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Two years later, JCRC leaders say transition has worked well
June 1st, 2012
When the Jewish Community Relations Council holds its 2012 annual meeting — slated for Wednesday, June 20, 11:45 a.m. — it will be slightly more than two years since the organization became a core function of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
It had been an independently run, MJF-funded partner organization called the Milwaukee Jewish Council (when it was founded in 1938) and later the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations (as of 1993).
JCRC president Joyce Altman in an interview on May 11 recalled that she and other MJCCR board members were apprehensive when the idea of the change arose.
“There was a lot of skepticism. Even I was skeptical at first,” Altman said. “We thought we could get lost” in this arrangement.
However, “we didn’t get lost. We’re still very strong … I think it has worked very well,” Altman said.
The JCRC retains its own board of directors and steering committee. It still has task forces of volunteers that work on such issues as interfaith relations, economic and social justice, anti-Semitism, and defense of Israel.
It still takes positions on community issues by consensus vote of representatives of 26 Milwaukee-area synagogues and Jewish organizations.
What is different is that the JCRC is an integrated part of the MJF and uses MJF administrative staff and marketing resources, Altman said. Doing this was one of the aims of the change when it was first discussed. (See Chronicle, October 2009.)
Moreover, the change has brought Milwaukee’s organized Jewish community into sync with most other large U.S. Jewish communities. Of the 127 local Jewish community relations organizations belonging to the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs, most either are Jewish federations or are run by Jewish federations.
Altman recently attended the JCPA plenum in Detroit, May 5-8, where she had the opportunity to meet with leaders of local JCRCs that are administered by Jewish federations.
“It was a good educational experience,” and what she learned has helped her to “feel comfortable” with the new situation in Milwaukee, she said.
Elana Kahn-Oren has been director since the summer of 2010, and is the first director of the JCRC in its new format. In an interview May 11, she said she and the organization’s lay leaders “feel very fortunate” because MJF leaders “understand and appreciate the importance of having a strong JCRC.”
During her tenure to date, Kahn-Oren said the JCRC has “done a lot of programming,” including:
• A campaign on behalf of then-hostage Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in December 2010
• A “Civility: A Community Conversation” event in March 2011 (see April 2011 Chronicle).
• A Legislative Breakfast, in collaboration with the MJF Women’s Division, featuring state legislators in April 2011 (see May 2011 Chronicle).
• A briefing with a member of the Israeli Consulate in Chicago (see July 2011 Chronicle).
• Launched a Public Education Partnership to provide “accurate and well-rounded information about Jews, Judaism, and Israel in public schools.” (See September 2011 Chronicle).
These are some of the public programs. “A lot of the work of the council,” Kahn-Oren said, “is a balance between [public work and] behind the scenes relationship-building work.”
In fact, “some say that the most successful [JCRC] is the one you never hear about, because they prevent problems by having strong relationships,” she said.
Nevertheless, Kahn-Oren when necessary is the “official voice” of the Milwaukee Jewish community on public affairs, and that is not easy to be in a community so diverse and often impassioned.
The JCRC’s 26 constituent organizations include all the area synagogues, Reconstructionist to haredi Orthodox, and its board and task forces include members with a wide range of views, said Kahn-Oren and Altman.
“I do my best to represent the chorus of voices,” Kahn-Oren said. “Sometimes there is, often there isn’t one Jewish position on something. I try to be faithful to the range of thought on something… It is a huge responsibility to say you speak for the community.”
The annual meeting will take place at the Helfaer Community Service Building, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. The featured speaker will be Willie L. Hines, Jr., president of the Milwaukee Common Council.
The cost to attend the luncheon meeting is $25; dietary laws will be observed. For more information or to register, call 414-390-5781 or visit online at www.milwaukeejewish.org.