From her 19th floor corner office in the Bend the Arc headquarters, Stosh Cotler took in the panoramic view of downtown Manhattan. It was a warm weekday last summer, and far below her the pedestrian foot traffic inched along like dollhouse miniatures on the sidewalks of Seventh Avenue. To the west under detailing light, white yachts traced long lines away from the piers of the Hudson River.
By that point, Cotler had been CEO of Bend the Arc for more than five years, but her role had changed since the 2016 election. She was in near-constant triage mode, she said, on guard to respond to whatever inflammatory statement or action was coming out of the White House. On television, radio, and in major print publications Cotler had assumed a regular profile, her strong, forceful presence fast becoming a recognizable voice speaking out on behalf of Jews in America. The day prior, President Donald Trump said, “If you vote for a Democrat, you’re being disloyal to Jewish people,” a reference to the ongoing support for the BDS movement by Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
Cotler’s assistant popped her head in to tell her she had an interview request with The Washington Post. No problem, she said.
Slim and athletic, Cotler’s motorized scooter and neon-green helmet leaned beside her tidy stand-up desk in the corner. At 50, Cotler wears her curly hair high, large earrings, and thick bracelets on her wrist. Though calm and on occasion friendly in conversation, a notable intensity emanates from her dark brown eyes, particularly when Cotler speaks on the burden on American Jewish organizations to chart the proper path forward for a country she sees veering into dangerous waters.
“At this point in time we’re really seeking to become the institution that redefines the center of gravity in the American Jewish community,” Cotler told me. “We have a vision and we have an agenda that we believe to now be the communal agenda of the Jewish community.”
Last summer, when I first encountered Bend the Arc in the news, I did not know what the group was or what they did. Then I saw them nearly everywhere—or at least they appeared to maintain a constant presence in the media on the issue of the southern American border and immigration detention facilities. Wearing organization T-shirts and carrying banners with the Bend the Arc logo, their protesters appeared in dozens of demonstrations and marches for immigration policy reforms covered by the mainstream press. At protests in the halls of Congress, their staffers were being arrested. On cable news and the radio, their leaders were brought on to condemn the policies of the Trump administration. In my social media feeds, I started to see photos and videos of smaller events in between those covered by major news outlets.
Though tracing its lineage back to predecessor organizations that were founded as far back as 1983, the Jewish social action organization is essentially a recent construction that has taken on a new and diffuse slate of political issues at both the state and national level—immigrant documentation, tax laws, voter rights, among other causes that may have little to do with what are generally defined as the specific needs of any particular Jewish community but are often championed by progressive Democratic politicians.
Headquartered in Manhattan with a staff of 70 employees in satellite offices in California and Washington, D.C., as well as staffers managing a mix of volunteer and part-time organizers in cities around the country, Bend the Arc provides a national infrastructure whose primary function is to activate mass protest groups that march and demonstrate with Bend the Arc banners, slogans, and clearly defined political positions mirrored by the progressive platform, making them the “Jewish section” of a national movement.
While the specifics of that platform have transformed since its inception during the Obama administration, and again since the COVID-19 crisis, Bend the Arc’s function as the “Jewish” umbrella group within a larger progressive political coalition, bringing top-down messaging to synagogues and organizations and providing the validation of Jewish support upstream, remains unchanged.
Of course, support for a wide range of causes is the essence of coalition politics. What’s potentially worrying is that, as an institution that claims to speak for American Jewry, according to Bend the Arc spokesperson Logan Smith, the group has no active dues-paying members who participate in the shaping of that agenda. Moreover, according to Bend the Arc’s own financial filings, almost none of their annual revenue is generated from within the Jewish community itself. Rather, their financial backing comes from a small cohort of foundations and wealthy patrons—some of whom otherwise have no active philanthropic role in American Jewry and in some cases seem actively hostile to key points of collective American Jewish identification and interest.
Since its inception, Bend the Arc has avoided entirely the topic of Israel, focusing its efforts solely on domestic political issues. That position, though, has become less fixed in recent years, as Bend the Arc staffers and affiliates have actively collaborated with smaller protest organizations such as the controversial, Jewish activist network IfNotNow, which has eschewed repeated invitations to debate policy with pro-Israel groups in favor of disruptive, high-profile protests that often lead to the arrest of their volunteers. Dove Kent, Bend the Arc’s senior strategy officer, is a co-founder of The Tzedek Lab, which, according to its website, “provides coaching, training, culture and infrastructure support” to IfNotNow. Michelle Reyf, BtA’s digital organizing manager, volunteered for INN focusing on training other volunteers and leaders in digital organizing, and has identified herself at times as “a member of INN’s digital strategy team.”
On occasion, the close-knit relationship between Bend the Arc and these activist groups has become more visible in the public eye. Last year, according to the Jewish Journal, during a series of protests against American immigrant detention centers along the southern border, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Bend the Arc’s rabbi in residence, was on hand giving interviews to media alongside protest organizers from Never Again Action, a Jewish activist organization with leaders and members of various IfNotNow local chapters. Before the protest, according to the report, IfNotNow provided training for Never Again Action’s volunteers. (A single staffer, Blair Nodelman, manages communication duties for both outfits, according to her own online profiles.) At the protest, Rabbi Cohen explained to reporters that “caging children [and] forcing adults to sleep on cold floors in camps” meant that the sites could “only be described as concentration camps.”
Along with this group of partner organizations, some of whom are committed to her organization through a formal affiliate relationship, Cotler viewed Bend the Arc as something of a “mirror that we’re holding up to American Jews, and to mainstream communal institutions. To say that we reflect and represent what the majority of American Jews believe—who we are—and what we want to see for our community, and for this country.”
Save for a brief stint in the early 2000s at Avodah, a Jewish poverty rights organization, Cotler had spent her entire professional career at Bend the Arc, quickly rising up the ranks to senior leadership before taking over from her predecessor, Alan van Capelle, in December of 2014. From the start of her tenure, Cotler’s approach to leadership appeared fully formed: to not only oversee an agenda on behalf of the American Jewish community at large, but also to leverage that community’s resources to remake the nation in its image.
It would appear to be as hubristic as it is impossible, a blending of American and Jewish exceptionalism that manifests in a public activism unthinkable for any leader of an American Jewish organization a generation or two prior. But slowly Cotler has made impressive inroads on both fronts, and demonstrated the viability of Bend the Arc’s mission.
That Bend the Arc has found itself so welcomed by local Jewish communities across the nation is a product, Cotler said, of the failure of the leadership of legacy Jewish institutions.
“Led by people who are in their 70s and 80s who are white, Jewish men. They might not have any meaningful relationships with younger Jews, Jews of color, queer Jews, etc. When there’s a gap in the relationship and experience, it means the leadership can’t actually see what is needed,” Cotler said, echoing a previous comment she’d made at a conference, regarding Jewish communal institutions, which have fallen “out of sync with the majority of Jewish Americans … with our values and our politics.”
By calibrating Bend the Arc’s values and politics into proper synchronization with a communal Jewish population misrepresented by detached white male institutional leadership, the connection between Cotler’s organization with disenchanted American Jews has flourished—a connection braided with the premise that progressive Jewish action could itself work beyond the confines of the Jewish community. In this collaborative project, Bend the Arc and its constituents endeavor to do nothing less than ennoble a fallen nation. It is an undertaking flush with unassailable intentions that Cotler equates with the belief system embedded in Judaism itself—an ancient religion whose modern-day expression in America can be rightly seen as progressive politics.
To remake America in its own image—“where power can be used to recalibrate and provide more justice,” as Cotler put it to me—Bend the Arc had to first enlarge and refine the scope of what was by definition in the interest of the Jewish people, an effort that began in the middle of President Obama’s second term.
In 2014, the newly installed Cotler began an aggressive public relations effort to cast doubt upon the long-established Jewish institutional focus on Jewish continuity, a post-Shoah preoccupation with ensuring long term Jewish survival. “Let’s discontinue this framework of Jewish continuity because it is actually the symptom, not the problem,” she said at that time. “Moreover, that mental model of Jewish continuity obscures our central challenge and central opportunity, which is to address this much more complex and much more interesting question of Jewish communal purpose.”
To carry out what Cotler described then as a “Jewish commitment to everyday revolution,” Bend the Arc launched a bevy of political action campaigns across a domain of issues that might have previously seemed only tenuously connected to Jewish life.
But perhaps that tenuousness is what has made Bend the Arc a particularly attractive investment for its largest donors, most of whom had displayed no previous interest in Jewish causes.
From 2005 to 2013, Bend the Arc received annual donations totaling $1.5 million from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, for whom support of a Jewish organization is unusual. A review of the $20.3 million spent on domestic programs in 2013—the year preceding Cotler’s appointment as CEO—found that while active in their support with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Asian, black, and other minority community groups, no other Jewish organization received funding.
To put it another way, though the Rockefeller fund’s public records show their sustained support for the arts, education, and elder-care services in other American minority communities—as well as direct funding to groups which focus on politically charged issues like climate change and immigration—Bend the Arc is the sole Jewish organization to receive support for their political activism, though the fund does engage in the arena of the Israel-Palestine issue, via its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Multiple efforts to receive comment from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for this piece went unanswered.
