Jackie Congedo — In Conversation
Cincinnati Jewish Journal: Getting to Know the JCRC
Kayla: So, let’s start with the basics first. What is the JCRC? And who makes up the JCRC?
Justin: The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is the public affairs arm of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. We were founded in 1939 with the goal of countering rising fascism here in the United States and continue to stay true to our mission of protecting Jewish security, recognizing that this depends on creating a just society for all. We continue this work today, not only fighting antisemitism across the social and political spectrum, but by working to support peace-building efforts in Israel, fostering inclusive coalitions to strengthen democracy, advocating for Jewish priorities with elected officials, and encouraging Jewish Cincinnatians to be active in the civic and interfaith landscape.
K: Very cool. I think something that surprised me most about the JCRC after joining as a board member was the sheer amount of action and accomplishment. I always knew you were busy, but WOW. To give our readers a better sense of things, what issues do you work on, and what concerns do you respond to?
J: I know our work seems so wide ranging at times, but always at the core of our JCRC is confronting and combatting antisemitism and the rise in hate, as well as focusing on Israel education and advocacy. In addition, some of our main responsibilities concentrate around government relations and advocating for our local Jewish agency priorities such as nonprofit security funding, private school education vouchers, support for Holocaust survivors, and other social service needs, to name a few. In addition to these, we also work to support other social issues in partnership with the greater community. Some of those include criminal justice and bail reform, immigration and refugee support, non-partisan voter engagement, and curbing gun violence. We typically approach these issues with a lot of nuance, perspective, and civility as these topics can surface a lot of emotion and healthy tension. We do our best to listen and understand where people are coming from so we can find ways to bridge and collaborate for the common good.
K: Wow, OK. That’s a lot, but building off of that, the issue of antisemitism feels very significant in this moment and everything that’s happening around us. So focusing a little bit on that, how does the JCRC work specifically to combat antisemitism?
J: Our approach is multifaceted, ultimately working to educate communities about this age-old hatred and how it has manifested throughout history and mutates today. We really try to encourage our entire community to think about: How can we collectively counter antisemitism together? We also work with non-Jewish affinity group partners—those in the Muslim community, elected leaders across the political spectrum, the various sects of Christianity, and others—to help them grasp contemporary antisemitism, and why it is so often misunderstood or unacknowledged. What are these conspiracies we’re hearing? Why are elected officials talking about Jewish space lasers? What is at the core of white nationalist and other extremist beliefs? These, and many more are questions we need to help unpack and discuss for our whole community so that we have the confidence in our ability to suppress this hateful and violent rhetoric together.
As part of that, we’re rolling out a first-of-its-kind, multi-year institute of skills-based learning and follow-up action called Leaders in Light that will cultivate local influential allies in the civic, business, religious, governmental, and nonprofit sectors. Our JCRC team is really excited about this institute and the impact it will make! I believe something additional we’ve been thinking a lot about over the past few years is the need to bring diverse people together into more nuanced conversations around hate while considering how we as Jews show up authentically for other communities—for their issues, for their concerns in a meaningful way. Our experience has often proved this which adds another dimension to our work in community.
K: I also think you can’t expect to be respected by other groups if you don’t extend them respect, too.
J: Totally. Respect is important, but actions speak louder than words in many instances, and that goes both ways. We know that Jewish people are part of the universe and that as a representative body, we must stay grounded in our unique traditions, narratives, values, stories. What’s also imperative here is the need to help those in the non-Jewish spaces understand who our diverse community is, what we believe, and why, for example, with antisemitism ad extremism, other communities have a stake in fighting it. Because if our democracy deteriorates, the American experiment that has provided safe havens for so many minority communities in the US over time, will fade with it.
K: That’s so true. And it makes me think about a crucial element of the Orthodox community’s approach to combatting antisemitism. We often talk about how when we are serious about our national mission, and are able to recognize the importance of every single Jew in that picture, the rest of the world sees something in us that they can respect, and they reflect that sense of purpose and acceptance. So when we’re confronted by antisemitism, apart from our public statements and lobbying and coalitions, we ideally look inward, and assess where we’re not measuring up in terms of our mission and the centrality of our Torah identity, and work from there, trying to increase our humility, our kindness, our Torah study. These beliefs aren’t “ideological” in the sense that they’re from practical action. Action is critical, but it’s a direct outgrowth of a logical, systematic ideology in which our character development is a central and necessary goal that has actual global repercussions.
I think we, as Jews, all inherently believe that our existence as a people is important in this world, that we have something unique to contribute, but if we don’t know what it is, how are we going to make sure we’re carrying it out? Antisemitic events should force us to collectively look inside and ask some hard questions. Why, in fact, should we survive? What are we contributing to humanity? And why would people all over the world feel it necessary to remind us that we’re different? Could it be because we haven’t been living up to our unique mission as a people? Do we even know what that mission is? If we can’t answer those questions, they’re going to keep hitting us in the face until we can.
