Reform movement may bolt Presidents Conf. in wake of J Street rejection

Departure of largest Jewish organization in US could undercut umbrella group’s credibility; Conservative movement also unhappy

Rabbi Rick Jacobs (photo credit: URJ via JTA)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs (photo credit: URJ via JTA)

WASHINGTON — Declaring that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations needs an overhaul, the Union for Reform Judaism said leaving the umbrella body could be an option.

The Reform group posted a statement Thursday on its website in the aftermath of the Presidents Conference rejecting J Street in its bid for membership on Wednesday.

“As of yesterday, it is clear that the Conference of Presidents, as currently constituted and governed, no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community,” URJ President Rick Jacobs said in the statement.

“In the days ahead, Reform movement leaders will be consulting with our partners within the Conference of Presidents to decide what our next steps will be. We may choose to advocate for a significant overhaul of the Conference of Presidents’ processes. We may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents. But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.”

The departure of the umbrella body for Reform movement congregations, which bills itself as the largest single Jewish organization in the United States with 900 congregations representing 1.5 million Jews, could undercut the Presidents Conference’s claim to speak for the community on foreign policy.

People pick up J street lobbying material during a conference in Washington DC (image capture: J Street: The Documentary trailer)
People pick up J street lobbying material during a conference in Washington DC (image capture: J Street: The Documentary trailer)

On Wednesday, Presidents Conference members voted 22-17 with three abstentions against admitting J Street, a Jewish group that calls itself “pro-peace and pro-Israel.” J Street has criticized Israeli government policies on peace and backed the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran that many Jewish groups have opposed.

Malcolm Hoenlein (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/FLASH90)
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

Separately, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said her group also would seek an overhaul.

“The Conference of Presidents has 50 or so organizations, each one has one vote, the majority of those organizations are quite tiny,” she told JTA. “The fact that J Street did not pass today’s vote is reflective of structural anomalies of the conference.”

A source close to the Presidents Conference said it was not clear from the secret ballot that J Street’s rejection was driven by the smaller groups, and that previous attempts to change the system failed in part because members could not agree on criteria that would determine the proportional weight of a member organization.

J Street failed to gain admission to the Conference because it needed a two-thirds majority of the entire membership, 34 out of 51, in order to be admitted. After the results were announced, the organization said it was “disappointed” that its bid had been rejected.

“This is a sad day for us, but also for the American Jewish community and for a venerable institution that has chosen to bar the door to the communal tent to an organization that represents a substantial segment of Jewish opinion on Israel,” it said in a statement.

“We applied to the Conference of Presidents because we value Jewish community and the concept of a broad tent of pro-Israel organizations that truly represents our community’s diversity and dynamism. Unfortunately, our bid was thwarted by organizations on the right of the community who do not share those same values.”

A number of leading Jewish groups had come out in favor of the dovish Middle East policy group’s entry into the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella, including the Anti-Defamation League, arms of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s domestic policy umbrella.

Those groups had argued that the Presidents Conference needed to include what they say is the community’s diverse opinions on Israel.

The Presidents Conference said in a statement issued after the vote that its current membership reflected the community’s diversity.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director, speaking at the group’s 2012 conference. (photo credit: J Street)
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director, speaking at the group’s 2012 conference. (photo credit: J Street)

“The present membership of the Conference includes organizations which represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community and we are confident that the Conference will continue to present the consensus of the community on important national and international issues as it has for the last fifty years,” it said.

J Street is a strong critic of the policies of the current Israeli government and backs the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Iran, which many pro-Israel groups oppose.

Opponents said J Street too often opposes other Jewish groups in the broader public arena and not just within the community.

In its statement announcing the rejection of J Street, but not breaking down the vote, the Presidents Conference noted that other groups have failed to gain admission on the first try in the past.

“A two-thirds affirmative vote of the member organizations is a significant threshold,” the statement said. “Some present member organizations did not initially achieve the necessary support but subsequently re-applied and are now members.”

It also said that the process leading up to the vote was transparent.

“The process included three meetings of the Membership Committee, including one at which representatives of J Street made a presentation and answered questions,” it said. “Membership Committee representatives held additional meetings with J Street representatives.”

Most Popular
read more: