Toward Thriving: the role of community relations

BY GERALD GREIMAN

Barry Rosenberg’s excellent commentary, “Toward Thriving” (St. Louis Jewish Light, Sept. 23, 2009), outlines a vision for the future of St. Louis and American Jewish life, which I share. I write to emphasize the importance of vibrant community relations between the Jewish and larger communities to achieving that vision.

My strong belief in the critical significance of promoting community relations is what led me to become involved in the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) many years ago, to continue to work within the JCRC framework, and to serve as its President today.

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The JCRC is the public affairs and community relations arm of the organized St. Louis Jewish community. A community-based umbrella organization, the JCRC is comprised of representatives from 17 St. Louis Jewish community groups as well as 15 at-large representatives. Working towards a thriving St. Louis Jewish community lies at the heart of each activity we undertake, every relationship we form, and all coalitions we join.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC Executive Director, and I regularly hear a wide range of comments and questions concerning our organization. Many who are intimately familiar with the JCRC have expressed admiration at the full plate of activities we carry on with finite resources. Others have raised questions concerning what we do, why, and why so much?

For those of you falling into the first category, thank you! For those raising questions, let me explain.

Our Vision

Were it our vision of the St. Louis Jewish community that we should be wholly insular, and neither reliant on nor engaged with the broader community, the need for vigorous community relations efforts might be less vital. In that event, there would be little call to attempt to influence public affairs or promote relations with the larger community. But that is not our vision. While, as Jews, we desire to honor and preserve our Jewish heritage, we cannot flourish by living in isolation.

Our vision is a thriving St. Louis Jewish community in positive interaction with a larger community that respects Jewish values. Among what we value, and work to advance, are the safety and security of Israel and the Jewish people, at home and abroad; a just, democratic and pluralistic society; and understanding and cooperation between the Jewish community and other religious, racial, ethnic and civic groups.

Making the Vision a Reality

Issues of central concern to the Jewish community arise all too often. Current such issues include existential threats to Israel posed by Iran, the vilification of Israel for attempting to protect itself against terrorist threats, the desire by some for the United States to be recognized as a “Christian nation,” etc.

When issues important to us arise, it is critical that we enlist the support of our friends outside the Jewish community to help address them. The Jewish people are a small minority in today’s world. It is difficult to make our voices heard – and heard effectively – if we speak and act alone.

We have been fortunate to have the help and support of our many non-Jewish friends in the St. Louis community when the need has arisen. At the same time, we must recognize that relationships thrive only when they are mutual. Life has taught us, in the context of personal relationships, that few such relationships flourish where one party cares about the concerns of the other, but such cares and concerns are not reciprocated. So it is with community relations as well. We cannot build and maintain meaningful relationships with others in the broader community if the only topics we want to discuss with them are Israel, Iran and anti-Semitism – although, to be sure, we must talk about and advocate on these issues.

If we expect others in the community to support the Jewish community on our issues, we must commit to working with the broader community on matters of concern to them. To truly thrive, we must join forces with others who share our goals and values as to the kind of society in which we want to live.

The Work of Community Relations

So, to foster effective community relations, we need to roll up our sleeves and become engaged in the work of the larger community in which we live. The Jewish community being a part of the larger community, that work is our work as well.

We must work to promote an informed citizenry – both within and outside of the Jewish community – on important public issues. A community well-informed as to the important issues of the day, and the facts and values pertinent to those issues, is better positioned to generate the kinds of policies, programs and leaders that serve to make our vision a reality.

Where possible, we also must work to identify prevailing views within the Jewish community on important public issues, and make those views known to our political leaders. Clear articulation and communication of those views will enhance their prospects of influencing others.

We also must take an active role regarding social justice issues, such as combating poverty, promoting access to affordable health care, and addressing environmental issues. Pursuing social justice work through advocacy and action makes clear to everyone that we are deeply committed to the community in which we live. Also, social justice work is congruent with Jewish values and imperatives. For many members of the Jewish community, it provides a powerful motivation to become involved in community activities.

Of critical importance, too, is that social justice work typically is performed in collaboration with other community groups. It thus enables us to forge and maintain strong ties with our coalition partners.

So, yes, effective community relations involves a lot of work, in many different areas. That is so because there is much work to do to make our vision a reality. But all such work is united by a common purpose. It all is directed toward fostering a thriving Jewish community.

Gerald Greiman is President of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a response to “Toward Thriving” — a reduced version of a paper that Barry Rosenberg, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, wrote last year, which appeared in the fall. “Toward Thriving,” which has been edited with the author’s consent, discusses key issues associated with the future of the local and world Jewish communities.

The Jewish Light solicited responses to the ideas expressed in “Toward Thriving” from a variety of voices within the local Jewish community, and posted those responses on our Web site, www.stljewishlight.com and via links on the Jewishinstlouis.org Web site.

View the Toward Thriving series and join the discussion at http://towardthriving.blogspot.com