To paraphrase Billy Joel: Who needs an office out in Hackensack?
The Zionist Organization of America does.
The ZOA dates back to 1897; as Theodore Herzl’s first Zionist Congress met in Basel, a group of mostly New York-based Zionist clubs came together as the Federation of American Zionists. In 1917, under the presidency of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the group changed its name to the one it has today.
Now it has become the first national Jewish organization to base a New Jersey regional office in Bergen County.
“That’s where the Jews are,” its president, Morton Klein, said.
“This area has the deepest population of potential pro-Israel activists who can join forces with ZOA,” said Laura Fein, the new executive director of ZOA New Jersey. Ms. Fein lives in Teaneck.
Ms. Fein is working to expand ZOA membership and create a local board, while organizing events and bringing in speakers over the bridge from the organization’s national headquarters in Manhattan.
The New Jersey office is the ZOA’s sixth staffed local office; six months ago the organization opened one in San Francisco to serve the west coast.
The ZOA already has members and leaders in Bergen County. Perhaps the most prominent is Dr. Benjamin Chouake, who sits on the ZOA national board and also is the president of Norpac, the Englewood-based pro-Israel political action committee, which raises money to support political candidates who support Israel.
“We work with Norpac and AIPAC,” said Ms. Fein, who was an AIPAC campus representative when she was an undergraduate at Harvard.
“ZOA is mainly a grassroots organization,” she said. “It’s not an organization where you have to be a million-dollar donor to have a voice. Our board has donors of many levels, people whose ideas and expertise and volunteerism is their impact. For people who are looking to get involved and make a strong impact on the national level, ZOA is a wonderful entry, a small organization where a person who is motivated can rise up quickly.
“Morton Klein is a perfect example,” she continued. “He came out of nowhere” – more specifically, president of a small Philadelphia ZOA chapter – “and became the president – and look at the impact he had.”
It was just over 20 years ago, soon after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo accords, that Mr. Klein took the helm of the ZOA. He made the small organization a significant player in Jewish organizational life by taking a staunch position against the Oslo process.
“The ZOA is more uncompromising in the positions it takes,” is how Ms. Fein put it. “It is often out in front of other, larger, more mainstream Jewish organizations in terms of taking hardline positions that eventually, many times, are proven correct.”
She said that ongoing U.S. negotiations with Iran are “a perfect example.”
“Many of the main Jewish organizations were asked by the administration to soften their stance on sanctions while negotiations were underway,” she said. “Many of those organizations did abide by that request. ZOA never did that. For the ZOA, the truth is the highest priority. Often the politics has come around to follow our policy.
“The ZOA’s prime focus in the Arab-Israeli conflict is uncovering the truth of the Palestinian position – and the whole Arab world’s position – on Israel. In reality their goal is to eliminate Israel and continue their campaign of violence against Israel and the Jewish people.”
Another area of ZOA activity has particular resonance for New Jersey – the battle against anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on college campuses. The ZOA’s legal department – headed by Susan Tuchman of Tenafly – has spearheaded an effort to use federal civil rights law to defend Jewish students on campus, including at Rutgers University.
Ms. Fein was a college activist at Harvard, organizing Jewish events during the time of the first intifata, in the late 1980s. After earning a law degree at Columbia, she worked in anti-trust law in Washington for a number of years, eventually moving to New Jersey and starting to raise a family.
As Mr. Klein noted, both in conversation and in the press release announcing her hire, she sends her children to Jewish day schools.
With her youngest child now in preschool, Ms. Fein had been thinking of returning to work – but thought she might be “better suited for Jewish communal activism” than returning to the legal world. When she mentioned that to Mr. Klein, an old family friend, he suggested she apply for the New Jersey ZOA position.
Ms. Fein first met Mr. Klein at her parents’ home in Cherry Hill; “He was a friend of my parents, who have been involved with pro-Israel activities in their area for many years,” she said. More recently, she has been on several ZOA missions to Washington.
These are fraught times for supporters of Israel, Ms. Fein said.
“The Middle East is falling apart, the Iran situation could be devastating because it really doesn’t look like there’s American or international will to try to stop them firmly from getting nukes, and the current Administration has changed the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that would be of concern to anyone who is pro-Israel,” she said.
But this is also “a perfect time for those people who are strong pro-Israel to speak up and increase their activism and find their voice and let the world at large know how they feel,” Ms Fein concluded.