JCRC establishes speakers bureau
Some the fall, local groups and institutions searching for speakers to come in and talk about Israel need look no further than the Hope for Peace Speakers Bureau, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. More than half a dozen local leaders have been training themselves for months with the presentation, unveiled last month at the JCRC’s annual meeting.
One such leader, Avi Naiman of Tenafly, said the basic idea of the speakers bureau is to educate people, mainly non-Jews, about Israel "in a positive way."
The national Jewish Council for Public Affairs has worked with a number of communities across the country to establish such groups, providing them with a basic Power Point presentation that can then be adjusted to local needs, said Naiman, chair of UJA-NNJ’s Israel and overseas committee. The group here decided not to focus on issues like divestment or the relations between Israelis and Palestinians, but to present the parallels between Israel and the U.S. as democracies. Not only parallels like free speech and the right to vote, but also that both countries are leaders in research and development which they share with others in the world and that they both carry out worldwide humanitarian efforts.
"We feel that it is our job to portray Israel as a positive force in the world," Naiman said. The local group’s presentation will be honed during the summer and speakers will be ready to go out into the community in the fall.
Although most of the people the speakers bureau expects to reach would not be Jewish, whether in churches or service groups, Naiman said they have talked about trying to be invited to speak at public high schools, which would give them access to both Jewish and non-Jewish students. And a couple of rabbis have already approached them about giving the presentation in their synagogues.
"The hope is to generate dialogue and understanding," Naiman said, stressing also the importance of having a Jewish group out there proactively advocating for Israel rather than just reacting when there’s a problem.
Joy Kurland, JCRC director, said a lot of effort went into tailoring the presentation for the northern New Jersey community. For example, while divestment has been a national issue for some churches, that is not necessarily reflected at the local level.
"You have to know your community, in the sense of who your audience is," said Kurland, adding that the project expects to reach out initially to mainline Protestant churches and civic groups like Rotary and Kiwanis.
She said the American Jewish Committee worked with the speakers bureau early on and remains available for consultation.
The speakers feel no obligation to strive for balance, as any group asking them in would understand that they are quite clearly Jews advocating for Israel. For example, said Leslie Billet of Englewood, a member of the speakers bureau, the group decided it "didn’t ring true" to present the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict simply in an effort to be balanced and that it was best just "to speak from the heart" about Israel.
Despite what Billet termed the "soft approach" of the presentation, the speakers are prepared to answer tough questions and have been soliciting samples of such questions from peers in the community.
"We are prepared for it to not go down like a piece of candy," Billet said, pointing out that "dealing with objections is a pretty tough thing and you’re a guest in someone’s facility. [But] the decision to allow us in the door comes from interest in hearing about this topic."
Being invited to speak in the first place is not always easy, said Martin Raffel, JCPA associate executive director. "They think they’re going to be propagandized and they don’t want to be."
There are three speakers bureaus in this state, Raffel said: in northern New Jersey, southern New Jersey, and Ocean County. Training speakers is part of the JCPA’s Israel Advocacy Initiative, which also includes efforts such as taking political "influentials" to Israel. "Israel advocacy is not a one size fits all [situation]."