Toward the end of the Rockefeller fund’s support of Bend the Arc, according to public documents, funding began streaming in from another billionaire family via the NoVo Foundation, the philanthropic project of Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, the co-founder of Berkshire Hathaway. With an average annual donation of $2.8 million and a total of $14.2 million in donations between 2012 and 2016, NoVo became one of Bend the Arc’s most generous financial supporters.
Like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, NoVo singled out Bend the Arc as the sole Jewish domestic organization to receive their backing. (Multiple efforts to receive comment from the NoVo Foundation for this piece also went unanswered.)
In 2016, NoVo dispensed 405 donations to domestic programs totaling nearly $170 million. Yet while other ethnic communities received robust support for myriad arts, culture, education, and business development causes—including $1.5 million for Native American educational programs and $750,000 on health programs for Asian communities—Bend the Arc, which received $6.2 million, was the only organization that serviced the Jewish community.
What, then, has made Bend the Arc such a singular and attractive investment worth tens of millions of dollars for philanthropic elites who, according to their own financial records, are otherwise unengaged with the well-being of American Jewry? A close look at Bend the Arc’s work over the years would suggest that such an investment was designed not to advance American Jewish life, but rather, to obtain and cement Jewish-branded support for progressive political causes.
On the issue of a congressional bill that addressed federal oversight of state voting laws, Bend the Arc launched a lobbying initiative in 2014 to enact new voting legislation in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and parts of Virginia and South Carolina. “There is something quintessentially American, but also quintessentially Jewish, about voting,” Cotler said then in explanation of why a Jewish organization had taken on the mantle of voting laws in selective states. “After all, voting is a ritual, part of belonging to the community. American Jews have always valued our right to vote,” she said.
That summer, when Ferguson, Missouri, became ground zero for the debate over law enforcement’s hostile relationship with the African American community, Cotler identified a Jewish dimension within that relationship, noting that “just because it is not the Jewish community under immediate attack [that] doesn’t mean that we, as people of faith, don’t have a moral responsibility to stand with the residents of Ferguson.”
While many American Jews would agree with that definition, they might be puzzled to learn that it also extended to a Bend the Arc-led campaign to overturn portions of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, a slate of new federal labor laws, and support for President Obama’s executive order to enact gender-identity discrimination protections to federal contract employees, for which Bend the Arc organized candlelight vigils, marches, and a visit to the White House. Which is not to say that any or all of these causes aren’t potentially worthwhile; only that, the absence of demonstrations about causes directly involving overtly Jewish experiences, especially in an era of rising and increasing violent anti-Semitism, was notable.
As the nation continued to confront the issue of racism and police brutality into the end of summer and early fall of 2014, Cotler urged her constituents, on their lead up to the High Holidays, to see the sins of the nation as their own sins, and to “ask for forgiveness,” she wrote.
“As Jews, entering this month of repentance and reflection, we must ask ourselves: What am I doing to heal the wounds of racism our country still bears? What am I doing to create the world we want?”
Cotler’s effort to remap the communal Jewish agenda in accordance with President Obama’s sprawling second-term social progressive agenda paved the way for direct connections between the White House and Bend the Arc’s leadership. Late in 2014, Rabbi David Saperstein, a Bend the Arc board member, was appointed by Obama to join the State Department as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
At times, however, the group’s organizational strategy of divining a Jewish component in every contentious national political issue could come across as overly broad and even awkward, with Cotler still searching for the right language to stitch Jewish religious sentiment to a rapidly evolving political landscape. The organization’s overt and aggressive political actions were quite intentional, however, and grew out of what Cotler described to me as the “very deliberate shift in building Bend the Arc as a political organization,” which was predicated upon a realization Cotler and her colleagues had earlier in Obama’s second term.
It wasn’t Israel that was driving the political consciousness of American Jewry, at least not the way it once did a generation or two prior. Rather, “the vast majority of American Jews considered economic justice issues, racial justice issues, and immigration issues as the core factors in who they vote for, who they make their donations to,” Cotler said.
Whether those would in fact become election-deciding issues, Bend the Arc wanted Jewish voters to make them such—and thatgroup’s understanding catalyzed Bend the Arc “to make sure that elected officials were feeling the pressure from the American Jewish community to become champions of these domestic issues.”
Jarring as it may look from the outside, Bend the Arc’s identification of an explicit Jewishness in each forward step toward an enlightened, idealized American society fit neatly into the context established by the Obama administration, which championed a civic universalism that neutralized conflicts driven by gender, class, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even religious affiliation. Reasoned minds could check their differences at the door and come sit together to find common cause and quiet purpose at the table of Obama’s frictionless coalition—frictionless because the agenda came from the top down, rather than the bottom up. Signing on meant acceding to preset intersectional notions of whose needs ranked where.
The program of rigorous inclusivity allowed Obama and the progressive grassroots groups that were formed beneath his political and organizational umbrella to embrace a political-action-focused form of identity politics centered around the activities of “organizers” who transmitted the larger agenda downstream to predefined identity groups, as whose champions they presented themselves to the larger public. The specificity and particularism of one’s Jewishness would be tempered and made subservient to the greater cause of a universally acceptable, humanistic society, as defined by Bend the Arc’s superiors in the chain of political command.
During the later years of the Obama administration, Cotler and Bend the Arc’s initial forays into domestic politics were scattershot and ad hoc, jumping from economic policy to state voter laws to labor regulations as the political winds in Washington shifted week to week. As a result, the organization struggled to present an organic-seeming agenda or platform that might capture the imagination of the American Jewish community.
Rather suddenly, the 2016 election of Donald Trump sharpened Bend the Arc’s operational strategy, and gave them a clearly defined, oppositional focus for their efforts. No longer would they need to inject a uniquely Jewish-seeming angle into the ceaseless churn of the political news cycle on MSNBC and CNN. Jews were now news, along with various other ethnic communities that felt themselves to be under attack by what was insistently portrayed as a large and well-organized movement that formed a key part of the president’s support base.
As Cotler explained to me, once Trump took over the White House, American Jews were thrust into a group that had become “the target of white nationalists and of this administration. And we’ve realized that we must come together, that we must form tight bonds of unity. And to form a much bigger circle of defense,” Cotler said, noting that the Jewish participation in this political coalition would be most effective to combat President Trump and the “movement he’s emboldening, and a set of policies they’re enacting that are putting Jews in grave danger. And also immigrants. And the Muslim community. And people of color, more broadly.”
While still adhering to the universalism fermented during the Obama years, Bend the Arc’s fellowship in the opposition to the Trump administration catalyzed a renewed push for the organization to become avatars of Jewish social justice, a vibrant, highly visible opposition to a rising tide of white supremacy that directly threatened American Jewish lives. The organization has now fully embraced the mission, Cotler told me, of applying maximum political pressure in the name of the Jewish community, in the hope of indelibly altering the nation’s political character and, in the process, becoming the defining center of American Jewish life.
Just as Cotler envisioned, the group’s meteoric ascent has unnerved some elements of Jewish institutional leadership—although not necessarily for the reasons she presents. To some, Bend the Arc isn’t opening up a conversation about communal priorities, but rather shutting down that discussion at a moment of maximal communal stress. Yoking the progressive liberal platform to a presumed moral imperative inherent in Judaism has made it difficult to publicly critique the assumption that progressive political action is or necessarily should be a defining element of Jewishness.
The presumption here, said one well-regarded Jewish communal leader with close ties to a number of social-justice groups, is that “the world is on fire, America is a dumpster fire, this is the apocalypse, and everything is falling apart. You either believe it or you don’t. Some philanthropists do, and a lot of organizational leaders now do—and that’s led them to be extreme, hysterical, and very politically minded.”
“No one is asking: ‘Is that true? Is it really true that X, Y, or Z is one of the most important issues facing the Jewish people right now?’” this person continued. “Why can’t we ask that? Well, because to even question them is to align yourself with the bad guys. You have to be ready to be immediately labeled a racist, or a Republican, or a right-winger. As a result, people just won’t do it now. No one will even raise these questions.”
Cotler’s interest in how Jewish activism could potentially alter the American political landscape manifested as early as 2002, on the streets of Portland, Oregon. In tandem with a group of Portland-based protesters, Staci Cotler (she would later take up her family’s nickname of Stosh) stormed a city street with prop barricades while wearing hazmat suits. With befuddled drivers waiting at their red light, Cotler shouted through her megaphone, “You are now at an Israeli checkpoint! If you protest, you will be killed! Expect to be blindfolded and beaten!” Off to the side of the barricades a teenage boy waved a sign with the Star of David and a swastika, beside a handwritten equation “Sharon = Hitler.”
Often, such local, dramatic protests were paired with more subdued fare, as when Cotler lent her support for those rallying against the Israeli position in the second intifada. Joining a crowd of 200 at Portland’s Havurah Shalom synagogue, Cotler explained to a local reporter that she was there as one of the region’s “growing number of Jews [who] are opposed to the occupation.” The event celebrated the ‘refuseniks,’ IDF soldiers who defected from the army during the height of conflict.
