Jewish umbrella organizations are not the same as the individual groups they represent. As such, the relationship between the organization and its members can be complex — depending on the sensitivity of leadership and how far the membership is ready or willing to go.
That’s the case of the National Council of Young Israel, one of the well-known brands in Orthodox Judaism. Modern and Zionist, with some 150 member synagogues, it has been a comfortable home for Jews with a center-right religious focus since its founding in 1913. Last week, though, the Young Israel of Toco Hills congregation in Atlanta voted to leave the national Young Israel organization, with 93% of voting synagogue members opting to separate.
The decision wasn’t a surprise. In recent years, the Young Israel national leadership has been moving right in its politics and its Zionism — and has taken positions that have upset segments of its diminishing member ranks. For example, in February, NCYI issued a statement defending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s controversial brokering of a racist party’s merger with another right-wing Israeli party. That is now ancient history in Israel. But Young Israel’s gratuitous support for the merger, which was almost universally condemned, deepened the growing fault lines within the organization.
Twenty-two Young Israel synagogues condemned the national movement’s embrace of racism. “In recognition of the current, highly divisive political environment in the United States, Israel and beyond, we … call upon NCYI leadership to immediately cease making all political pronouncements,” the synagogues’ statement said.
One of the dissenting rabbis, Rabbi Adam Starr, leads Young Israel of Toco Hills, which has now changed its name to Kehillat Ohr Hatorah. Earlier this year, he expressed concern to JTA about the National Council opining on hot-button political issues. “A synagogue organization should not be making deeply divisive political statements on our behalf.”
Of course, there are many Jewish organizations that take strong political positions. Indeed, it seems that some spend more time issuing press releases than anything else. And they are certainly free to do so.
But when a member-driven organization moves from its basic function or founding principles and purports to speak in the name of its members on issues that are either unrelated to its original purposes or divergent from its members’ views, it is not at all surprising when some revolt.
Does that mean that umbrella organizations should avoid taking positions for fear of losing members? We don’t think so. Diversity of opinion is healthy, and not everyone is going to agree with every position taken. Nonetheless, it makes sense for organizations to avoid political issues that don’t touch on founding principles, since political issues are almost always divisive.
It will be interesting to see whether Young Israel learns from this experience, or simply continues its march to the political right. JN