Editor’s note: On Monday, JNS reported a shakeup at the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) with its entire board voted out “in an apparent shift away from political advocacy and a refocus instead on members synagogues.” The Jewish Press asked outgoing NCYI president Farely Weiss to share his thoughts.
After being thrice elected, my attempt to win a fourth term as president of the National Council of Young Israel ended with defeat to a slate led by Rabbi David Warshaw of Young Israel of Oceanside.
It was a fair election, and I and the board accept the results. As such, I called Rabbi Warshaw and congratulated him within two hours after his slate was declared victorious.
The platform of Rabbi Warshaw’s slate specifically states that it supports “de-emphasizing advocacy and politics.” Context, however, is important. During my term as president, we recognized a few critical and far-reaching issues facing the Jewish community and Israel that compelled us to speak out.
NCYI, for example, was known as the leader on efforts to free Jonathan Pollard. When Pollard learned of his release from prison, he specifically thanked one Jewish organization: the National Council of Young Israel.
Young Israel raised Pollard’s release with President Obama and with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Young Israel also led the efforts to obtain support for Pollard’s release with members of Congress and with those American officials familiar with the classified information related to the Pollard affair. We felt – and few would deny – that this type of advocacy was exactly in line with the principles of NCYI.
NCYI was also the leader in efforts to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. I personally was the main Jewish liaison to Senator Jon Kyl’s office when he originated the Jerusalem Embassy legislation in 1995. Glenn Hamer, who worked for Senator Kyl on the Jerusalem Embassy legislation, said that I “played an indispensable role in advancing this legislation.”
Years later, when we understood that President Trump was going to have a fateful meeting to decide whether to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, NCYI was the only Jewish organization that launched a call to the White House to let the president know that Americans supported his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful capital.
More recently, NCYI successfully lobbied Secretary of State Pompeo to change the policy governing U.S. passports so that Americans born in Jerusalem could be identified as being born in Israel.
Due to the great success of our efforts on these and other issues – and the publicity our success generated– members of our organization might have mistakenly assumed that we prioritized political advocacy over servicing our shuls. Indeed, this claim was a main theme of the slate led by Rabbi Warshaw.
In reality, though, it was our non-paid lay leadership that led the political advocacy efforts, which not only helped Klal Yisrael, but led to a significant increase in much-needed fundraising for NCYI.
CNN may never have fired the notorious anti-Israel advocate Marc Lamont Hill if not for our efforts. We spoke out against white supremacy on the Right and the anti-Semitism of Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar on the Left. We spoke out against anti-Semitism on college campuses and against Iran’s attempt to acquire a nuclear bomb. Our advocacy was based upon consensus issues within our community.
So yes – on Pollard, Jerusalem, and anti-Semitism in the media and Congress – we were vocal. And being vocal was the right thing to do.
Our opponents claim we didn’t service our shuls as well as we could have. However, the main focus and priority of our offices was, in fact, synagogue services. To cite just a few examples of our efforts:
* We initiated the Parsha Nation kids program through which we sent games and questions and answers on the parsha to over 200 shuls each week.
* We sent a High Holiday booklet to all our shuls explaining the services to newcomers to make them feel welcome along with insightful articles for more advanced members.
* We sent all our members a free copy of a Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s (Zichron L’Bracha) Koren Young Israel Haggadah.
* We initiated a biweekly question session with world-renown posek Rabbi Mordecai Willig, shlita. At the height of the pandemic, close to 200 rabbis were listening to his extraordinary answers.
We decided well over a year ago to regularly involve our entire board in issuing press releases, cognizant of the fact that our board represented a cross section of shuls. But we spoke out because we believe public comments are essential. As the Holocaust taught us, we cannot – we dare not – wait until it’s too late to speak out. It’s incumbent upon us to offer our voice – strong and unapologetic – and not fear that it be viewed as “political” when an urgent need demands no less.
Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, our delegates decided to go with the slate led by Rabbi Warshaw. We only wish the best for NCYI going forward.