Community organizer

Community organizer

Laura Fein brings new directions to the Jewish Community Relations Council

It’s easy for an outsider to despair of ever understanding the apparently labyrinthine structure of the Jewish federation system.

Don’t worry. This story won’t attempt that task. Instead, it will focus on one of the federation’s organizations, the one that works on public policy, advocacy, and outreach to other communities: The Jewish Community Relations Council.

Just as all the federation’s agencies are tied together through the federation, and the federation is tied to other federations through the Jewish Federations of North America, the JCRC is part of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the charmingly called “umbrella organization” to which it belongs.

Here ends the Jewish civics lesson. Now, let’s take a look at the local JCRC and its new director, Laura Fein of Teaneck.

“The JCRC has always been the part of the federation that deals with public affairs, public policy, and community issues, and it is also the part of the federation that created and maintains relationships with other communities, including the government, elected officials, New Jersey’s Jewish community, and organizations that represent other religious and ethnic groups,” Ms. Fein said. As a result of a large-scale marketing survey that the federation recently concluded, “we looked to reset the community priorities so that the federation would match the Jewish community’s needs.

County, state, and federal officials meet at the annual legislative gathering, convened by the JCRC, at the Paramus offices of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
County, state, and federal officials meet at the annual legislative gathering, convened by the JCRC,
at the Paramus offices of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“The findings showed that anti-Semitism, anti-Israel actions, BDS” — that’s the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that is aimed against Israel — “Israel advocacy, and education were a high priority, and we wanted to focus the JCRC’s work more on those issues,” she said. Those are priorities at many other JCRCs around the country as well, she added; the organization works to influence legislation and policy “that impacts services for senior citizens or people with disabilities. These are all issues for the JCRC.”

Now, “we have re-organized, and we have three primary committees, and then a project spun off from it,” she continued. The first one is government relations; AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — is a good example for the JCRC, she said. ‘They have such a huge cross-section of people, with everyone, every ethnicity, every race, so excited to be supporting Israel. I went to several of the sessions at the last convention, and it was so inspiring.

“There were Mexican American and Latino leaders who had gone to Israel to look at the absorption center there” — where new immigrants are helped to join Israeli society — “and to take the ideas to apply to immigrant issues here. It’s the same with African American leaders, who want to see how diversity is addressed in Israel, how the army integrates people, and how Israeli society puts tremendous thought and effort into becoming integrated, addressing any issue that a diverse society will have to address.”

The JCRC was part of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in 2014, when the Super Bowl was held in New Jersey.
The JCRC was part of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in 2014, when the Super Bowl was held in New Jersey.

The JCRCs across the state have an unusual relationship with elected officials, she said. “You can see the tremendous influence they have. When the governor signed the anti-BDS legislation, you could look around the room and see that it’s by and large full of federation and JCRC people. The fact that it passed almost unanimously was a real credit to the JCRCs around the state, for getting it on the agenda in the first place and then getting that huge amount of support for it.

“The real impact of that kind of legislation — and the anti-BDS resolution that was passed in Englewood last week — is that it shows that BDS groups are not human rights advocacy organizations, as they purport to be, but rather a condemnation organization that promotes anti-Semitism, and whose leaders make it clear that no version of a Jewish state of Israel is acceptable to them.

“One thing that I found very gratifying is how this unites the Jewish community,” Ms. Fein continued. “Even a few years ago, you might not have found the same level of unity. You might have found more ambivalence. But I think that by now people have come to recognize that extreme anti-Zionist rhetoric has a direct impact on rising levels of anti-Semitism.

“We view our role as both educating the public on various issues that we advocate for and also to engage the community in building relationships. We have a new program — key contacts — something that’s done not infrequently on the national level. We’re doing it statewide; we’re establishing specific people in the community to go to specific lawmakers.

“Our catchment area is so densely populated that we are connected with nine out of the 40 state legislative districts,” she continued. “We also want to strengthen the relationships by bringing more people into it. We are planning to have a local lobbying day, probably in February, to train people and have them visit local offices. That’s a way to get people involved without asking them to take a whole day off and travel. They can have a meeting right where they live.”

The JCRC sponsors a Jewish-Catholic trip to Israel.
The JCRC sponsors a Jewish-Catholic trip to Israel.

