Fifty Jewish community leaders and professionals gathered to learn more about the critical issues facing Israel and Diaspora Jews at the Sept. 13 meeting of JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council.
The main discussion focused on the recent controversy surrounding the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel in Jerusalem as well as recognition for non-Orthodox conversions. JCRC Chair David T. Brown, who also chairs the Israel and Overseas Commission of the Jewish Federations of North America, and Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Itay Milner shared their perspectives on the issue.
Brown said that although Diaspora Jews have tended to stay away from internal Israeli politics, issues connected to pluralism and Jewish practice should involve North American - and world - Jewry.
"It's critically important that the Jewish homeland is a Jewish homeland for everybody," he said. "At the same time, we have to continue to support the State of Israel and its people, even if we disagree with a specific government policy."
Brown was part of a JFNA and Jewish Agency for Israel delegation that met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in late June to discuss North American Jewish community's concerns over the Kotel and a Knesset bill addressing non-Orthodox conversion in Israel.
For his part, Milner assured attendees that an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel will still be built. In fact, $20 million has already been set aside for construction, he said. Milner also highlighted the disconnect that often happens between Israelis and Diaspora Jews when it comes to issues of pluralism.
"The Israeli public doesn't always understand why these issues are important to North American Jews," Milner said. "It's critical to remain engaged with the Israeli government, the Israeli public and decision-makers."
The meeting also included a report from JCRC Executive Director Emily Sweet about JCRC's robust relationship-building work as well as efforts that seek to counter the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
John Lowenstein, JUF Vice President of Campus Affairs and Executive Director of Hillels of Illinois, briefly spoke about the atmosphere on campus as students return to colleges and universities throughout Illinois.
This meeting also marked the last of Brown's tenure as chair, and attendees thanked him for his leadership and commitment to JCRC's mission. Incoming Chair Bill Silverstein presented Brown with a tzedakah box in appreciation of his work over the past two years.