“Agendas Within Agenda”: The Challenge of Mobilizing Diverse Jewish Communities

NJA’s slogan was “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews.” From my interviews with NJA alumni I gather that this “dual purpose” served as both an energizing mission and constant tension. The NJA community was divided about which of the halves of their mission was most important, not unlike the tensions in early American Reform Judaism that asked followers “Jewish American? Or American Jew?” This tension indicates the success NJA had in bringing together divergent Jewish communities, but it was also a source of exhaustion for organizers. Below I will discuss a few of the lines that divided NJA members.

PROGRESSIVE JEWS vs. JEWISH PROGRESSIVES

In “Jewish Renewal,” an article published in the magazine Genesis 2 shortly before the 1980 Founding Conference, Gerry Serotta reflected on the reality that approximately 50% of American Jews were unaffiliated with any organization, and spoke to Agenda’s desire to provide and become a “home for progressive Jews.” But who were those Jews? Christie Balka, former national co-chair of NJA, says “there were a few different tropes in Agenda.” First, there were those Jews with progressive politics, who were not engaged in Jewish community. Of this constituency, Serotta said “one of our definite goals is to involve the unaffiliated, disaffiliated, and especially those alienated from the politics of the American Jewish community — those who feel that it has turned so rightward and inward that they can no longer feel comfortable in the community.” Balka says that this included a number of ex-Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members who had not previously been “Jewishly” identified but for whom this was the next thing they found that they could believe and invest in. Balka identifies herself as of this first trope. She was raised in a secular household, and she graduated from the Quaker school system in Philadelphia. In NJA, Balka found a way to connect with her Jewishness while living in Ann Arbor, MI and working in a Quaker peace organization. She went on to become National Co-Chair of the organization, co-write a book about being Jewish and Gay, and later helped found a progressive synagogue in Philadelphia.

The second type of person attracted to NJA had been deeply involved in Jewish communities and was looking for a way to connect with progressive politics from a Jewish position. Christie Balka remembers that there were many Agenda members who had attended leadership training programs either through Reform or Conservative youth groups or Socialist-Zionist youth programs like Habonim, and these young people had continued on to college and were looking for a way to plug in. Serotta also talked about “dissident establishmentarians,” rabbis and other members of mainstream Jewish organizations who were fed up with working for slow institutional changes.

Looking back, Serotta remembers the two critical letters he received in response to the initial invitation to the first Organizing Committee for a New Jewish Agenda (OCNJA) meeting as a telling sign of things to come. Arthur Waskow wrote that NJA would be irrelevant as just another secular Jewish organization critical of the Jewish community, and would have to be spiritually rooted to succeed. Waskow came to the meeting anyway. Eli Schaap, a recent immigrant from Holland who had been an active Jewish socialist there, said it wouldn’t work because there was no thriving American Left to be part of. Schaap came to the first meeting, as well, and he became the treasurer of OCNJA! Looking back, Serotta says that they were both correct. He surmises that many of the leaders of NJA lacked connection to Jewish culture, which often made NJA weak in terms of “Jewishness,” and simultaneously the weakness of the American Left in terms of divisive infighting, lack of strategy, and process over politics created a situation where NJA remained marginal in both the Jewish and general communities. In another way, Waskow and Schaap’s critiques predicted a positive trend in the organization. While New Jewish Agenda took on the mission of serving as “A Progressive Voice in the Jewish Community and a Jewish Voice Among Progressives,” there were always deep tensions between those constituents who thought Agenda wasn’t doing enough in the Jewish community or in the secular progressive movement, but both communities showed up and stayed invested.

CONTROVERSY: THE IMPACT OF RE-EVALUATION COUNSELING ON NJA

The founding conference demonstrated a major tension between Leftist cultures in the Jewish community that would prove challenging throughout NJA’s life. At the founding conference Leftists and progressives of all stripes came together under one roof. Gerry Serotta remembers that among the diverse political crowd, only members of the Re-Evaluation Counseling (RC, or “co-counseling”) community attended as an organized group. From my research, it appears that Middle East peace activists with a “Breiranik” analysis also mobilized to attend the conference as a combined force. Tom Smerling (a former Breira member) started The Shalom Network as Breira was ending, to continue Breira’s work. The Shalom Network held a training workshop in the days before the NJA founding convention, and Shalom Network eventually merged with NJA’s METF in 1982. However, the RC community’s impact on the founding conference was more controversial among organizers and attendees.

“Ultra-Democracy”and the question of process versus substance:

Joined by a shared therapeutic and consciousness-raising community, RC members were largely unaffiliated with “hard-Left” movements or with organized Jewish communities. The RC crowd was, however, well-versed in specific detailed group-process that was frustrating to other attendees, especially those who attended the convention’s “Left Caucus” expecting the usual mission-driven (rather than process-driven) meeting style. Gerry Serotta remembers,

The main problem they brought to Agenda, which was a tremendous difficulty for us in national terms, was an enormous concern for process over substance… At the founding conference some of the Leftists, serious Leftists, totally freaked out. Committed Socialists, DSA1 types, were just aghast. They went to the Left caucus, which was mostly run by the co-counseling network and they flipped out! They said, “where’s the Left?” So we were badly hamstrung by very silly fights about process that had to do with a jargon and approach that was coming from co-counseling. None of which was wrong, it was just rigid… It led to a fact that we lost potential leadership so it did have a long-term effect and impact on the organization and the quality of people who were willing to continue to be connected. You should see the list of people who spoke at that founding convention, and the diversity, it’s an unbelievable list of people! From people who were high up in the government to just about everybody who was a Jewish progressive. But they didn’t have a high tolerance for this part of our organizational culture. One could see that as an issue of elite versus grassroots, which is partly the argument that I would make to people. I mean if you want to work in the grassroots, you’ve got to work with people, but it wasn’t just grassroots people. It was an organized network with a style that I thought was challenging.

