In his capacities as a successful litigator, a long-standing functionary in Jewish organizational life and an active campaigner for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Alan Solow could not possibly be a stranger to public discourse or heated debate. Still, the chairman of the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA) of North America - a lawyer with Chicago firm Goldberg Kohn - quips that listening to political discussions in Israel could give a person whiplash. "You hear someone articulate a position from one side, and you think it's such an intelligent point of view," he recalls telling a colleague recently, "and then you hear the view from the other side, and you think the same thing."
This, he claims, is an example of the way in which "everything is on the table here" in a way that it isn't among Jews in the United States - a fact he attributes to their being a minority.
It is one of many differences between Israel and the Diaspora that Solow believes can be mutually beneficial, by virtue of learning from one another's experiences. "In Israel, it's easy to be Jewish, because much Jewish wisdom and tradition is a part of everyday life. On the other hand, because of this, it is in some sense taken for granted. In the US, we can't take Jewish life for granted in the same way. Because, while we have about the same number of Jews as in Israel, we're part of a much bigger puzzle, which means that for us, Jewish identification requires effort."
Indeed, asserts Solow - here earlier this month to attend a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which he is a member - "Israel and the Diaspora are dependent on one another. Certainly, the rise of power among Jews in North America has coincided with the founding and continued growth of the State of Israel. Since 1948, Jews in America have become prosperous and self-confident, and have integrated themselves into American life in ways they hadn't before. At the same time, roughly half of world Jewry lives in North America. And though the issues that we face in terms of Jewish identity are different from those faced in Israel, they're very important for Israelis."
In an hour-long interview at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, Solow, 54, outlines the intricacies of being Jewish on both sides of the Atlantic and explains why he wants to encourage Jewish community centers across the US and Canada to become more "Israel-centric."
How and why did you get involved in the world of Jewish community centers?
I was raised in what I would describe as a typical Reform household in suburban Chicago. We had a strong sense of Jewish identity, but had not visited Israel or had any real sense of Zionism, in terms of personal attachment. The Six Day War was the event that made me become very aware of Israel; it raised everybody's consciousness at the time.
A few years later, when I went to college, I met the woman who would become my wife. She had just returned from spending a year here. She was a committed Zionist who, at the time we met, was anticipating making aliya. Obviously, those plans took a detour. But, it was because of her - and her family's commitments to the broader Jewish community - that I, too, got involved.
When did you visit Israel for the first time?
Not until 1983, but by then it was already an important part of our life. Our eldest was born in 1979, and we established a tradition of Shabbat dinner in our household. When our kids were growing up, I can't think of a single occasion when I wasn't home on Friday night. That became the centerpiece of our life. It's what the week revolved around. And our Friday night dinners always closed with the singing of "Hatikva." Then, when our oldest was not quite four, and our youngest was six months old, we took them to Israel. Subsequently, we brought them here many times.
As for Jewish community work, after completing law school, it became clear to me that becoming involved in the community was going to become part of my life. I liked doing things in organizations anyway, and I definitely had a Jewish identity, so it was natural for me to get involved in the Jewish community. I went to a partner in my law firm who, at the time, was the president of the Jewish Community Centers in Chicago. and asked him where I should go. He sent me to the Young Men's Jewish Council, an organization that's now called the Jewish Council for Youth Services. It was an independent youth service agency run by a board of directors all of whom were 35 or younger. It was relatively modest in size - a place where one could get a lot of hands-on experience about what it was like to run a Jewish agency.
Did it provide services for Jewish youth in distress?
That's an interesting question. Over the 30 years that I've been involved in this endeavor, I've seen that Jewish sustenance isn't necessarily based on economic need. It's based on the need to transmit Jewish values, wisdom, culture, literature, music and tradition in ways that will be appealing and effective to Diaspora Jewry in North America. Don't forget that we compete with everybody for attention.
With whom, for example?
For example, many Jewish community centers have health and fitness programs. They compete with all the private health and fitness clubs. The same goes for adult education programs. People can join a hostel for the elderly or join a book club that's not Jewish. Probably the place we serve the most children is in day-camping and overnight camping. But there are plenty of private camps in the US that can attract kids. Then there's early childhood education. Jewish community centers across North America are the largest providers of Jewish early childhood education. This provides Jewish parents with a choice.