The second area for the JCRC’s focus is intergroup relations. “This is dealing with all other communities outside the Jewish community other than the government,” Ms. Fein said. “We have relationships with a number of other religious and ethnic groups. We are building on the strength of those relationships.” For example, she said, because there are many Indians, both in this country and in India, who specialize in high tech, as do Israelis, “we are exploring programs with the Indian and Israeli communities.”

Of all the programs that deal with intergroup work, which include the 30-year-old interfaith breakfast, “our flagship is the Bergen Reads program, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year. It’s a program that brings almost 200 volunteers into nine different public schools in Hackensack and Teaneck every year. They go every week, and they are paired with children, and they serve as friends, buddies, and teachers’ aides, helping get the kids up to grade level. They often form tight relationships, and the schools have expressed tremendous appreciation for the program.

“The program comes from our commitment. The population we serve is by and large non-Jewish; it is predominantly African American and Latin American. We look to build relationships so that hopefully we can work together on other issues that are close to our hearts.”

She is not naïve about the problems that some of these relationships must overcome. “We are well aware of the issues presented by intersectionality” — that’s the idea that all victims of discrimination based on gender, race, class, ethnicity, or disability, among other things, somehow are linked. “It’s the idea that all victims are victims together, and that somehow, despite thousands of years of anti-Semitism, Jews are excluded from these groups, and from the conversation.

“We have seen this summer the statements from Black Lives Matter, which were so transparently anti-Israel and really anti-Semitic, that accused Jews and Israelis of genocide and apartheid and the worst violations they can come up with. We don’t believe that it is representative of the broader community, but it certainly is something that raises a concern. We feel that the best way to change it is to broaden the relationships with the communities that we have been partnering with for so long.”

And then there is the third committee. The biggest committee. Israel.

“Many departments of the federation deal with things about Israel,” Ms. Fein said. “The federation as a whole donates money to Israel; we have our sister city, Nahariya, the Israel film festival, and many cultural events.” The JCRC’s Israel brief has to do with advocacy, education, and the impact of the BDS movement.

Last year, on Israel’s independence day, its flag was raised in the county complex in Hackensack.
Last year, on Israel’s independence day, its flag was raised in the county complex in Hackensack.

“This year, we received a grant and we are piloting a really exciting program to educate high school students on the current climate, and about the conversations about Israel they might face on campus. We are partnering with about 20 different organizations and nonprofits — most but not all of them Jewish — and area synagogues. We have committee members from all over our catchment area, and they’re of all ages and backgrounds. We hope to attract an unprecedented number of participants.

“The program will not only prepare students for the kinds of highly publicized aggression that we’ve seen, like shouting down speakers, doing apartheid week and pretend evictions, but it also includes much more typical situations, such as difficult conversations you might have with your roommate, or what to do when a professor throws an anti-Israel statement into your English class. Unfortunately, these types of situations are extremely prevalent, to the point where almost every person — student or parent — I’ve spoken to has a story.”

To set up this group, “we are bringing in a group of about 25 students, mainly juniors and seniors, from 14 high schools in our area — some public, some private, some day schools — a real diverse group. We are having them take an active role in the planning process. Starting in June, we have been meeting with them every month. We do a bit of education on the underlying issues, and we’ve had some really amazing conversations that opened my eyes to the level of bullying that some of these kids have been facing in school.”

For example, she said, “One young woman said she stopped wearing anything that identified her as being Jewish in school because she was being harassed. Another kid told a story about a summer program at a university where his roommates called him Jewboy and threw bacon at him in the cafeteria.”

At the program, which the students named iCan, “they get some education about the underlying issues, and also they learn how to build a program and develop their leadership skills. We are planning to have an expert in social media marketing who will teach them and help them to apply it.” Such skills, of course, are useful to students even beyond their work on Israel.

Laura Fein with Chloe Valdary, a Zionist activist, at the UN.
Laura Fein with Chloe Valdary,
a Zionist activist, at the UN.

She is planning a one-day conference, set for March 5. “We want to inspire the students to feel connected to Israel, and to understand their inherent connection to the Jewish state. We want to give them a general background about the issues they might face, as well as resources to deal with situations they might encounter.”

