David Lerner

J Street and the Conference of Presidents

J Street logo

One of the many strengths of our Temple Emunah community is our diversity. If you want a shul where everyone is always in agreement, this is not it. That said, this diversity of opinion and perspective makes for a rich, energetic congregation. We can actually learn new ideas and vantage points from each other. If we are open to it, we may actually grow from these interactions.

In many ways, I wish that the American Jewish community as a whole were more like ours. I would like to engage the emotionally fraught topic of Israel, specifically the recent brouhaha about J Street and the Conference of Presidents.

In terms of Israel, we at Emunah run the gamut—from the approximately five percent of us who support J Street to the roughly five percent of us who feel that AIPAC is too moderate. And there is a very strong group in the center who are supporters of Israel, but may have serious qualms about some policies of the Israeli government.

J Street is a complex issue for me. Some of my rabbinic colleagues for whom I have deep respect have pressured me to join the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet. Consequently, I have researched the organization and read many of their policy statements. The reality is that I agree with a fair number of their positions. Like them, I am opposed to the settlements and believe that continued building (especially, on the other side of the separation fence) undermines future possibilities for peace.

That said, J Street has done a number of things that have made me quite uncomfortable. For example, since its founding in 2008, each time Israel has been involved in a war or conflict, it has seemed to me that J Street’s knee-jerk reaction has been to attack Israel, condemning Israel’s response to Hamas and Hezbollah rocket-fire more than the rocket-fire itself. In addition, some of its funders do not strike me as supporters of Israel—they make me quite wary of the organization as a whole.

Consequently, I have not been a J Street supporter. But recently J Street has been involved in a different kind of controversy. For the last few years, J Street has asked to join the Conference of Presidents of Major North American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that claims to speak for North American Jews.

Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations logo

They have asked for a seat at the table among the 51 other Jewish organizations. Of course, given that there are 51, not all are actually “major.” In fact, some are more like paper organizations whose membership is not really engaged.

The Conference has a high bar for membership: two-thirds of the voting organizations have to accept a group for it to be “in.” In late April, a vote took place and J Street was not accepted.

The following Shabbat I shared some of my perspective and I want to reiterate it and expand upon it.

First, by any standard the Jewish community has, J Street should be part of the Conference. It is a Jewish organization that supports Israel—even if some, like me, do not agree with all of its perspectives. It does not support BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) against Israel—a litmus test for many federations and Hillels for who is in and who is out in the Jewish world. It does not support Jews for Jesus and the like—another litmus test. In fact, there are already other member organizations, like Americans for Peace Now, that hold the same positions as J Street.

Second, it is a “major” Jewish organization. I was told that it, like AIPAC, has over 100,000 members. How can it not be given a seat at the table? One of J Street’s complaints is that the organized Jewish community was not speaking for its members. Sure enough, the organized Jewish community validated that allegation.

Third, for those who oppose J Street, this was an unwise strategy. Not only was J Street not allowed in the Conference, where it would have had only one vote and could have easily been outvoted by more right-wing organizations, now J Street has a stronger claim. Its membership and fundraising have grown since this episode, as now it can demonstrate explicitly that it has been excluded from the community. Far wiser would have been to bring it into the room—yes, granting J Street a measure of legitimacy, but one that would not have changed the overall Conference by any measure.

Fourth, J Street should have been allowed in to allow for a fuller expression of the diversity within the pro-Israel American Jewish community. Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League affirmed this position, stating: “We will support the admission of J Street not because we agree with them, not because we support their views, but in order to ensure the integrity and credibility of American Jewish advocacy and of the Conference of Presidents.”

Finally, I have to say how disappointed I was with the process. The Conference votes in secrecy, something that feeds into the feelings of exclusion from those on the outside. In this day of transparency, this process is unwise. We have been left to make our own deductions, to figure out how organizations voted: From here, one can see that all the centrist Jewish organizations, like the ADL and JCPA, and liberal religious movements, like the Reform and Conservative Movement organizations, voted to support J Street’s admission into the Conference. I am proud that our movement voted for its inclusion.

I have to say that I am distressed that many organizations to which I belong, including AIPAC, Friends of the IDF, and Jewish National Fund, did not even reveal how they voted. It is one thing that they may have voted in a manner that I do not agree with, but it is simply untenable, in this day and age, not to even share how you stand and why.

These organizations may have felt that it is a lose-lose proposition for them to vote. Then, at least, they should have explained their abstention explicitly stating that no matter which way they would have voted, they would be assailed by many of their members. I am having great trouble supporting organizations that do not explain their positions and await clarification from these organizations.

So, as of this writing, J Street is stronger than it was before, though it is not part of the Conference. The Conference is weaker and even less relevant that it was before.

As Rabbi Gerry Skolnik, the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Assembly (international organization of Conservative rabbis) wrote: “On the surface, it looks like the mainstream leadership won, and J Street lost. But like I said, sometimes you lose but you really win, and that’s exactly what J Street accomplished. It didn’t have to be that way. And the Jewish community as a whole will wind up paying the price.” (

I would have to agree—and, at the same time, take pride in the way we handle things here at Temple Emunah.

Praying for peace for Israel and the Jewish people,

Rabbi David G. Lerner

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.