One of the complaints voiced about Jewish education in North America is that it is so expensive - and most American Jews aren't poor enough to get scholarships; only the wealthy can afford to provide their kids with a proper Jewish education. Is this true?
Well, certainly one thing that the federation system has tried to do all over the US is to drive down the cost of having a Jewish life, by subsidizing Jewish community centers and all kinds of other Jewish services. So that while there's still a cost incurred in choosing to live a Jewish - as opposed to an exclusively secular - life, it doesn't become so exorbitant that it forces Jews to make the non-Jewish choice.
In the end, if you have great programming that makes a difference in people's lives; cost, while not irrelevant, isn't the deciding factor.
How did you personally progress from the local level to the national?
After eventually becoming the president of the Young Men's Jewish Council - and when I was done there - I looked to get involved in something else. The natural place for me to go was the Jewish community center movement, because the centers were essentially doing what the Young Men's Jewish Council was doing on an expanded basis - the same kind of services, but not only for children.
I ended up going on the board of the Jewish Community Centers in Chicago, had a variety of portfolios over the course of time, and eventually became the president of the JCCs of Chicago. The JCC system in Chicago is the largest integrated center system in North America. When I became the president in Chicago, we were going through a change in executives. As I became involved in the search for a new executive, I became familiar with what JCC Association was offering to the field, and then they offered me to go on the national board. So somewhere in 1996-7, I went on the national board, and I began to understand what it was that JCCA of North America was trying to do for the field, and where it could make a meaningful difference.
This is all volunteer work on your part. How do you manage it with your day job?
When something is important to you, you find the time to do it. And I'm fortunate to have partners who understand that my work in the Jewish world has at least equal importance to my law work. I treat commitments that I make to philanthropy - and Jewish philanthropy in particular - the way I treat my business commitments.
How much do the JCCs focus on Israel?
The way our system works is that all of the centers and camps across North America are independent, which means that the JCCA doesn't dictate to them or create policy. But it does provide guidance, consultation and program services to all of the centers, as well as opportunities to utilize programs we've developed. And many of the programs we've developed have significant ties to Israel. For instance, we are the principal partner in the JCC-Maccabi games in the US - an athletic competition similar to the Maccabiah.
Another example: We've just received a grant from Larry and Lillian Goodman from Chicago to develop a program in our camps to integrate Israeli history into everyday camp activities.
We also have a whole series of programs for teen travel, and we're involved in birthright.
I want our centers to become Israel-centric. I would like for people entering any JCC in North America to feel, the minute they walk through the door, as though they're in Israel. I want them to see the Israeli flag, not just an American or Canadian. I want the programs to include Israeli dancing and music. I want our book fairs to include the works of Israeli authors. I want the athletic programs to post the standings of Israeli teams.
The fact is that Israel and the Diaspora are dependent on one another. Certainly, the rise of power among Jews in North America has coincided with the founding and continued growth of the State of Israel. Since 1948, Jews in America have become prosperous and self-confident, and have integrated themselves into American life in ways they hadn't before.
At the same time, roughly half of world Jewry lives in North America. And though the issues that we face in terms of Jewish identity are different from those faced in Israel, they're very important for Israelis. In Israel, on the one hand, it's easy to be Jewish, because much Jewish wisdom and tradition is a part of everyday life. On the other hand, because of this, it is in some sense taken for granted. In the US, we can't take Jewish life for granted in the same way. Because, while we have about the same number of Jews as in Israel - or only a marginally smaller number - we're part of a much bigger puzzle, which means that for us, Jewish identification requires effort.
How much of this "effort" involves religion - and which streams do the JCCs tend to follow?
We are very pluralistic. We have centers that serve all of the various streams of Jewish religious life, and we have other centers that, because of their location, say, in an Orthodox neighborhood, serve only one stream.
By and large, center life in America is very accepting of the broadest definitions of what constitutes Jewry. And we try to develop programs that appeal to those who are the most serious about their Jewish identity and education, and those who are just beginning.
How can your organization become "Israel-centric," when religious pluralism is not accepted by the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate, which determines the validity of conversions, marriage, divorce and burial?
This is less of an issue for the centers, because we don't deal with religious issues per se. In the JCC movement, we talk a lot about creating Jewish journeys. And there are lots of journeys going on for lots of different types of Jews in our centers. What we're trying to do is make sure there's room for all of them.