To that end, local college students, “who went to the same high schools just a few years ahead of them, and have faced those situations,” will come to work with the high school students. “They will be able to relate to their younger brothers and sisters, who are about to embark on the same journey,” Ms. Fein said. “We also want to introduce them to the wide range of resources on campus, including Hillel, of course, and also StandWithUs, the ADL, and others.”

There is another program, Expert Access, that grows logically from the committees. “Initially, we realized that we have great relationships with so many experts about Israel, about politics, and government relations and intergroup relations, but it’s so difficult for a lot of people to come to events,” Ms. Fein said. “So we started a series of conference calls. You can just dial in for a half hour of information from experts.”

Ms. Fein came to Israel activism naturally. She grew up in Cherry Hill. “I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, which I credit for most of the good things in my life,” she said. “In high school, in the late ‘80s, I became connected with students who were part of the World Union of Jewish Students. I got really excited by them; I went to Israel with a mixed group of high school and college students and just became enthralled with the state of Israel. Just so excited!

“So I came home. I already had been involved with BBYO and USY, and I started doing programming that combined substance and fun. Sometimes I worked with USY and BBYO, sometimes with my high school, Cherry Hill East, and my synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Haddon Heights. And I was one of those kids who stayed in Hebrew school all the way through senior year.”

Of course, she did have role models. “My parents, Deedee and Mark Fein, were very involved in their federation and the JCRC,” she said. “I feel that my life has come full circle — I’m working for the JCRC and the federation, and I’m trying to come up with programs that are both meaningful and fun.”

Martha Cohen and her son, Harry, above, and Donna Weintraub and her son Cory went to learn how to counter BDS at a UN conference last year.
Martha Cohen and her son, Harry, above, and Donna Weintraub and her son Cory went to learn how to counter BDS at a UN conference last year.

When she was in high school, Ms. Fein put together a rally for Soviet Jews. “We had kids from all backgrounds,” she said. “We collected matzah boxes and mailed them to Soviet Jews; we had a demonstration at the post office, and the local mayor and our congressman and the local TV station came. It was exciting and fun for the students, and it made a difference in our community education about Soviet Jews.

“I have no idea how many boxes of matzah actually got distributed in the Soviet Union, but we had high hopes,” she said.

When she was in high school, Ms. Fein interned for Senator Frank Lautenberg in his Camden office. “That might have been my first non-babysitting job,” she said. “I met him many times. He was a grand personality, someone who really seemed like he could do anything — and then he proved that he could. He was a huge Jewish federation leader before he went into politics, and he credited his ability to motivate and inspire people in no small part to his work in the Jewish community.”

When it was time to apply to college, Ms. Fein wrote about “how my Judaism tied together my politics, my social conscience, and my heritage, and how it motivated me to become involved with my community.” It got her into Harvard. (Her grades and tests scores didn’t hurt, of course.)

“As an undergraduate, I was involved with politics, social action, and community services, as well as working with Hillel and having various chairships throughout Hillel,” she said. “I was very proud of something we called Chai Week. We reached out to prominent students who had not previously come to Hillel, but who we wanted to bring in through an outreach program. Some of what I learned, and that I’m now applying to iCan, is that we let the people we wanted to bring in decide what they wanted, instead of trying to bring them in to do what we wanted.

“We brought in student leaders who were Jewish. We had a student who was prominent in the drama program on campus. He led a discussion on Jewish identity. I saw him again at a reunion, many years later, and he ended up becoming a rabbi. I asked him, for my mother’s kvelling purposes, if that Hillel program had made any difference to him. He said that it had been the first time he entered the Hillel building, and it planted a seed that grew many years later.

“It’s gratifying.”

The program was duplicated on other campuses. “The method was to bring students in before you had the plans, and provide them with resources for things that were important to them. It takes a large tolerance for risk.” That’s a model and a tolerance that she’s bringing to her new job as well.

Women from the JCRC join others from across the county — and the country — to fight human trafficking.
Women from the JCRC join others from across the county — and the country — to fight human trafficking.

After college, Ms. Fein spent a year in Israel as a Wallenberg Fellow, studying at Hebrew University and working in the community. When she returned to the United States, she entered Columbia Law School, was active in the Jewish community, became a lawyer, and worked in large law firms.