This process-heavy organizational culture played out in a sort of affirmative action within leadership. RC folks insisted that a woman speak after every man, and that there be at least half women’s leadership on every taskforce. This wasn’t an altogether new idea, even in the early 70’s Breira had said in its by-laws that one-third of the national board had to be women. In fact, there were many women leaders in NJA from the earliest days due to a strong emphasis on feminism from the OCNJA founders. Though few would take issue with the idea of gender equity in the leadership, the strict demands of RC-members created a challenging situation for some NJA leadership. For example, founder Gerry Serotta had to leave the steering committee early on because there were not enough women in that group. Another process-rule necessitated full regional representation in the leadership of each Taskforce. This rule reflected a fear, held by many, that because so many Jews live in the Mid-Atlantic East Coast, concerns of Jews in other regions would be overlooked. Again, though this was an idea few would disagree with, the process-demands were laborious for the organization.

In retrospect, it may have been just these laborious policies that allowed NJA to function as a gathering place and incubator for leadership within traditionally marginalized Jewish communities: young, feminist, working class, and queer leaders emerged from NJA and went on to have powerful impacts in shaping progressive and Jewish communities. Would NJA have been just another “macherarchy2” without the demands of ultra-democracy? On the other hand, it may have contributed to NJA’s marginalization as an organization attempting to bring a “new agenda” to the mainstream Jewish community.

In my interview with Clare Kinberg, a national leader and Feminist Taskforce staff person who and longtime editor of Bridges Journal, she reflected on the actions that were taken to create a financially accessible organization, and the way she benefited from the “ultra-democracy” within NJA.

One of the reasons I was able to go to that first National Council meeting was that we did something called a “travel pool” where everybody’s expenses were pooled together so everybody had to pay $200, and somebody from my local chapter paid half for me to go. The idea of doing that was really important for getting a variety of people to the meeting. It was really complicated and took a ton of energy to figure out what all the expenses of the conference would be and to divide it up and make even people local to NY (when the meeting was in NY) pay $200, so that people coming from St Louis and Des Moines and San Francisco only had to pay $200. It really made a difference. [The travel pool] made it so that people could be involved. I think Reena and Jeffrey and Arthur and others became frustrated with the ultra-democracy, but it was really putting into practice an important value. It only scratched the surface of dealing with class in Agenda. There were still a lot of people who couldn’t get $200 together twice a year to come to the National Council meetings. Just the idea that anybody would go to a meeting in NY two times a year was not something that was in the consciousness, because it was just out of the question, for a whole lot of people who weren’t middle class. I think Agenda could never really figure out how to do that. I don’t know if anybody can figure out how to have a national organization that’s really accessible.

“Why don’t they identify who they are?” The issue of RC’s un-named influence:

Avi Rose had been an active RC member when he got involved with the NJA. Rose had been an “Area Reference Person” for the Bay Area (CA) and involved in RC’s work on Jewish Liberation and Gay Liberation. As a member of the first Steering Committee, he was part of the group tasked with addressing the controversy and confusion about RC within NJA. In a 2006 interview, Rose recalled:

Agenda came along and some RCers were naturally drawn to it because there were a number of progressive Jews in RC. But there was also some effort to get people involved in it to influence the direction of the organization, so the distressing thing was that there was an effort to do that and then a simultaneous denial that that’s what people were doing. It was pretty crazy, and as a result a lot of the non-RCers in the organization were wondering “What’s going on? Is there this cult or organization that’s really trying to run the show or take over or influence us? Why don’t they identify who they are? And why do they go in the corner and laugh inappropriately?” Some of the behavior seemed kind of bizarre to people, it was unsettling for people because clearly there were a number of people there, but people wouldn’t identify whether they were from RC or not. It was just really destructive, and there are people who left early on because of that reason. They just felt like maybe Agenda was some front for some other organization that wasn’t being accountable and wasn’t being up front, and people got the hell out of there.

Rose, as a member of the steering committee and an RC member, wrote and distributed a letter to all NJA members explaining what RC is and proposing that RC members should be more open about their affiliation (some had been secretive, causing more suspicion), and should avoid using RC-jargon3. Rose suggested that RC’ers should speak for themselves and not “parrot positions put forward by others,” and the relationship between NJA and RC should be discussed and clarified. Also, Rose suggested that outreach be done to all NJA constituencies to prevent one group from having disproportionate impact. Rose left RC because of controversy about that letter, as well as other concerns about RC’s founder Harvey Jackins and homophobic policies within RC.

1Democratic Socialists of America

2Macher is a big shot, literally maker in Yiddish