One of the things that Israel teaches us is that there are lots of different ways to lead meaningful Jewish lives. We're learning how to do that in a way that is comfortable in North American culture, where it is easy for Jews to assimilate. It's an exciting challenge to make what we do attractive to people. Look, in North America, even if you lead a completely halachic life, you come into contact with non-Jews. And the high intermarriage rate is not a function of there being something wrong with the Jewish people. Rather, it is because, as opposed to 50-70 years ago, non-Jews are now happy to marry us. And people fall in love, so it happens. Instead of fighting against that, we have to understand how we can bring those spouses into the Jewish community, and/or their children. My first choice is to have Jews marry other Jews, because it is the best way for Jews to preserve our traditions, heritage and religious beliefs. But the fact of the matter is that we're not going to be able to do that 100 percent of the time. We've got to make Jewish life more interesting to the young, so that they will be more likely to marry a Jewish spouse. And if we don't succeed, we want to provide the opportunity for Jews who marry non-Jews to help their spouses make the choice to become Jewish or raise their children as Jews. In a sense, every time somebody marries outside of our faith, we have an opportunity to bring somebody new into it.
Does the controversy in the Jewish community in North America over Israeli policy issues, such as territorial withdrawals, the Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem, affect this endeavor?
[He sighs.] It's very interesting. I'm in Israel a lot, and I think that there is a certain disconnect between the way Israelis perceive North Americans, and the way North Americans perceive Israelis. When North Americans spend time in Israel, they realize - in a way they don't when they're at home - that everything is on the table here. And that the political discussions here are incredibly vibrant and lively. You know, during the Conference of Presidents gathering [earlier this month in Jerusalem], I said to somebody that when you listen to the broad spectrum of views, you get whiplash. You hear someone articulate a position from one side, and you think it's such an intelligent point of view, and then you hear the view from the other side, and you think the same thing. We don't have that in the US and Canada to nearly the same degree as you have in Israel. This is because we are a minority, and as such, we tend to close ranks. And one of the things around which we generally close ranks is Israel. So that, by and large, irrespective of one's political beliefs in the US, or feelings about who's in power in the government of Israel, again, irrespective of whether one is conservative or liberal from a religious perspective, Israel is a common agenda - not for 100% of the Jewish community in North America, but for the overwhelming majority. Their allegiance to, and identification with, Israel is very strong, no matter who's in power. We are still collectively the Jewish people.
What about who's in power in the US? How do Jews decide which presidential candidate is best for Israel, and why do you personally support Barack Obama?
By and large, since the founding of the state, when president [Harry] Truman recognized Israel's independence, the Jewish community in the US has made sure that support for Israel is a bipartisan agenda item in American politics. Whether the presidency has been Republican or Democrat, each in its own way has been supportive of Israel. Now, one could make the argument that some have been more so and some less so, but there's no question - as we approach Israel's 60th birthday - that there hasn't been a single administration that hasn't had warm relations with the government and the people of Israel. Part of that is because American Jewry is very vigilant in making sure that that happens. And partly it's because the US and Israel share certain ideals and values, as democracies. The likelihood that any candidate could rise to the position of president without being part of that consensus in America - which now includes people well beyond the Jewish community - is highly unlikely. In the present presidential campaign, there are sure to be nuances in approaches between the candidates where their support of Israel is concerned. But there's no question that, whether the next president is John McCain or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, he or she will be a supporter of a strong, safe, secure Israel. Many Jews, therefore, will decide to base their vote on other issues.
I would point to the approach that Senator Obama brings to problem-solving. He's exceptionally bright. He's dedicated his life to public service. He's demonstrated extraordinary judgment, including on whether or not the US should enter the war in Iraq. He was an opponent, and I have to acknowledge - as he often reminds me - that I didn't agree with him at the time. Nevertheless, I supported him because I thought that his approach to the problem was so thoughtful, and showed such a maturity of judgment, that I respected it. And I believe that we would be better off strengthening America internally than with respect to how the world views us. If we elect somebody who is interested in building a true consensus around important ideas, we can make our country healthier and move it forward. I think Obama represents someone with those ideas, who has the aptitude to make them work.
And you trust his positions on Israel?
I traveled with him to Israel. I've discussed the issue with him at length. There's no question in my mind that he's a strong supporter of Israel. And I would be excited about what would happen to US-Israel relations if he became president.