This was all a decidedly new chapter for Cotler, then 30, who grew up in Olympia, Washington, in what she’d later describe as a “classically unaffiliated family.” Though raised to identify as Jewish, any sort of formal ritual or practice was largely absent from her home life. Leaving Olympia, Cotler found something like a family alternative in Portland, falling in with the city’s thriving subculture of self-described “queer-core” musicians, artists, and activists who sought to combat a predatory, male-dominated corporate society hostile and abusive toward women.
Living in a shabby two-story house in the city’s northeast section, Cotler, along with roommate Corin Tucker, of the cerebral indie rock band Sleater-Kenny, took part in a series of underground shows and stage performances for a women’s self-defense project produced by the local label Candy Ass Records. In a 2017 op-ed, Cotler wrote that she herself had been the victim of an “unsafe and violent” relationship in her late teens, and after nurturing her interest in martial arts, she offered basic self-defense lessons from the stage as the project toured through the area. For all the cohesiveness of the scene, though, Cotler, according to a 2011 profile, felt spiritually adrift, and briefly turned to Buddhism, before a chance encounter in a club where Cotler worked as a dancer brought her into contact with Jewish ritual life.
In an essay published in a zine in 2003 recalling the episode, Cotler wrote, “I had danced for D before: a leather butch who came into my club with her old school, high femme wife and their entourage.” After Cotler performed her table dance, she was surprised to hear the group discuss their plans for an upcoming Seder. It was a shock to Cotler, “not only of randomly running into other Jews in a goyim-dominated city like Portland, but of meeting freaky Jews at a sex club.”
When invited to join their Seder, Cotler was unsure about participating in a Jewish ritual after so many years removed from organized religion. The decision to attend was ultimately a profound one for Cotler. “I truly felt like I had found my ‘home’ in those short hours at the Seder, and after being gone so long I felt scared and lost. … When something so deep happens, there is no going back. That Seder marked my return to Judaism and the beginning of my conscious and proud identity as a Jew.”
Cotler’s Jewish rebirth was driven, she observed afterwards, in what she identified as the inherent malleability of Judaism, or at least of American Judaism. Authored by some of those in attendance, the Seder’s Haggadah suggested that the traditional “words and concepts used to describe ‘G-d’ [were] alienating, oppressive or meaningless,” and offered alternatives such as “Shechina—Indwelling presence,” and “Ayn Sof—Infinite One.” In keeping with liberal interpretations of traditional text, the group read “10 Plagues of the Occupation on Jewish People … Forcing Israeli youth to serve in the military and defend the illegal occupation … Becoming the pawns of the US government and corporations.” The event ultimately left Cotler feeling “fiercely bitter, that so many Jews get pushed out of our own Jewish spaces because of intolerance within ‘our’ community.”
Realizing “that being Jewish was a revolutionary spiritual and political path to personal and community liberation,” Cotler immersed herself in temple life. She had her bat mitzvah at the age of 30, and became a quickly rising leader in West Coast activist circles that wanted to reclaim a decidedly progressive form of Jewish identity from the mainstream institutions, which they viewed as having been eroded by stale, corporate culture, outdated, cloistered visions of community, and an uncritical coziness with Israel.
Joining a loosely affiliated network of activists and Jewish professionals in a group called Jewcy, Cotler rekindled the combative antagonism from her time in the Portland music subculture and applied it toward those out-of-touch Jewish institutions and their mainstream prerogatives. Among the opposition was an East Coast comedy production and merchandising company that operated then, in 2003, under the Jewcy.com domain. Cotler brought a trademark infringement lawsuit against the proprietors for their infringement on the name, which Cotler argued devalued the integrity of her own Jewcy group’s political pursuit of Jewish liberation. “We are in the process of trying to create more awareness of a movement of younger social-justice activists; they are in the business of capitalizing on a cool concept without having any political message,” Cotler said at the time of the lawsuit. (Years after the lawsuit, Jewcy, which had expanded its operation into a digital publication, was acquired by Tablet.)
The counterattacks against those impeding her progress were concurrent to Cotler’s effort to build-out a West Coast coalition across a broad swath of religious and progressive domains. Later that year, Cotler again took to the streets of Portland, this time to march with representatives from a variety of other religious affiliations against the invasion of Iraq. But there was a limit to the impact, Cotler knew, that this kind of activism could have upon the American Jewish community at large. Though a cause like the Iraq war drew wide oppositional support, it was too generalized to be imbued with an authentic Jewish prerogative. And a subject like Israeli military policy, however successfully it was dramatized on the streets of Portland, could be seen as too politically marginal and potentially fraught to break through to national attention. Moreover, for a young, budding leader seeking to redraw the map lines on who and what sorts of ideas would constitute the American Jewish experience, there was an inherent limit to her location in Oregon. The region lacked the density of Jewish professionals and activists upon which to build a structured organization, and the money to support major national campaigns simply wasn’t there.
“My personal analysis at the time was that a lot of Jewish power lived in New York city,” Cotler told me. “And if I wanted to be part of shaping the Jewish community I needed to be proximate to where those decisions were made and where those people in power were operating.”
Cotler was surprised but elated when she learned that she’d been hired to come work for David Rosenn at Avodah, opening the door up for her to the world of New York Jewish institutions. Within a week of accepting Rosenn’s offer, Cotler packed her bags and left behind the Pacific Northwest, the only place she’d ever called home. Coming to New York for Cotler was more than a new job. “It was a new life,” Cotler said. “A whole new life.”
Not long after her arrival in New York, Stosh Cotler was added to a short list of rising Jewish activists compiled by Ronit Aviv, a Jewish executive who was part of the Jewcy network, who’d been asked by a consultant working with a New York Jewish family foundation seeking to build a visionary new project for Jewish professionals. The project was the brainchild of the consultant, a labor activist in his 40s named Simon Greer, and Rachel Cowan, a Reform rabbi from the Upper West Side of Manhattan and civil rights activist who became the program director for Jewish life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation—one of those dodgy mainstream Jewish organizations that people like Cotler felt were holding American Jews back.
Established in 1949 by Nathan Cummings, the founder of the Sara Lee Corporation, the foundation was endowed with $415 million by Cummings upon his death, in 1985. Taking to heart the Cummings family’s motto, “Nothing will ever be accomplished if all objections must first be overcome,” Cowan designed her division with a decidedly entrepreneurial spirit, aggressively funding a range of upstart and sometimes unproven progressive Jewish initiatives, even those far outside the sphere of traditional Jewish philanthropy.
According to multiple sources in Greer’s orbit, Cowan saw in Greer an ambitious, savvy partner who could help her develop one of the foundation’s most ambitious projects—a new, nationwide network for progressive Jews. Unlike the Jewcy network, which was loosely organized and lacked a regimented charter or formal leadership structure, Cowan and Greer envisioned a highly cohesive confederacy anchored by a rigorous and intensive training program for the brightest and most talented Jewish leaders across the country.
Built from the ground up with the latest in corporate efficiency tactics borrowed from the business world, the program’s graduates, as a uniformly trained corps, could go back out into the professional world to leverage their own organizational resources toward supporting the network’s shared mission.
Just as Cowan saw in Greer a bold new voice in New York activist circles, Greer had seen something of his own ambition and promise in the newly arrived Stosh Cotler. Eager to immerse herself in the center of the Jewish power dynamic which Cotler had viewed from afar in the Pacific Northwest, she accepted Greer’s invitation to what would be the first iteration of the training program, a retreat administered by the California-based Rockwood Leadership Institute, a premier incubator for nonprofit business executives.
For Cotler, the three-day immersive retreat, which took place in a yurt with straw-backed floor chairs on a sprawling wooded grounds in central Connecticut, would be a transformative moment—not unlike the Seder she’d attended with her sex club clients a decade prior. “It was incredibly powerful,” Cotler told me of the small gathering where she worked with Greer for the first time. As an intensive exploration of how this network of Jewish leaders could all talk in a particular language with each other, lean on one another for help, take up a set of common rituals and practices, and all for the purposes to achieve their collective potential toward a shared vision of progressive Jewish ideals, Cotler and the others were nearly reborn by “this profound, deep experience,” she said. It was clear to Cotler and Greer both that the program had the potential to become a true “intervention into the Jewish community,” Cotler said, with the retreat-training itself serving as a kind of “glue that would allow us to take risks at every level.”
Though still early in their professional collaboration, Greer and Cotler had both harbored for many years a similar intention to influence the American Jewish landscape. And like Cotler, Greer’s interest was cultivated largely as an adult, with some distance between himself and his Jewish upbringing.
In 1965, with the opportunities afforded by the postwar social safety net, Simon Greer’s parents emigrated from London’s East End for the States. Though proudly Jewish, they’d also left behind any attachment to their Jewish Orthodox origins, and brought up Simon, born in 1969, in the tumult of the cultural revolution and the decidedly more secular confines of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Not that they had fully escaped the pressures and mores of a restrictive Jewish community in New York. Unavoidable, it percolated around them. But Greer’s father, Colin, an academic and an antiwar protestor, instilled an individualist mindset in his son; when it was time for his bar mitzvah, they eschewed the traditional synagogue ceremony, choosing instead to host friends and family in their own apartment. Colin’s political disposition further manifested in his choice of summer camps—selecting for his son what Simon would later recall in public talks as “a Jewish communist summer camp,” where, instead of color wars, campers squared off as nations engaged in anti-colonial struggle.
Divided between the professional opportunities afforded to a smart, ambitious and well-credentialed professor’s son, and the activist spirit in which he was raised, Greer went off to Vassar with plans to be an entertainment lawyer—a path he soon abandoned when he felt the pull of activism on campus. Affable and gregarious, and already familiar with the practical structures of social movements, he found himself leading environmental and social justice campaigns on campus. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and his graduation in 1990, Greer spent two years in Poland, where according to his recollections at a 2012 panel on religion and politics at the University of Washington, he watched the redistribution of power from a front row seat, as a staffer in the offices of Lech Wałęsa and his then-ascendant Solidarity union.
Coming back home to the States, Greer spent much of his 20s unable to locate the grand purpose and historical energy of the large, populist social change that had shaped his earliest years in New York, and which he had witnessed in Poland. For four years, he toiled with a nonprofit group representing low-wage hotel workers on Hilton Head in South Carolina, the affluent coastal retreat renowned for its world-class golf resorts. Trying to ignite a broader base of support for his ideals, Greer attempted to teach a course on labor history titled “Who Builds America” at a nearby technical college. College administrators promptly removed the course from their catalog once they learned of Greer’s affiliation with his activist-group employer. Believing the cancellation to be a violation of his constitutional rights, Greer sued the college. According to the Associated Press, the South Carolina Appeals Court found that “the course was canceled because Greer had deceived the college by not disclosing” his professional relationship with the group.
Greer finally left the South for the power center of Washington, D.C., but he struggled to gain traction there, too. Watching organizers his own age become burned out or leave the field, and after enough encounters with old-time organizers who’d turned bitter and resentful, Greer realized he was standing upon a slippery slope, operating from a place, he’d later describe, “out of anger and out of hate,” not out of compassion. He tried to find a sense of inner purpose by reviving his dormant yoga practice while also reading Abraham Heschel. Believing in a possible connection between Heschel’s reverence for the sacred and his civil rights activism with Martin Luther King Jr., Greer sought to instill his own labor organizing with something like a Jewish flavor.
Greer’s interest in a revival of Jewish activism was particularly good timing. In the early 2000s there was a resurgent anti-capitalist spirit among Greer’s fellow Gen Xers, focused on the evils of any number of international corporations. His newly religious-inflected activism lent Greer a mature authenticity as a tribune of opposition to a society stoned on consumerism. At a World Bank protest in 2000, Greer led a “global freedom seder,” shouting with fellow protesters at a police line, “Whose streets, our streets!”
Soon, Greer took over Jobs With Justice, a small, labor rights nonprofit in New York, where he built on the momentum of the anti-WTO and World Bank movement by helping organize protests against the sweatshops churning out jeans for The Gap, the deplorable corporate practices of Enron, and the predilections of the World Economic Forum. Appearing on CNN to explain a protest against the WEF gathering in Manhattan in 2000, Greer said “we have more than 20 years of evidence now that the global economy is not working for working people.” To the audience he offered a simple solution—rewrite global trade agreements on behalf of all workers. “Dramatic steps need to be taken to change how the economy functions,” he said.
While assuming a more prominent role as the voice of organized labor against hegemonic global business interests in the early 2000s, Greer always made sure to place himself on the outside of wherever the power elites gathered to hone his tradecraft, organizing protests against the International Monetary Fund in places as far flung as the cobblestoned streets of Prague. If a protest were taking place, Greer was often on the scene, as an articulate, quotable representative who could explain the demonstrators’ disdain for big money and for a system rigged against the working class to representatives of the corporate mainstream media.
Even if the protest movement’s victories were hard to quantify, Greer’s profile continued to rise. At Jobs With Justice, according to a corporate profile in 2004, Greer had his first major success raising money from wealthy donors in Manhattan. Quadrupling the organization’s budget and padding out the downtown office with new staff, Greer had his first brush with a leader’s structural power. (Multiple efforts to seek comment from Greer for this piece went unanswered.)
Greer’s response, particularly as the director of a pro-labor, anti-corporate nonprofit, was an unorthodox one: He implemented a rigorous set of policies and “organizational methods” to ensure his employees maximized their productive output—requiring staff to “track and account for their time,” how many phone calls they made, and how “many people they’ve come into contact with.” According to a 2003 case study of the organization’s operations, in addition to quarterly retreats and monthly “mini-retreats” in office, each staffer had to adhere to preapproved task lists, maintain daily logs of their activities, and submit summary reports of every day’s accomplishments. Though some opted to do their mindfulness practice on their off hours, employees were encouraged to join Greer for his weekly meditation and yoga classes to enhance their feeling of work-life balance. Cramped in gray cubicles stacked with protest posters and reams of paperwork, employees would sometimes feel burned out. To offset the stress, the case study said, they’d come knock on Greer’s door to ask if they could relax for a moment by taking in his exclusive window view overlooking the Hudson.
Still, in the back of Greer’s mind remained his personal reading of Heschel and the question of what opportunity might exist, if there was any at all, between labor organizing and the Jewish community at large. Seeing the increased productivity of his carefully regimented office culture at Jobs With Justice, Greer was aware of the possibilities of an intensely top-down design for a value-driven organization. Employees would become malleable, steeped in an environment with a new language of his own making. But Greer didn’t have any formal experience working in the Jewish professional world. He was still struggling to make social change as an outsider, running his nonprofit office while rallying at protests against the continued consolidation of money and power by global elites.
When Simon Greer was offered the top position at the Jewish Fund for Justice in New York, in 2005, it was in one sense a chance to fulfill his long-nurtured dream to follow the path set down by Heschel during the civil rights movement, when he injected into the national consciousness an explicit merging of social activism with a set of ideals selectively culled from the Jewish and biblical traditions. But Greer was uncertain at the time if this new role, which would have been his first as an executive at a Jewish institution, was a smart career move.
Jewish Fund for Justice was something of an outlier in the realm of progressive philanthropy, Jewish or otherwise. It was founded in 1983 by Lois Levin Roisman, a child of a long-established Texas Jewish family who left the south for an education at Oberlin and eventually settled in Washington, D.C. An atheist who felt largely unmoored from organized religion, Levin nonetheless believed there was an unrealized opportunity for the Jewish community, which she estimated at the time to be “among the most generous in American society,” and which she would call on to support a new institution that “presents a visible Jewish moral and religious presence”—one that would service the less fortunate across all social divisions.
Though some of Jewish Fund for Justice’s money was earmarked for the Jewish community itself, Levin established the organization’s primary ambition as combating poverty in general—while also helping, in a more specific way, those who were often beyond the scope of Jewish beneficence, from Navajo Indians who needed a new reservation irrigation system to a poor black neighborhood in Tennessee that needed better roads. Removing itself from the contentious issue of Israel altogether, and rarely participating in larger institutional conversations about American Jewish communal life, the Jewish Fund for Justice existed in the ’80s and ’90s in a cause-driven world largely of its own making, which existed outside the hot-button, national-issue, and power-centered world that had been of sustained interest to Greer.
Si Kahn, a JFJ board member, sensed Greer’s hesitation. According to Benjamin Ross, a friend and future colleague of Greer’s, Kahn suggested during one conversation that the organization’s social justice bent was in fact what made it a winning opportunity for Greer, as well as for the Jewish community at large. “This is the most important way to fight for the soul of the Jewish people,” Kahn told Greer, an idea that Greer seemed to embrace immediately, in part because it offered Greer a potential home for his new project—the budding professional Jewish network he’d developed since 2003 as a consultant for the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
So, in 2005, Greer accepted the position of CEO at Jewish Fund for Justice. Within six months of the immersive training retreat at Rockwood he had installed four retreat participants on his executive staff—including Stosh Cotler. Renamed the Selah Leadership Program, the network was now brought under Greer’s control at Jewish Fund for Justice, where it was directly overseen by Cotler. Entrusting the network’s administration to Cotler was a significant vote of confidence, which spoke to the belief Greer had that Cotler could help him cultivate a new generation of American Jewish leadership.
At the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Jennie Rosenn, who replaced Rachel Cowan as the head of the Jewish life program, continued to administer the Selah program funding. But Selah was different, in that the foundation did not otherwise involve itself operationally in the organizations and campaigns they financed. “We really created the program together,” Rosenn said to me, explaining that Selah was a close collaboration between herself at Nathan Cummings, Greer and Cotler at Jewish Fund for Justice, and the Rockwood instructors they’d chosen to carry out their carefully designed retreat curriculum.
“For Cummings, Selah was a really important part of the movement building,” Rosenn said, adding that, “quite honestly, this was aligned closely with Simon’s vision, that we wanted to support an ecosystem of organizations—as opposed to a few very large organizations.”
Greer’s conception of a unified movement anchored in the Selah program was to be reflected within his own organization. Serving then as JFJ’s chief of field operations, Benjamin Ross, now a rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, recalled how Greer implemented an internal culture management team to make sure staff followed the example of the executive leadership as it practiced their Selah rituals and principals. “I’m not saying we were the Marines, but there was quite a lot of rigor,” Ross told me. “We’d have staff retreats, planning days, it was all happening all the time. For some people there was just too much, all the discipline in how we operate, how we organize, how we allocate resources, how you plan for every meeting.”
