February 26, 2018; Forward

We all shudder with the news of another school shooting; we all mourn alongside the families of the victims. And then, almost before our tears dry, we begin to argue about what we should do to prevent it from happening again. The nonprofit community does not stand apart from the challenge of finding a way out of the national stalemate, but it does have its own unique difficulties, as illustrated by some recent events within the Jewish community’s nonprofit network. Values-driven organizations, which are ready to advocate for positions they hold dear, may find it too hard to speak on what our nation should do about guns and gun violence in their own backyards.

Michael Balaban, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County, which serves the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School neighborhood, recently told the Forward that “the issue that we face, especially around political matters…is [that] the role of federation is to be a community convener, but also [to] convene resources to assist the community tackle the needs of the day.…The organization has to provide social services to its needy clients, and has to be able to raise money to do so.”

Faced with the worry that significant donors might not support action, the clash between values and fiscal stability can immobilize. Protecting the financial base that supports ongoing operations, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), an umbrella organization serving a large network of local organizations, advised its members to stay out of the policy debate. In a memo obtained by the Forward, JFNA wrote, “While the policy issues go right to the heart of cultural and political divides in this country, we want to make sure that Federations remain focused on the essential and critical work they are responsible for in such moments—taking care of the vulnerable in our midst and building community.” For this multifaceted organization, the fear of alienating key donors who might disagree with a specific policy direction speaks louder than the imperative of taking a moral stand.

Interestingly, Balaban’s local organization has chosen to ignore this guidance. Last Friday, it released a statement throwing its support behind a series of policy changes that included banning “bump stocks” and military style weapons, raising the age for purchasing firearms to 21, and improving the background check system. All are issues that are in the center of the national debate.

Balaban explained, “We also subscribe to a series of Jewish values—sanctity of life. If we’re not the voice of leadership, then, really what are we standing for? We’ve been focused on healing, but part of healing is understanding what action steps you can take.” Balaban’s view echoes the famed words of Rabbi Hillel in chapter 1, verse 14 of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

What informs the decisions of organizational leaders faced with these moments? In JFNA’s decision to not take a position, which gives tacit support to the NRA and other conservative voices, is it a case of the squeakiest and richest wheel winning the day? It does seem to run counter to their constituency’s perspective. The Forward observed that although “no survey has been done of Jewish attitudes on gun control…the vast majority of the organized Jewish community appears to be in general agreement. Official bodies of the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative movements have all called for reform of current gun laws, with varying degrees of specificity.…The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which arrives at its positions through a consensus process involving a large number of Jewish organizations, has supported various forms of gun control over the years.”

To whom should organizational leadership be listening? Tough question—and one that’s not particular to these organizations or to the Jewish community. At a time when positions are so polarized, and money has become the language of politics, nonprofits risk that major supporters won’t stand by them when input is heard but not followed. It’s also true, though, that the price of failing to act on one’s values and principles is similarly high—and can do damage over the long term.—Martin Levine