The Jewish Community Relations Council Summit
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia was created in 1939 in response to the rise of anti-semitism in the United States and in Europe. Over the 60 plus years of its existence, it’s mission has been to serve as the community relations arm of the Jewish community in the Delaware Valley in order to:
- Foster conditions conducive to vital and creative Jewish living
- Safeguarding the rights of Jews locally, nationally and internationally;
- Promote harmonious relationships among all religious and ethnic groups.
They do this by:
- Providing a forum for the expression of diverse viewpoints within the Jewish community
- Engaging in nonpartisan public policy advocacy on issues having community-wide consensus
- Building bridges and long-term relationships among different groups within the Jewish community and between Jewish and on-Jewish groups.
Early 2000, the JCRC decided to embark on a study of its purpose and mission in order to build on its strengths toward better serving those within and in relationship with the Jewish community. In some ways, the agency was concerned that the way it served the community in the past had become out of date. They chose the Appreciative Inquiry Summit for the following reasons:
- Through the participation of many stakeholders of the agency, they would be able to see themselves through the different perspectives of those they involve and serve;
- The process would build on the strengths of the organization;
- Help them to discover ways in which they serve the community they may or may not have been aware of
- The process itself would inspire action.
Since its inception over 60 years ago, JCRC has served the community in a multi-faceted role. Most visible is its role when there is a crisis. The JCRC is there to respond in a way that promotes the most positive relations between the Jewish Community and the community at large. It plays a key role in keeping front and center issues of concern to the Jewish community, interfaith relations and engaging the community with the key social issues of our time. Perhaps its more subtle role is that of laying the groundwork and nurturing the relationships between the Jewish Community and its neighbors to foster mutual understanding and to promote support and connection across the boundaries of difference.
On the one hand, the understanding of the importance of these roles is not as widespread as it perhaps could be. On the other hand, there is the desire and potential for the JCRC to transform beyond its current state. Some key factors to consider:
- Structure: The JCRC is primarily staffed by its volunteers. Paid staff consists of an Executive Director, the Associate Director, two support staff and 4 program liaisons. Volunteers chair commissions that are the focus of the JCRC’s endeavors.
- The Board has approximately 125 members. The Executive committee has about 35 people.
- Funding has become increasingly tight. The primary source of funds comes from the Jewish Federation.
What We Studied
The following topics were developed by the core working team as the focus of the inquiry:
- Fostering A Secure And Just Society
- Public Policy Advocacy
- Finding A Consensus Around A “Common Table”
- Building Bridges and Collaborations Between And Among Group
- Volunteer Engagement
What We Learned
Staff, board and stakeholders learned how the organization was viewed in the eyes of the community. While they knew on some level what purpose they served and how they hoped people benefited from their services, the inquiry sharpened and deepened their understanding of how people benefited from their services and what, in particular was most beneficial.
Some of the quotes we heard…
“What I saw in the room was shifts – not just in the people who were most invested in their roles (the lay leaders) but shifts in staff people. I also saw evidence of the staff joining the group and a shift in language from them to us.”
“I knew that we served an important purpose in the community, but hearing about it through the stories our partners in the community told was very affirming.”
“Getting a new structure is a really big deal”
Excerpts from the interviews:
From an African American woman member of City Council in relaying a story about when she was interviewed by a reported while demonstrating in Washington D.C. for Soviet Jewry: “when we call the JCRC for help they don’t ask why, they ask when and where”
“When the most recent antifada broke out in the Middle East (Fall, 2001), the Palestinian community called the JCRC to let them know they were going to hold a demonstration against Israel.”
“When the Palestinians were going to hold a demonstration against Israel at the Israeli Independence Day celebration, representatives from the community met with the JCRC to discuss how they could do so in a way that would not be threatening.”
What JCRC Has Done As A Result Of The Study
Core principles have been defined to guide the organization presently and to be a standard commitment for newcomers who join.
Restructuring of the leadership and board structure to more meaningfully serve the mission.
Principal, ICW Consulting Group