Similar to Greer’s earlier effort to carefully monitor, measure, and control his staff at Jobs With Justice, the office at the Jewish Fund for Justice became a testing site for the latest techniques in metric-driven business management—with an acute focus on interstaff power dynamics and organizational hierarchy and efficiency. According to a publicly-available 2013 manual on corporate executive management tactics, as Greer pushed for maximum productivity, staffers were instructed to devise “personal power mantras” while becoming intimately familiar with one another’s baggage. The manual highlights one of the regular all-staff retreats “to intensify the transformational process,” when Greer had “each person share one noble failure” with the group—a disclosure that could be uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking. Sharing such moments was held to ultimately benefit the organization.
“We understood each other’s core wounds and conditioning,” Greer is quoted saying in the manual. Sensing someone’s poor performance because of fear or shame, Greer pressed his staff to confront one another and say, “Were you feeling left out again? Like the chubby kid on the playground?”
If there was trepidation among anyone at Jewish Funds for Justice, according to Greer, he sent them a “consistent message, delivered repeatedly to the Board, senior managers, and staff” that “‘We’re going to risk it all. We’re going for what is really needed. If the place crashes and burns in three years, it’s okay. Better to have risked it all and failed than not to have tried.”
Meanwhile, Cotler continued to refine and oversee the Selah program. With each six-month program bookended by its own intensive retreat, cohorts of upwards of 25 leaders were assigned a dedicated Selah partner to help them ensure they kept up with their daily leadership training assignments. Every day, partners checked in with each other to repeat their personal mantras. One participant recalled phoning her partner during her morning train commute, when she’d repeat the line: “To bring honesty and commitment to all my relationships and to the movement …”
By applying the principles of Selah within their own Jewish organizations, Cotler and Greer knew the program could have an impact far beyond the individual leaders. “We developed the program very intentionally and specifically,” Cotler told me. Changing an entire organizational system from the top down had the potential to “seed and create a ripeness” across the entire sector, in a way that Jewish institutions had never been subject to before.
“There’s a shared language and a framework for that shared vocabulary,” Cotler explained. “Learning tools for emotional self-management, learning how to manage triggers and emotional reactivity. Having that set of skills spread out among a network of leaders, and the trust they share from the program—which is so, so critical. The trust that was built in the cohorts, and the vulnerability—that created a really different emotional and communal landscape that allowed us to work very differently with one another.”
There were those within the Jewish Fund for Justice who struggled to embrace the Selah program, with the breaking down of long-held organizational practices, or even social decorum, in the name of the twinned goals of peak productivity and collective uniformity—a kind of Taylorist Maoism adapted to the American corporate suite. “For some, our transformational approach was exciting. But for others, it required a level of self-examination, personal vulnerability, and connection with co-workers that was uncomfortable,” Cotler wrote in the group manual on corporate organizational tactics. “Some got it right away. For others, it was hard to internalize … [which] was frustrating. No matter how many training and coaching sessions we had … some people never seemed to get it.”
In fact, turnover was high. With the new protocol in place, many staff “proved unable to operate effectively in the radically changing environment. Some chose to leave. Others were let go.” Under his leadership, Greer didn’t want the office to become simply “an employment agency for good people.” Where his predecessors encouraged a soft, caring environment to help strengthen a sense of camaraderie among staff, Greer saw a decaying culture that was “scared and protecting.”
In place of JFJ’s traditional function as a grant-making organization whose purpose was to support the poverty-fighting missions of its grantees, Greer began to dedicate internal resources to establish a new and vocal public voice for JFJ, one that reflected his own longer-term ambitions. “The board hired Simon, and Simon had his own vision, which the staff would ultimately come to share, shifting away from its original identity,” explained Mik Moore, one of the participants hired by Greer from the initial Jewish Rockwood cohort, and who oversaw the development of JFJ’s new communication strategy. In addition to setting up an advocacy policy department, and an entirely new staff and office in D.C., Moore built up a communications department within JFJ’s Manhattan headquarters.
“In the comms shop we wanted to have the voice to speak out on anything that we considered important, from criminal justice to public benefits to any range of issues,” Moore said. For organizations striving to acquire influence and stature in the social justice space, which had evolved within the new digital communications environment, speaking up and quick response times were essential.
Greer’s nascent play at combining communications, policy, and corporate cultural architecture at JFJ reflected an ambition shared by others who also found direction and purpose in the Rockwood experience outside of Selah. The prototype of sorts for the Selah program, Rockwood itself was founded in 2000 by a man named Robert Gass, a Harvard graduate who’d become a sought-after leadership guru and professional network node to a political-left subset of the Ivy League educated C-suite class. Charismatic and erudite, Gass blended his corporate management training with social justice valor, meditative practices, behavioral psychology, and metric-driven performance strategies—a potent mixture widely sought after by both corporate executives and political operatives, who realized the value in injecting the Rockwood methodologies into their organizational DNA.
Among the organizations that paid fealty to Gass and his methods was the Obama White House. During President Obama’s first term in office, five senior leaders in his administration trained at Rockwood; during his reelection campaign, Obama gave his national field director, Jeremy Bird, the benefit of personal coaching from Gass himself.
Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama, said of Gass that it was “impossible to overstate the positive impact that [he] had on leaders and teams over his six years serving the Obama White House. Our work and its impact were greatly enhanced as a result. We became better people and far better leaders thanks to his training, guidance, and support.”
As a fierce advocate for new technologies, free market competition, and disruptive social movements, Gass bestowed a set of organizational ideals and common language that scattered from the halls of the White House into a close-knit professional network of like-minded alumni. Operating within bureaucratic strata galvanized by principles of transformational leadership and corporate cultural practice, Gass’ disciples have carried the Obama doctrine into powerful offices that are likewise run and operated on the premise of wide-scale social change carried out according to technocratic principles. Ken Zimmerman, Rockwood graduate and liaison for Obama’s transition team, now directs the U.S. programs for George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Sara El-Amine, the executive director of Obama’s issue advocacy shop, Organizing for Action, and also a Rockwood alum, is now a senior director of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
As some of the earliest participants in Rockwood’s training seminars, Greer and his team at JFJ were able to apply the program’s disruptive, adversarial methods to amedia environment then in the grip of a radical upheaval fed by digital technologies and social media. With the JFJ communications shop up and running, Greer realized the potency of his organization’s new voice during one particular episode in 2011, when Greer and his Selah network campaigned for the removal of Glenn Beck from his prime-time show on Fox News. Though Beck never went after JFJ or Greer directly, Greer nonetheless intuited an opportunity in Beck’s repeated critiques of social justice activists. Using one of the early iterations of a Twitter mob, along with a well-timed op-ed, Cotler and Greer amplified media pressure on Beck by staging protests outside the Fox News offices in Manhattan, which showed their ability to mobilize dozens of sign-carrying supporters. Greer’s coordinated attack on Beck apparently pressed the right buttons, and Beck responded by suggesting on air that Greer, the leader of a Jewish organization, was on the verge of instigating a second Holocaust.
“This leads to death camps. A Jew, of all people, should know that,” Beck said, out over his airwaves. “This is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany.”
Though Greer took credit for Beck’s subsequent firing by Fox, sources familiar with internal Fox decision-making scoffed at that idea. “He had ZERO to do with [Beck’s] firing,” one said. “G[lenn] had a whole world of issues at Fox, and anyway on this issue Media Matters was the big voice. It’s almost impressive that he’s using it as a calling card.”
Of equal organizational significance to the anti-Beck PR push was the growing Selah network, which was to play a key role in the hoped-for redefinition of JFJ’s purpose. “To achieve our vision will require engaging and mobilizing substantial human and financial resources,” Greer wrote of his plans for a new JFJ in a funder’s prospectus—one that, according to the 2013 manual, would only fund its own self-generated programs. Greer’s plans to turn JFJ from a grant-making organization to one that initiated, managed, and executed its own programs in-house caused confusion within organizational ranks.
“Staff had to make an intellectual and emotional leap to think of themselves as foreground rather than background,” Greer said of the transition at the time, explaining the organizational discomfort being caused by the fact that JFJ would no longer support work being done by others within their own communities. “We funded a lot of good people doing really good work. But now we had to learn how to operate off of a power analysis. How do our efforts actually build power? This proved to be a very difficult transition for people.”
For Greer, JFJ could only realize true systemic change once it accumulated a critical mass of operational power. The logic governing this transition could be conceptualized in a redefinition of what made JFJ a Jewish organization—namely, that the notion of organizing and acting as Jews was itself a source of power. “JFJ had not made Judaism core to its identity. We now chose to make our Jewishness the heart and soul of our organization,” Greer said.
Letting go of the idea that JFJ’s strength lay in its support of others, Greer wanted to make the “radical shift to equally embrace the power of our ideas and of organizing Jews.” For a minority group that throughout its history had found their longest moments of peace by diligently assimilating into the wider culture, the Jewish mindset did not particularly lend itself to overt attempts to use Jewish traditions and particularities as a kind of power with which to impose change upon the general population. Yet Greer saw opportunity in the precedent, and sought to bulk up his organization with more manpower.
