be stronger than ever and that eliminating the executive directorship as a full-time position only reflected the Federation's budget difficulties -- not a lack of institutional support. He also talked about JCRC on Sunday at a New Leaders' Project meeting.
Despite Fishel's attempts to calm tensions, the executive committee and JCRC meeting were contentious, participants said. At the JCRC gathering, Fishel allegedly shouted at a lay leader from the Valley who had harshly criticized him. Fishel said he thought the meetings went well overall and that he hoped the controversy has heightened community awareness about JCRC's importance and might increase participation.
Still, several community activists continue to fume. Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair, said Fishel failed to support community building during Welinsky's term and "tried to pull the rug out." He said he thought Fishel should resign or get fired for his lack of leadership. Fishel said he had no plans to quit and that he has always worked to further the JCRC agenda.
The Federation's president also said he expected JCRC to emerge stronger than ever. For instance, efforts are underway to recruit more lay people to lobby politicians to support Jewish and other causes.
"I sincerely believe that if we put our minds to it and work together we'll build on the strengths of past year," he said.
Still, Los Angeles' challenges are not unique. With organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center promoting tolerance and interethnic cooperation, some community relations committees have seen their influence wane, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Relations in San Francisco.
JCRCs appear to have also lost their direction in the past decade, said Amy Wasser-Simpson, assistant executive vice president for planning and agency relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. From the 1970s until early 1990s, they played a vital role in freeing Soviet and Ethiopian Jews and relocating them to Israel. But with resettlement efforts nearly completed, that has left a void that has yet to be filled, she said. Three months ago, Seattle eliminated a vice president's position that oversaw community relations because of budget problems.
Federations' relatively flat fundraising have added to the woes of JCRCs, which historically have spoken out on governmental policy, advocated for Israel and world Jewry and forged ties with other minority groups. Since most JCRCs receive the bulk of their funding from federations, their financial problems have hammered JCRCs' bottom-line, said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for the nation's 123 community relations councils.
"When there's fewer dollars in the field, there's worry that [JCRCs] can be given short shrift," she said.
That's already happening. In Philadelphia, that city's JCRC has seen its annual budget decline to $525,000 this year, a nearly 14 percent drop since 2000. That led to the layoffs of two JCRC employees last year. Another three community relations staff members quit in protest after the local Federation announced plans to absorb the JCRC by 2004. Now, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia has four full-time staff members, down from nine just a year ago, JCRC executive director Burt Siegel said. More layoffs are possible.
Even recently revived JCRCs are struggling. Trudi Licht became director of the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and Desert Area with the mandate to grow the moribund committee. Three years later, she has no board of directors, subcommittees or steady community participation. She blames apathy among retirees and the high number of "snowbirds" who flee during the summer for the lack of JCRC support. Still, Licht feels frustrated.
"I'm trying, but it's not happening," said Licht, who also heads the Women's Division Campaign.
Some JCRCs have fared well. The Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco has 14 full-time and six part-time employees, making it one of the largest in the country. It even added a security consultant to work with synagogues and Jewish agencies to prevent terror attacks, Executive Director Doug Kahn said. But reduced foundation funding has led to the Bay Area JCRC's New Leader's Project being placed on hiatus, he added.
Hirschfeld, the departed L.A. JCRC executive director, said he thought federations have erred in diminishing the importance of community relations. Far from wasting valuable resources, taking stands on political issues, building bridges with other minority groups and fighting for the downtrodden, the types of things JCRCs do, energizes people.
"I believe it's a mistake for federations to be jettisoning JCRCs," Hirschfeld said. "Oftentimes, they are the key for bringing in the next generation of Jewish leaders and donors into the federation community."