She met and married Martin Ramirez in law school, and they moved to Teaneck in 2007; her sister and brother-in-law, Ali and Moe Blech, live around the corner from Ms. Fein and Mr. Ramirez. Lori and Marty have five daughters — Aviva, Margalit, Dahlia, Adiel, and Israela. Mr. Ramirez and Ms. Fein belong to an Orthdox shul, and their daughters go to Orthodox day schools. The Blechs have four daughters; the nine girls, who range from elementary to high school age, are good friends and tight allies.

Ms. Fein had planned on taking another law job when she moved to Teaneck, but her family responsibilities took over. “I had my mommy years, which I think everybody should do,” she said. “It is the greatest thing ever. And I feel that I learned more management skills from that than from any other managerial positions I ever held.” She still planned on going back to her career.

Bergen Reads volunteer Linda Palish helps a student — her buddy — learn to read.
Bergen Reads volunteer Linda Palish helps a student — her buddy — learn to read.

“But then, my brother, Richard, died suddenly in 2013, and his untimely death made me rethink about what I really wanted to do with my time. He had been very much an activist; he held a rally in New York that drew thousands of people after the Crown Heights riots, and he was instrumental in getting the Flatow amendment passed.” (The Flatow amendment allowed Stephen Flatow and others to sue the government of Iran for its sponsorship of terrorism.)

She took a job with the Zionist Organization of America, as its New Jersey director. “It was an exciting challenge to be working there, especially during the Iran deal crisis, and to be able to do meaningful work, even though the outcome was not what we had hoped for.” But that job was in Manhattan, so when the JCRC, with its local office and its wide reach, began looking for a new director, “it just seemed like a perfect fit,” she said. “It put together the various parts of my background and my love of giving back to my local community.” She began her new job in February.

“Being able to embrace the diversity of the community is so apropos for my life, given my personal interactions with so many viewpoints, socially, politically, and religiously,” Ms. Fein said. “Trying to bring those threads together for the community has been very gratifying already, and will just continue to get better.”

Donna Weintraub of Haworth is the chair of the iCan event. “There are a bunch of things about it that excite me,” she said. “I find that as a parent” — she has three children in college — “a lot of the time, even with the best intentions, when adults develop programs for kids it doesn’t always turn out to be a program that speaks for kids. We wanted to be sure that it would eng

The JCRC and local Hillels, all part of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, work together.
The JCRC and local Hillels, all part of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, work together.

age them, be in a language they understand, and have the most impact.

“I have a list of 20-plus kid from a host of high schools and organizations. There are kids from the Bergen Academies, from Demarest and Tenafly, and from the other side of the county. It’s really representative of our catchment area.

“We have been raising kids to go off to college knowing they love Israel, but not knowing why,” she continued. “We want them to walk out of the event feeling more grounded and more knowledgeable, so they can feel good about their emotions and their politics. And a piece of that is understanding and distinguishing between legitimate discussion and outright anti-Zionism and anti-Semisitism.

“We don’t want the kids to feel that they have to be leaders, or outspoken advocates on campus. We want them to feel that they walk tall and proud, whether or not they want to stop at a booth and have an argument with someone about BDS or Apartheid Week. We want them to be proud and stand tall, not to cower, when somebody says ‘Your people are killing babies,’ or ‘They stole our land.’ A lot of these kids don’t know this narrative. They don’t know the history of Israel. They don’t know about 1948. They don’t know what’s really going on.

“They know it’s okay to question the United States government. Why isn’t it okay to question Israel? But you can question Israel, and that shouldn’t make you feel that you have to turn your back on it.”

Talia Mizikovsky, the federation’s director of Jewish student life, heads the Hillels in the four local colleges. “I am helping to provide campus expertise in guiding the programs for high school students, and in providing the resources that they need,” she said. She and Ms. Fein also worked together “in meeting with campus administrators on all four campuses to talk about Jewish concerns, including the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” she said.

“At the end of the day, Lori is in charge of relationships, in a large way. Relationships are instrumental in forming the way the Jewish federation system runs. Everything boils down to relationships.”

Between students, adults, government officials, and interfaith representatives, Lori Fein is busy building those networks.