The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) has long provided one of precious few forums for Jews from across the political and religious spectrum to come together and debate the great issues of the day. But at last week's JCPA plenum in Washington, there was a palpable chill when it came to debate on some controversial issues.
Liberal activists were whispering to each other: don't make waves. Don't press your causes too hard. It could complicate things for a JCPA leadership that is trying to protect itself from the wrath of big communal givers who complain the agency is too willing to wade into controversial social issues, too liberal and too willing to challenge Bush administration policies.
And therein lies an important story about changing patterns of Jewish leadership that threaten to widen the gap between a wealthy elite and the people they ostensibly represent.
It would be a wild exaggeration to say the lay leaders of Jewish groups were ever perfect mirrors of the community.
When Jews were crowded into teaming slums a century ago, their leaders were mostly members of a western European elite that sometimes had scorn for the immigrant masses.
When Jews became mostly middle class, communal leadership still tended to favor the wealthy -- those with the luxury of time and the money to make a difference as organizations expanded their reach.
But activism still meant more than just writing checks; Jewish leaders were expected to put in their time doing the work of the organizations they hoped to eventually lead.
The model for that brand of lay leadership was Baltimore's Shoshana Cardin. When she became chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in 1991, she had a thick resume that included leadership posts with a number of Jewish organizations and a solid record as an activist -- stress the root "active."
Cardin and many others like her may not have been "typical" American Jews, but their long, hands-on involvement offered an organic connection to the community and its concerns.
But in recent years, the balance has shifted in favor of a new breed of leader: hugely wealthy, generous on a breathtaking scale but without the long years of activism in the trenches.
Many start right at the top on the leadership ladder, thanks to their huge donations. And the new Golden Rule of Jewish organizations is this: the one with the gold rules.
The dependence of Jewish groups on their generosity is growing because many organizations are not investing precious resources in expanding their donor base; better to cultivate a few wealthy benefactors than to go in search of an unknown quantity of small givers.
And these leaders, more often than not, are determined to stamp their personal political agendas on the groups they support -- agendas that may be out of step with the average Jewish voter and even the rank and file of their own organizations.
Ask a sample of Jewish social service professional about Social Security reform; many will express great anxiety about the Bush administration's partial privatization plan but also frustration that their groups are not speaking out because of the influence of top lay leaders who support the administration.
At JCPA, a resolution on the proposed Senate rule change to bar Democrats from filibustering judicial nominations was withdrawn despite widespread support among delegates. The reason: fears that such a position would anger the generally conservative and Republican communal big givers who influence the organization's fate.
Jewish groups have been largely unwilling to directly challenge the Bush administration's big tax cuts despite the belief among many professionals that they will result in devastating cuts in social and health programs. Again, it's the fear of offending or even losing big donors, not a decision on the merits of the issue that drives the decision.
This isn't to denigrate the contributions of those givers. On the contrary: wealthy donors have filled a critical vacuum as Jewish agencies dramatically expand services to the community while overall giving stagnates. Israel has benefited from their largess; so have Jewish day schools, social service agencies and organizations dedicated to Jewish survival.
But there are costs to their generosity.
One is a new political reticence by organizations that are forced to walk on eggshells around sensitive political issues, sometimes opting out of debates that are critical to their constituents but which conflict with the political views of the big givers.
Another is the growing estrangement of many Jews from communal life. More and more eschew Jewish organizations of all sorts; many, especially younger Jews, are pulling away from Israel, as well, as an eye-opening survey revealed last week.
One reason, some Jewish leaders say privately, is the widening gap between the public stances of major Jewish groups and the views of the Jewish majority.
JCPA has been criticized by some for being too liberal, but its record is generally one that reflects the American Jewish majority, while giving voice to dissenting opinions.
If that function is impaired because of the growing dependence on small elites of mega-givers, the community will be the worse for it.
And if you think it's a problem confined to JCPA, think again.