New York Jewish liberals launch new advocacy organization

Several rabbis and Democratic activists felt there was no group coordinating progressive Jewish activism in New York — so they’ve created their own

People participate in a Jewish solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020 in New York City.  (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/AFP)
People participate in a Jewish solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020 in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Several New York Jewish leaders are creating a new political group to advocate for liberal causes at the city, state and national level, with an emphasis on combatting anti-Semitism and cultivating domestic support for Israel.

The organization, called New York Jewish Agenda, was created because the founders felt there was no lobbying arm that coordinates the advocacy of progressive Jewish priorities in New York — which is home to more than 1.75 million Jews.

“The genesis arose from a sense that there is a Jewish voice that exists widely throughout New York, but that is uncoordinated,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, one of the group’s co-founders. “The mainstream liberal Jewish voice is not getting out into the public square in the way that it should.”

New York Jewish Agenda, which has not launched its website or social media accounts yet, was established by liberal rabbis and Democratic activists and politicians, including Kleinbaum, Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim, New York City Councilman Brad Lander, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler’s Chief of Staff Amy Rutkin and Matt Nosanchuk, a veteran Democratic Jewish operative and president of the organization.

The group has been two years in the making. It was not a reaction to dynamics of the 2020 presidential campaign, Kleinbaum said, in which there was a fissure between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and much of the pro-Israel establishment.

The self-proclaimed democratic socialist notably refused to attend the American Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) conference last month, saying it provided a forum for bigotry.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan (Courtesy)

“This is an idea that has been in the works for several years,” Kleinbaum said. “We are not partisan. We’re not going to be endorsing candidates.”

After the Monsey Hannukah stabbing attack last fall and a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents in New York, the founders were spurred to act quickly, she added.

Still, the group plans to lobby on behalf of a liberal voice that is supportive of Israel but not the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We’re seeking to exemplify a voice here in New York that is supportive of a democratic Israel, a two-state solution, a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Timoner said. “It’s more to bring together the Jews of New York who are supportive of Israel but who don’t necessarily support the policies of the current Israeli government.”

Most of group’s emphasis will be on local and domestic issues — which, it hopes, will distinguish it from other liberal Jewish advocacy organizations. J Street, for instance, focuses primarily on foreign policy, while the Jewish Democratic Council of America focuses mostly on Washington politics.

New York is not a small playing field for Jewish advocacy; it has the largest Jewish population in the United States.

“We felt it was important to create a new voice in New York that focuses on state and local issues, that serves as a central address for liberal Jews whose Jewish values shape their priorities, both with respect to domestic issues and with respect to their support for Israel and their commitment to combating anti-Semitism,” Timoner told The Times of Israel.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Democrat-New York) votes during a House Judiciary Committee on the articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump, December 13, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Thus far, the organization has already held virtual town halls and meetings about combating the coronavirus in New York, the current US epicenter of the outbreak. One was held with Rep. Nadler and others with officials from the state and city level on the government’s response.

While Timoner said the group was still “working to develop what the advocacy is going to look like,” she said criminal justice would be a major part of it. Likewise, Kleinbaum called the issue a key “progressive priority.”

None of the founders who spoke with The Times of Israel would disclose who was currently funding the organization. “Not at this point,” said Timoner.

They said the organization would embrace the traditional fundraising model of soliciting individual donations.

In the meantime, the organization is still mapping its path forward.

“We’re realistic that we’re a new organization,” Kleinbaum said. “We don’t want to just be an add-on voice.”

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