Three years ago, in the midst of a large-scale rebranding and efforts to get hip with Facebook, the Jewish Federations of North America launched a national online campaign to solicit nominations for a new Jewish Community Hero award, which came with a $25,000 cash prize and a shout-out at the annual Federation convention. As one of the 2009 semifinalists enthused, “This project has only winners.”
Well, that was then. Last week, just before Yom Kippur, the organization quietly removed one of the top ten vote-getters, Cecilie Surasky, the deputy director of the provocative Bay Area group Jewish Voice for Peace, from the ranks of eligible competitors. Federation spokesman Joe Berkofsky told JTA that Surasky was deemed ineligible because of her group’s support for the Israel boycott, sanctions and divestment movement (BDS), which Federation has invested heavily in countering. JVP countered that Federation changed its eligibility rules specifically to disqualify Surasky—and pointed out that the leader board currently includes Manis Friedman at number four, and that Friedman, a Chabad rabbi from Minnesota, made news in 2009 when, in response to a question about how Jews should treat Arabs, he told Moment:
I don’t believe in Western morality, i.e., don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral. The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle). The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East.
At the time, Friedman walked his comments back, saying they were “irresponsible.” His nomination statement doesn’t mention the brouhaha, focusing instead on a blurb Bob Dylan gave Friedman’s 1990 book on kosher sex, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?
Meanwhile, JVP is getting its own kind of award: a concrete example of the Jewish Establishment’s willingness to upset the apple cart when it comes to left-wing groups but not right-wing ones.
Here’s the thing: we all know that Americans generally, and Jews specifically, are splintering into ever-smaller interest and affinity groups. Instead of finding a way to make the case to younger, unaffiliated Jews for sustaining a single umbrella group that can claim to represent the broad interests of American Jewry, whatever they may be, Federation has instead, and with the best of intentions, succeeded in building a terrific soapbox ready for exploitation by the best-mobilized voices out there, however marginal or objectionable they may be to the vast majority of their fellow Jews.
Just look at the current top vote-getter in the volunteer category: Leah Rubashkin, who happens to be the wife of Sholom Rubashkin, who is currently serving a 27-year federal prison term for financial fraud in the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking scandal. Rubashkin has become a cause célèbre among Orthodox Lubavitchers, who believe he was unfairly sentenced, and it seems his wife’s nomination is entirely about getting some mainstream publicity: her brief nomination statement says she is a hero for staying positive through her husband’s incarceration, and adds that “we pray with Leah for the day when she will truly rejoice alongside her husband Reb Sholom Mordechai.”
This is not a way to increase Federation’s relevance to mainstream, maybe-observant Jews under 50—the people who the Facebook contest were presumably supposed to attract in the first place. Worse, it demeans the very real and very important accomplishments of other nominees, like Randy Gold, an Atlanta father who began advocating for more thorough genetic screening of Jewish couples after his daughter was born with a preventable genetic disorder. But, never mind, Federation has an app for that, too: the final winners won’t be picked by open online voting, but by a panel of judges that includes Tablet Magazine contributor Mayim Bialik and sister-of-Facebook Randi Zuckerberg.