“It sounds so simple, but when you’re trying to build power, you build it through relationships,” Benjamin Ross told me. Greer fostered his new relationships aggressively, with a series of major mergers and acquisitions. In 2007, Greer acquired Spark, a national nonprofit based in Baltimore that ran literacy programs for school children, Jewish learning trips, and intergenerational services for the ill and elderly. A year prior, Greer had initiated a merger with the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund, which made low-interest loans to aspiring homeowners in low-income neighborhoods, as well as to community groups and small businesses. The Shefa Fund had also dedicated a staff member entirely to shareholder activism, galvanizing a critical mass of a corporation’s stockowners behind company investments in social justice causes, while also allocating resources to a slate of sometimes provocative programs focused on Israeli-Arab relations. “The Shefa Fund was willing to fund some of the more edgy stuff in Israel, some of which no one else wanted to touch,” Mordechai Leibling, a director at Shefa during the acquisition, told me.
When the merger with JFJ was being finalized, Leibling said, the leadership of Shefa was issued an ultimatum by Greer and his board: They’d have to drop any project work in Israel. Losing a key part of their program was difficult for Shefa Fund’s staff, but as Leibling explained, the impact of what they could do with JFJ, now called Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), was greater than what they were doing independently.
However, after Leibling and his colleagues joined JFSJ, Shefa’s marquee shareholder activism and grant-making programs faded away. “That work kind of slowed down,” Leibling said—until the nonprofit gave up its own programming entirely. Something similar happened to the programming that had made the Baltimore-based Spark such an attractive acquisition. As Leibling noted, JFSJ “wanted the expertise from Spark, the immersive, service learning” that taught Jewish values by giving young Jews opportunities to help the impoverished, ill, or those who’d recently suffered a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina. Although the Spark programs were best in class, they were also “very, very labor intensive, and very expensive. It needed to be heavily subsidized,” Leibling said. Eventually, JFSJ cut Spark’s programming entirely, too. Both organizations became extensions of Greer’s other priorities.
In the course of six years, Greer led JFSJ through a series of what would become six acquisitions or joint partnerships with other Jewish organizations. Some in the philanthropic world viewed Greer’s work as bold and overdue, bringing an astute, business-savvy approach to a sometimes sedentary domain. Greer and his team, one commentator observed then, were now the “premier, progressive Jewish organization in the country,” a sentiment echoed by one writer, who saw them as “fast becoming the Jewish voice for justice in North America.”
Others were less keen on Greer’s campaign of mergers and acquisitions. As Vic Rosennthal, then-leader of Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, said then, “some people thought [Greer] was empire-building.”
To the wider Jewish progressive community, the move that definitively signaled the arrival of JFSJ as a true national power player was the acquisition of the West Coast-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. Founded in 1999 with offices in San Francisco and Southern California, PJA was the relaunch of the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress, which by then had undergone “a national drifting to the right wing,” as Daniel Sokatch, the organization’s founding president, described it to me in an interview. The Progressive Jewish Alliance supported initiatives that helped impoverished and low-income workers throughout California, carrying out a mission similar to Greer’s, which Sokatch described as showing ”the mainstream Jewish establishment that the social, economic and criminal justice issues we take on are actually Jewish issues.”
Yet the West Coast PJA had a street credibility across the breadth of the California Jewish community that Greer’s Manhattan-based operation lacked. “PJA was edgier, a little more fun, a little more hip,” Benjamin Ross told me. Sokatch traced the cultivation of that spirit to an early PJA event in the late ’90s. “The house is packed, and I’m making my way through it by one of my staffers. There were two very attractive people who passed us, and one said to the other one, ‘Who knew there were so many progressive Jews in LA?,’ and the second one said, ‘Who knew there were so many cute ones?’ And my staffer and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘this is going to succeed.’ Because it was sexy!”
Sokatch’s office would soon distribute a ’zine on a history of the American labor movement and garment industry called Your One Stop Guide to Liking Sweatshops, “which was aimed at young people, with these great, cool, funky illustrations,” Sokatch said. “Our line was, ‘Kosher is more than the way that you keep your kitchens, it’s the way that you treat your workers.’”
An early adopter of internet-based campaigns, with a belief in aligning their audience’s Jewish values with their consumer habits, Sokatch’s team built a website with a series of tips and recommendations for buying sustainable, ethically sourced clothing, alongside guides for how to organize social action campaigns. For their own protests against local luxury hotels underpaying their employees, Sokatch told the PJA activists a line from an old clothing store spot on LA radio. “‘Speak Yiddish, Dress British.’ Like, you’ll pay a little and you’ll look great. So I jokingly said to our young volunteers and our organizers, ‘That’s our motto. We’re going to look like respectable young people. We’re not going to look like a slovenly mob.’”
Sokatch and Greer soon met and became friends. “When he took that job we had a conversation about what would happen if we took the local progressive organizing of PJA and the national aspirations of Jewish Funds for Justice, which at that point was mostly grant-making,” Sokatch said. “But Simon had ambitions to first become a national progressive voice.”
As Greer realized that goal, he resumed his conversations about a merger with Sokatch’s organization in earnest. By then, PJA had successfully launched its own training program, the Jeremiah Fellowship, a kind of junior Selah focused on early-career 20-somethings and recent college graduates, who could feed into the organizational pipeline and become tomorrow’s institutional Jewish social justice leaders. The Jeremiah fellows were perfect candidates to come back to Selah as a finishing school, forging ties to the JFSJ superstructure.
“The idea was—‘just imagine if we had generations of Jewish social justice leaders who had this training?’ And the way in which it then created a network and community, it had that dual focus, the training itself and the network it created,” Jennie Rosenn told me. “Selah, that was the original vision.”
There seemed to be a clear logic for those in Simon Greer’s orbit to his departure from JFSJ in 2011 to take over as president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. NCF itself had been perhaps the most essential financial supporter of the larger sector which now employed the graduates of the Selah and Jeremiah programs; putting Greer at the top of the entire funding pyramid made sense, and was a victory for their approach. “This is really important to the story,” Daniel Sokatch told me. “None of this would have happened without Nathan Cummings, that’s what I believe. Perhaps it would have happened differently, but they were the common funder for so many of our organizations.”
The numbers bear out Sokatch’s assertion. From its initial launch in 1999, the Progressive Jewish Alliance received $1.85 million from NCF, according to public financial records. While Greer led JFSJ, the organization received an annual average of roughly $540,000, for a total of $3.8 million. Likewise, the Nathan Cummings Foundation had been the primary backer of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a consortium of midsize Jewish organizations, some of which maintained a formal affiliation with JFSJ, and many of which, including Avodah, JOIN, Ameinu, and the Union for Reform Judaism, have been led by graduates of the Selah program on their senior staff.
Greer’s takeover of the Nathan Cummings Foundation significantly expanded the influence he had over not only the nation’s Jewish social justice organizations, but also seminary programs that trained Jewish clergy. Working under Greer, Benjamin Ross had administered a JFSJ program that, according to Ross, brought their model for social justice organizing to upward of 125 synagogues. Not unlike the training provided to leaders within the Selah network, Ross had established a clergy network that turned houses of worship into nodes that would collaborate on social justice campaigns. “We didn’t have a base then—we couldn’t ask people to join a thing that people didn’t know what it was. So we were working on the coalition and building trust so we could be asking together,” Ross said.
For congregations that had been organizing local coat drives and food pantry collections, Ross oversaw the evolution of their traditional community self-care to an approach that was more overtly political in nature, modeled on the topic-driven fundraisers and broad coalition building essential to successful national political campaigns.
“It was a big shift for synagogues from just doing direct service work to thinking about systemic change,” Ross told me. “Instead of feeding homeless people, which is always important, what does it look like for a synagogue to now work with churches and mosques and together raise $250 million to build housing for the homeless?”
Going to communities one by one, Ross and his team began to change the way clergy allocated their own resources. “It was just slow and steady work,” Ross said. Soon, with encouragement from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, rabbinical schools began to reflect the changes JFSJ had catalyzed in their synagogue network, integrating their brand of social justice work directly within the rabbinical curriculum.
“One of the investments from the Cummings Foundation allowed Jewish Funds for Justice to position itself as a credential, if you will, of this work,” Greer said on a podcast in 2012, reflecting on the support the foundation dedicated to offer college credits to rabbinical students who trained directly with Greer’s organization. “In synagogues around the country, there [were] lots of people trying to do social action work with their social action committees. Everywhere you look. But there wasn’t the kind of effectiveness or impact that people would have hoped for,” Greer said. Because of the investment by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, he explained, “We now have literally hundreds of young rabbis whether they were ordained Modern Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative, out in congregations as associate rabbis, sometimes in even more prominent positions, who are leading community organizing efforts in their congregation—not because someone came to their door when they were already out in the community and convinced them that this made sense, but because I actually learned it in school.”
Moving on from JFSJ to run the Nathan Cummings Foundation positioned Greer to take hold of the reins on the entirety of the Jewish social justice network he’d spent almost seven years to build—from the progressive nonprofits coast to coast, to the leaders across various institutions, to the clergy with all levels of authority within their synagogues and Jewish communities.
