Jewish Federations giving on-the-ground support for community relations

While antisemitism continues to rise to unprecedented levels, Jewish Federations are deepening their community relations investments across the system. 


The critical role that community relations plays in preventing antisemitism and other forms of hate from proliferating was underscored last October, when scores of civic and interfaith allies stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jewish people across North America in the wake of 10/7. At the same time, the normalization of antisemitism and anti-Zionism in mainstream society has shown that our communities are being challenged to meaningfully engage civic and interfaith leaders in more strategic ways and to upgrade and modernize our infrastructure of community relations to meet this critical moment.   


VP of Community Relations for Jewish Federations of North America Evan Bernstein is convinced that the approach to this work cannot be business as usual. “Across the board we are seeing that so many allies of the Jewish community have remained silent post October 7 and have failed to condemn Hamas,” he said. “It is disappointing, but we are reimagining community relations through a different prism and taking a much more proactive approach to strengthening core relationships, building bridges through shared interests, and safeguarding the Jewish community.”  


Since joining Jewish Federations in December, Bernstein has traveled to multiple communities of all sizes with three goals: 1) to learn community relations’ best practices and models of success for scaling opportunities 2) to provide guidance in building a community relations strategy to Federations that do not have a dedicated professional leading this work and 3) to consult CEOs and community relations professionals on issues their communities are facing, including responding to one-sided city council resolutions, developing effective engagement strategies across-the-board, improving their board management, and developing hiring standards. 


Interim CEO of Jewish Long Beach Deborah Goldfarb wears many hats relating to overseeing both the Federation and the JCC and engaging in community relations.  The amount of time she dedicates to community relations skyrocketed when the city council introduced a one-sided ceasefire resolution shortly after the Hamas attacks of October 7. Goldfarb, along with her president and advocacy chair, engaged in outreach with city council members and the mayor, built alliances with other organizations and mobilized community members to protest the resolution.  


Goldfarb emphasized, “We never had the capacity to invest in these relationships. Post-October 7 we understood that this pillar of our work is an absolute necessity.” Many other small and intermediate-sized Federations have experienced similar challenges where they are facing the same levels of antisemitism as large communities, but they don’t have the same resources to invest in staffing and programming. 


The board met with Bernstein to discuss the needs on the ground in Long Beach and together they devised  a strategy that includes hiring a professional and building out a plan. The Federation is also taking advantage of resources produced by Jewish Federations’ community relations team that a smaller community like Long Beach does not have the capacity to create. Leveraging the support from Jewish Federations, Goldfarb is confident that her Federation will successfully implement a community relations program to strengthen intergroup ties and fight back against hate.  


In Texas, a highly engaged group of professionals led by Shalom Austin’s CEO Rabbi Daniel Septimus along with  members of the board collaborated with Bernstein to launch a public affairs program to oversee its community engagement work and legislative activity.  The program will place a strong focus on advocacy and government relations, which were designated as core priorities that required further investments. 

Since October 7, the Federation has led the community in efforts to combat antisemitism and to strengthen support for Israel.  Efforts include convening over 2,000 Jewish people and allies along with civic leaders at a community-wide solidarity gathering in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas massacres, mobilizing supporters to oppose a one-sided ceasefire resolution, raising awareness for the plight of the hostages by bringing family members to Austin to share their stories, and more. A formal structure will enable the Federation to continue to galvanize lay leadership involvement in local advocacy and to build on the momentum from the past six months. 

Rabbi Septimus added, “Allyship is not developed overnight. We knew that to really make the impact we wanted to see and to establish strategic relationships with civic and elected officials, we would need to deepen our operations in this area. Our partnership with Jewish Federations in this process has been so rewarding and we look forward to taking our vision to the next level to further advance our priorities and to keep our community safe.” 

Bernstein encourages all Federations regardless of their stage or level of investment in community relations to reach out for guidance and support with both crisis response and strategic planning.  “Community relations should be a core priority of every Federation’s strategy, especially in this divisive and polarizing time in which we live,” he said. “I am here to make sure that every Federation has the resources to be the leaders of this work in their community.”