J: Wow, that’s such a fascinating and rich perspective. You mentioned the importance of every single Jew in that picture, and that made me think of the main inspiration behind this conversation, which is to build stronger bridges of understanding between our Jewish Cincinnati community and the work we do here at the JCRC, and I guess if we’re switching roles a bit here, I’m wondering what prompted you to accept our invitation to join our board?
K: One, I just love our community and have a real sense of gratitude and a desire to give back. I know this is a position where I’ll have the opportunity to serve the community in some capacity and am so happy to do that. Two, knowing you and Jackie Congedo and how hard you work, and how accomplished you are, I know that real work is being done. I just want to be on your team! On top of that, having known some of the people who make up the board, past and present, who have done so much for the community, and who I look up to in many ways, it’s exciting to be included in that. Very notably, Arna Poupko Fisher, who has been a wonderfully encouraging role model for me, thought I would fit in and have something to offer.
J: Well thank you, and your perspective is definitely valued and helpful! Is there anything that has surprised you during your time on the board?
K: As I mentioned earlier, just the sheer number of things you have going on pretty much all the time. I think also the diversity of thought at the table is impressive. An issue is brought up, and you’ll get twenty different directions, ideas, perspectives, and they’re all significant and thoughtful.
J: I’m so glad that it’s been a worthwhile experience so far, and again, we’re so grateful to continue to learn from your knowledge and experience. As a final question, I’m wondering what the JCRC can do better to support the community in our efforts to counter antisemitism?
K: The JCRC already does so much for the whole Jewish community, which Orthodox Jews, needless to say, benefit so much from as well! But I think we can all do a better job supporting each other. Let me explain a bit further using a Biblical precedent. When our forefather Jacob was preparing to meet Esau after years of separation, he knew Esau was still feeling murderously mad at him, and that he had to prepare for the possibility of an all-out massacre of his family. So he took multiple precautions: he prepared for battle in a pragmatic way, by reaching out diplomatically to make peace and setting up defensive strategies in case of attack. But he also prayed for Divine protection and intervention, which is fundamentally a process of introspection and self-development. Or, in other words, the “ideological” approach. The Torah’s message here is that both pragmatic and spiritual defenses are vital when our existence is threatened.
I think our community is doing a great job combatting antisemitism on both “fronts”—there are some who focus more on pragmatic pieces and others who focus more on spiritual ones. But in truth, we all stand to gain from an increase in collaboration in both areas. Members of the Orthodox community who aren’t already involved in a “hands-on” way may want to make an effort to learn about opportunities to help the JCRC keep our entire community safe and secure. On the flip side, strengthening and better understanding our relationship with our Jewish identity in today’s very cynical world is something we can all strive to do better, including those who are already heavily involved in pragmatic strategies. Many of us have half-formed ideas about what Jewish identity means exactly; how to define it, and why it’s important. I think the most enriching way to discover more about that is just talking to other “different” Jews with sincerity, curiosity, and an open heart. Gather data. Ask people from different walks of Jewish life what they think about it. We’ll all learn and grow a lot more from each other’s questions and ideas than we possibly could inside our own intellectual bubbles. Having these conversations (like we’re doing now!), having the humility and generosity to stretch oneself intellectually, to learn another Jews’ perspective and appreciate their strengths, this is expressing that ideological strategy. More understanding and appreciation will only make us stronger. And when we can do that for each other, hopefully those on the outside will see it and treat us with the same respect and consideration.
J: Absolutely. And I think the importance of hearing different perspectives and approaching issues that we both care about from a place of respect is so core to the work we do at the JCRC.
K: Definitely. And I think this conversation, and our work together at the JCRC, shows how amazing and productive those conversations can be. Well, thank you Justin for all the work you do and for taking the time to speak with me. How might we best stay informed about the JCRC?
J: You can follow us through our Facebook page or on Twitter (@CincyJCRC). We also have JCRC updates through the Federation newsletter, and our Israel Update as well. We host and share all kinds of events posted on the Jewish Community Calendar, and always welcome thoughtful conversation, questions, and ideas from community members about our work and how we can partner to proactively counter antisemitism and hate, support Israel and a peaceful solution to the conflict, or participate in a variety of civic engagement, inter-communal relationship building, or leadership opportunities with the greater community.
And thank YOU so much, Kayla, for all the value you bring to community. It’s been wonderful to be in dialogue both in this specific moment, during our friendship, and through your involvement with our board.
K: It’s been wonderful. And I hope this conversation is the first step of many in bringing our communities closer together.
Thanks for caring about our community and what we do.
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