Once installed at NCF, Greer quickly “changed the whole structure of the organization, so that power accumulated much more around his person,” someone familiar with Greer’s time at NCF told me. As one of his first acts as president, Greer informed dozens of Jewish service and social action organizations, who’d long been supported by the foundation’s annual $20 million of giving, that the stipulations for annual financing had suddenly changed.
“Jewish groups that decided that our biggest issues of today—our water, our air, our food, jobs—that’s not the Jewish community’s problem, [they’re] doing the wrong calculation,” Greer said of those organizations that weren’t involved in projects dedicated to issues such as climate change, which regardless of how removed they had previously been from Jewish organizational life were embedded within the national political conversation. The leaders who were most concerned about the loss of funding, Greer reflected in a 2014 profile, were the “groups that relied, in my humble opinion, too heavily on having been insulated from competition.” Meanwhile, under Greer’s direction, NCF funding for JFSJ climbed to as high as $1.5 million in 2014, according to public financial disclosure records, an increase of nearly $300,000 each year he led the foundation.
Detailed questions were sent to the Nathan Cummings Foundation about this period of time, including Greer’s tenure. In response, a spokesperson issued only the following statement: “The foundation is proud of its longstanding history of grantmaking to Jewish organizations that advance social justice, including Bend The Arc.”
There was a sleek, modern look and feel to the Jewish social justice field that Greer had streamlined into one large cohesive sector that took its marching orders from him. Regimented, carefully measured for performance, and shaped like a single, efficient entity, disparate Jewish organizations now came to serve a single larger purpose, like departments on the floors of a corporate skyscraper. Within the Nathan Cummings Foundation, there were some who saw Greer and the work he’d accomplished as vital and revolutionary, a bright new day for Jewish philanthropy.
“This sector loves a cowboy. A guy who comes in with his guns blazing—who says I’m doing everything that’s new and exciting and bringing you with me,” someone familiar with Greer’s tenure at NCF told me. “It’s very sexy and appealing in the beginning, this guy is taking us on a journey.”
That sense of ebullience and limitless potential is what made it all the more striking when, still early into the third year as the foundation’s new president, Greer and the Cummings Foundation suddenly departed ways.
In his own statement following his departure, Greer wrote, “In recent months, it became clear that my vision and the Board’s vision for the Foundation had diverged. Despite our agreement around much of the substance of the Foundation’s new direction, we were increasingly unaligned around the hard choices that are inevitably part of implementation. I was ready to continue my work on these and other Foundation priorities, but the Board has decided it wants new leadership.”
When Greer left Jewish Funds for Justice in 2011, the merger with Progressive Jewish Alliance was not yet finalized. Before it was complete, Daniel Sokatch would leave PJA for the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, then take over as CEO of the New Israel Fund. “It was always a funny thing between us—am I going to work for Simon? Is Simon going to work for me? Are we going to be co-presidents?”
As it happened, neither man would lead the combined new organization. “Daniel and Simon had begun the conversation, and then Stosh and I brought it to fruition,” said Elissa Barrett, a PJA board member who replaced Sokatch as CEO. “It’s just like women, isn’t it? To be the ones who actually give birth to something.”
Renamed as Bend the Arc, with its headquarters on Seventh Avenue in the former JFSJ offices, the new venture was first led by Alan van Capelle, a nonprofit executive who passed the role of CEO, after a little over a year, to Stosh Cotler.
Assuming the top position at Bend the Arc in 2014 granted Cotler the use of a powerful machine to reclaim portions of the American Jewish identity she felt had been unjustly monopolized by legacy and mainstream Jewish organizations—many of which she now controlled. In addition to the organizations acquired through mergers, Bend the Arc has gone on to establish formal affiliations with 19 groups in New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, New Hampshire, Florida, and elsewhere as part of their network. At any one time a Bend the Arc campaign will include clergy, professional staff, volunteer activists, and partner organizations in upward of a dozen synchronized protests, sit-ins, and marches featuring similar scripts, T-shirts, and signage that roll out like a wave across the nodes of the network—a network cleaved from the infrastructure of Jewish life and connected to the much bigger power source offered by a set of deep-pocketed outside funders. For anyone regularly or even intermittently consuming social media feeds, the impression is that of a singular presentation of Jewish activism—with a constant, resounding voice defining the Jewish position on health care, immigration, and tax policies, as well as which candidates to support in local and state elections.
“Simon laid a lot of the groundwork for the base building,” Benjamin Ross told me. “Stosh was the natural person to take it and build upon it, but with a much more progressive, provocative, truth-telling voice.“
Indeed, as the head of an organization dictating the terms of engagement for scores of progressive Jewish professionals, and in turn their own communities and audiences that look to them as leaders on guidance to define Judaism in the current moment, Cotler has refined and sharpened the group’s internal culture and public messaging, which manifests outwardly in a cohesive and highly coordinated narrative being told today on behalf of Jews in the realm of political theater, which is performed perhaps most effectively for an online audience that identifies in turn with a larger progressive narrative.
No one from Bend the Arc would address on the record how much of their work focuses on digital spaces versus real-world organizing. Through a spokesperson, the organization issued a broader statement: “Bend the Arc is extremely proud of how closely our mission and work reflects the progressive priorities of Jewish Americans,” the spokesperson said as comment to Tablet. “This work is driven by our grassroots base and is mobilizing people of many backgrounds around the country to rise up in solidarity and build a country that is truly for all of us.”
Since the time of Simon Greer’s start of what would become Bend the Arc, the organization has never been more powerful or more influential. And yet, since his departure from Nathan Cummings, Greer has not worked again as a leader within Jewish social justice activism. It’s not entirely clear why Greer has essentially walked away from the sector and the carefully constructed network of which he was the primary architect. Like a ghost, one observer said of Greer’s departure: “He’s just gone.”
As a labor organizer, Greer had spent much of a decade rallying against an elite, wealthy class hollowing out the same social safety net and mechanisms for upward mobility which allowed his own family to successfully improve their lot here in the States. It is possible that Greer, then, had something of a personal crisis as he cultivated a role for himself as an important player within that same class. During his transition from JFSJ to the Nathan Cummings Foundation in 2011, Greer explained to one reporter that he’d “spent a lot of time building a relationship with George Soros,” adding, in the third person, that the “Soros people think Simon’s totally reliable, easygoing, humble.”
If he’s an ally to George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist who made a fortune in futures markets and famously turned a $2 billion profit for his hedge fund when he shorted the pound sterling, Greer also became something of a mentor to his son, Alex, who described Greer, in 2012, as part of his inner circle of personal advisers. In 2015, after Greer had already left Nathan Cummings, Alex Soros formalized his involvement with Bend the Arc by taking a board director seat on the organization’s first political action committee, which he personally funded.
Greer’s intimacy with the Soros family, and their own direct investment in Bend the Arc fits as neatly within Greer’s own career trajectory as it does with the Soros family’s support of progressive politics. With as much as $25 million going to federal and state political hopefuls and ballot initiatives in a given election cycle, starting with $20 million for John Kerry’s failed campaign in 2004, George Soros has become a dominant financial force for the organized progressive movement within the Democratic Party. In supporting Bend the Arc’s political arm with a small portion of his fortune, George Soros also furthers his longtime aim to seed and propagate liberal, pluralistic open societies around the world, where no one would experience the suffering he and his family endured as Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
As Soros explained in the mid-’90s to one reporter, “this whole interest in universal ideas is a typical means to escape from the particular,” a reference to his Jewish identity. “I am escaping the particular. I think I am doing exactly that by espousing this universal concept.”
In his creation of what would become Bend the Arc, Greer championed these same universalism principles in the name of a Judaism that would seek to transcend its own specificity to achieve what he estimated to be a more powerful universalism.
Greer declined to be interviewed for this article, leaving unclear to what extent he sees his departure from the Nathan Cummings Foundation as tied to his own involvement with a group of wealthy patrons who saw great value in the progressive Jewish social action network he’d spent years to build. At the time he left Nathan Cummings, reports suggested that the family removed Greer because of his reluctance to work on programs in Israel. However, multiple sources familiar with Greer’s tenure at NCF said this wasn’t the case, and painted a picture of a broader clash.
A spokesman from the Cummings Foundation said that the group does not comment on personnel matters. But according to multiple sources reached by Tablet, at one point one employee wrote a letter detailing a series of moves made by Greer that rankled various staffers—and submitted it to the board. Soon after, those sources said, Greer was summoned to a hotel room for a meeting, shortly after which news broke of his departure.
“He did extremely well with wealthy people who identified as being progressive. Seduction is at the centerpiece of the dynamics of this sector, which overestimates its intelligence to being seduced,” one person who worked directly with Simon told me. “Simon is an unusually savvy character at manipulating wealthy people to feel safe and radical. Because if you make people feel radical, then they don’t need to be radical.”
Lately, Greer has served as an on-camera host for a series of curious videos under the auspices of an organization called The Nantucket Project, which screen at events and across the company’s social media profiles. The company—which was founded by a group of business leaders including Wendy Schmidt, the wife of former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt—is built around an annual festival on Martha’s Vineyard’s wealthier, harder-living sister, Nantucket, which plays host to an “immersive social gathering” for “visionaries, change makers, [and] artists” who see intrinsic value in the $6,700 ticket to waterfront cocktail hours and intimate presentations by the likes of David Brooks, Susan Rice, and Deepak Chopra.
There are echoes of Bend the Arc in The Nantucket Project’s corporate structure—passes to the retreat are not sold but rather selectively granted to “Fellows,” who apply to join The Nantucket Project Academy—which beyond the weekend island getaway offers year-round access to other exclusive events closer to one’s first or second home in places like Sag Harbor and Greenwich, Connecticut. And while in much of his on-camera work Greer doesn’t explicitly foreground his past experiences spearheading Jewish political efforts, there’s a continuous thread running through that work and this latest endeavor.
In a trailer of a video titled “The Humility Film,” Greer meditates as the sun rises and his voice-over says “there’s something going on in the country. We’re getting torn apart.” A drone shot sweeps over the festival’s waterfront tent and another voice pipes in, “Here at The Nantucket Project, we can drop the act.”
Greer narrates that “for the past five years or so I’ve been a political orphan.” He walks through an airport and then meets with those who he describes as “white, working-class conservatives all across America,” shop owners and forlorn-looking Midwesterners, quick shots from the field interspersed with sit-down conversations with figures from “the other side,” like former Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Greer’s old piñata, Glenn Beck.
Looking softly at one another over a table decorated with succulents, Beck says with a hint of wounded pride, “I don’t think people on the left really understand the people on the right.”
Greer responds, “The truth is, you were not a human to me, you were a caricature.”
“And you were a caricature to me,” Beck adds, before the two stand up to wrap their arms around one another in a slow-motion hug.
In his commentary to explain the potentially confusing optics, Greer says this chapter of his “journey … put me on the outside of the progressive movement that I called home. I’m a traitor to the cause. That’s what I feel from some of my longtime friends.”
But there’s an overarching, higher purpose to this betrayal of his comrades. As Greer explains, America is broken: “we have a political crisis in this country, but underneath we have a spiritual crisis.”
Of course, Greer himself was an architect of a nationwide activist network designed to ferment, exacerbate, and then reap the rewards from that very political crisis he speaks of with such solemnity: a strident, performative atonement that serves as the perfect theater to screen before a retreat of affluent executives and majority stock owners who might see something of themselves in Greer, an organizational leader who’s obtained status and high profile by breaking down a community’s generations of norms and tradition to satisfy the larger ambitions of billionaire donors. Greer’s literal embrace of Glenn Beck, a man who made a multimillion-dollar fortune provoking animus and paranoia from the other side of the political spectrum, is this religion’s preferred fable, a dramatic reconciliation between figureheads of warring factions, while the benighted masses struggle off in the distance, in the hopes of finding spiritual meaning.
In recent weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has terrorized the nation and pulled the rug from underneath the economy, Greer has hosted a series of spiritually inflected YouTube videos for The Nantucket Project audience, with a focus on how to maintain a sense of gratitude. Greer’s quarantine has taken place on the cliffs in Hawaii, where he and his family remained in a rented, glass-walled beachfront vacation house overlooking a sprawling tropical vista.
Speaking with one of The Nantucket Project executives about their morning routines, Greer, now 51, says “I imagine … if my 25-years-ago self were sitting here listening to us talking about our meditation and our journal and our gratitude and our intention, those younger selves would be like, ‘What happened to you guys?’”
On a crisp morning last fall, two dozen protesters chanted slogans on immigration policy near a bus stop in Huntington, New York, an affluent village on Long Island. They hoisted hand-painted signs and a red, 10-foot vinyl Bend the Arc banner, which earned occasional honks from rush-hour traffic. One woman, in her 50s, brown hair to her shoulders, a strong Long Island accent, was new, recruited by text message, and uncertain about her involvement. Handed a Bend the Arc T-shirt, she asked about the meaning of the organization’s name.
“It’s inspired by the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice,” said Kayla Glick, a staff organizer for the Manhattan-based social action organization who suddenly appeared beside us. In her 30s, she was like a living illustration of the new and suddenly omnipresent role of “organizer”; wide-shouldered, a nose stud, wire-frame glasses, with a hasty smile that flashed and vanished between sentences, constantly taking the temperature of the group to guard against flagging interest.
It was important for Bend the Arc, Glick told me afterward, “to build deep connections on Long Island. Because that’s the place we live. It’s important to be in community, and to be organizing in the place that we live.” I asked Kayla which part of Long Island she was from. “I live in Brooklyn,” she said.
The text message recruit nodded at Glick, gave the shirt back. “You should have it for someone else, someone who can wear it,” she said. She turned to two other women nearby, half apologetically, “I don’t know what their position is.”
They shared a look. “It’s to speak up on issues that are important—generally important for Jews.” one said. “And right now, I guess, the focus is on immigration, as the main issue.”
“This morning on television they talked about the Rohingya,” the recruit said. Why not fight for those million being persecuted by the Chinese because of their religion?
“Of course, there’s persecution around the world, but there’s right here at home, too, the policies where we have to stand up now,” the other woman replied. The recruit nodded silently.
At the bus stop on Long Island was a photographer, Jeff Siegel, who had volunteered his services to Bend the Arc for the past two years. He took a series of photos of the protesters—teenagers, 30-somethings, middle-aged—holding their hand-painted signs—NEVER AGAIN, #WeRemember—as they chanted and began their march toward the small, still pond and manicured lawn beside the field office building of Tom Suozzi, the second-term Democratic representative of New York’s 3rd District. By all appearances the group seemed poised to make a loud denunciation of the politician, a reminder that his district’s voters tend to swing red to blue and back again if local concerns aren’t heard. But it soon became clear that this was not a traditional political protest. It was closer to something like a Jewish prayer service, which sought to transform the language of traditional Judaism into photogenic fuel for progressive political action.
Without mentioning the congressman by name, two local rabbis, and Bend the Arc staffers, shepherded the group through a passed-around script for a program of song, chants, and mourning prayers, their protest inflected with the solemn intentions of the Jewish High Holidays, the calendar’s sui sacred stretch that culminated the following week with Yom Kippur.
“We’re gathered during the Days of Awe, a time of moral awakening, repentance, and collective accountability,” said Zettie Shapey, a 20-something from Bend the Arc. Her somber cadence echoed the grave mood of the Yom Kippur services upon which the script was modeled. “The 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of mourning,” she told them, establishing the frame of a religious occasion. Shapey then speckled in immigration policy, the protest’s core agitation.
“Together, we can wake up the members of Congress to their responsibility to stop human abuses by ICE, and CBP,” she said in the same austere intonation.
From the office a middle-aged woman came outside to take a cellphone picture. I asked her if protesters come here often. “Very, very rarely,” said Betty Davidson, Suozzi’s press assistant.
“We remember the crimes of ICE,” the protesters chanted in unison, just as if they were to atone for their own sins in a synagogue service. “We remember the members of Congress who enabled Trump’s anti-immigration agenda.”
I asked the press assistant if the congressman will come out to meet the group. “Oh, he’s not here,” Davidson said nonchalantly, standing a few yards back, checking her phone for email. “Occasionally for a long-scheduled meeting, but otherwise, he’s in his main office, or in D.C. Almost never here.”
Rabbi Sharon Ballan, a petite woman in her 50s, her shoulder-length hair under a blue-knit kippah, blew an amber-colored ram’s horn, the shofar, which rang out sour and loud. The sound, which is so often heard in a temple, hung in the air awkwardly, diminished by the mundane noise of the nearby traffic.
“The shofar we just blew is a very, very powerful symbol for the High Holy Days. It’s supposed to wake us up,” the rabbi told the protesters. A contentment fell over her narrow face as she paused for effect. “But are we hearing the right message?”
The photographer rapidly clicked his camera, and I wondered for a moment who the rabbi was speaking to. The congressman was not here, just a couple members of his administrative staff.
The intended audience, as it turns out, wasn’t ever supposed to be physically present. Later, I’d see the photos and videos of the event on Bend the Arc Facebook and Twitter pages, along with photos and videos from events in Los Angeles, at the office of Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, and in Cleveland, at the office of Rep. Marcia Fudge. Streaming videos of protesters reading from the same script would appear over the next few days from nearly identical events that week, during the Days of Awe, in South Florida, San Francisco, New York, and Southern California. It was a feat of tremendous coordination, to bring what appeared to be so many Jews from disparate local communities together to seemingly speak as a unified whole.
That afternoon, a rabbi in the group, Janet Liss, told me her congregants recently became active with Bend the Arc campaigns. I asked her, before she knew of the organization, had she protested American immigration policy?
“Not specifically,” Rabbi Liss said. “We’ve done a lot in Glen Cove, we’re a good congregation for collection.” She noted that those congregants once organized coat drives for the cold, and food drives for the hungry.
I asked if their actions with Bend the Arc were a natural evolution of that community aid. “To advocacy work? I think so,” she said, then added that other American Jewish congregations are undergoing similar evolutions—many of them, in fact. Along with 44 other congregations organized by Bend the Arc, she said, her own group recently caravanned to Albany to lobby for a New York state bill to improve undocumented citizens’ access to driver’s licenses.
“It’s a new thing for my congregation,” she said. “But that’s what Bend the Arc is about.”
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.