‘Jewish life can’t flourish if you’re afraid to go where it’s happening’

New Jewish Federations chairwoman Julie Platt talks about acting against antisemitism in North America and making sure egalitarian prayer can safely take place at the Western Wall.

 MEMBERS OF Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet meet with President Isaac Herzog during the Cabinet Mission to Israel last month (photo credit: JEWISH FEDERATIONS OF NORTH AMERICA)
MEMBERS OF Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet meet with President Isaac Herzog during the Cabinet Mission to Israel last month

Julie Platt became the chairwoman of the Jewish Federations of North America Board of Trustees last month, after years of experience in the Jewish nonprofit sphere, including as chairwoman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Platt visited Israel last week for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting, and on the latest episode of The Jerusalem Post podcast discussed her goals in her new position for the Israel-Diaspora connection and for tackling the biggest issues facing North American Jewry.

One of Platt’s priorities during her visit was to address the incident at which a family using the Ezrat Yisrael egalitarian section of the Western Wall for a Bar Mitzvah was attacked by Jewish extremists.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Jerusalem Post Podcast: What is the top issue of the agenda for you right now here in Israel?

Julie Platt: So, previous to last week, I might have framed it differently, but I just had the opportunity to address the Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency about the disturbance at the Kotel [Western Wall] last week. Representing the Diaspora as we do, and particularly North America, we brought that to the forefront with some ideas that are going to be discussed further and in much more detail at the Jewish Agency about what we might do to avoid that happening again.

 Julie Platt (credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Netflix) Julie Platt (credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Netflix)

One of the most important things that I hope to do as chair of JFNA is to work hard to grow the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel, and unfortunately, a kerfuffle like what happened last week doesn’t help that hope to bring us all closer.

JPP: Do you feel that we’re in a good place in terms of the broader perspective of Israel-Diaspora relations, or have things gone backward in recent years?

JP: Oh, I think we’re in a great place in terms of the Israel-Diaspora relations, and certainly the delegation that is coming here from North America is to make sure it continues in that direction. Something like what took place last week doesn’t show the relationship at its best.

Sadly, out of crisis, we’ve seen how we’re all working together in the same direction to solve so many things that affect the broader Jewish community, from the crisis in Ukraine to the fight against antisemitism. All of us are trying to work together toward the security issues that we face in North America right now that have been very much supported and addressed [by] our friends and partners in the Jewish Agency.

The reason I think we’re also passionate about worrying about what happened at the Kotel is because we don’t want that to derail [us], and something like that unfortunately is loud and therefore puts those good feelings at risk.

JPP: The Kotel is an especially interesting issue, because I think that it really shows the sort of differences and the concerns of affiliated American Jews and Israeli Jews. No matter how much the various American Jewish organizations really try to drum up interest, it just hasn’t stuck as a political issue in Israel. What are you hearing in your meetings and what are you trying to do to change that?

JP: You are right, and actually the comments that I made in the Executive Committee meeting were immediately reflected back by one of my Israeli counterparts, saying this is so much more on your radar than it is on the average Israeli citizen. Our new chair of the Jewish Agency, Doron Almog, shared my passion and spoke to it today.

I think it’s getting attention in a different way right now... What are the actual specific actions that we might take instead of just talking about it? I suggested a few today, including things that begin with security. It’s actually a very easy fix if the government provides security around the agreed-upon space, and this is a family that applied for it, did nothing provocative, just went to pray. [The Jewish Agency Board of Governors voted a day after the interview to “promptly develop, approve and implement a detailed work plan” for security at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall.]

We also talked about what would it look like for an emissary from the Jewish Agency to actually be at the prayer space, welcoming families from the Diaspora who come to have their prayer service there, to give good feelings as opposed to the opposite.

This is a voice that is louder from the Diaspora and I think from pluralistic society here within Israel than it is among the masses of Israelis, but we have to do it anyway if one of our main goals is to always bring us closer.

JPP: How do you think a lack of progress on Jewish pluralism, whether at the Western Wall or in conversion or other issues, which are stuck because of the political instability in Israel, is impacting the Israel-Diaspora relationship?

JP: All of those issues are on our agenda. We have always had a very good relationship with Prime Minister [Yair] Lapid. He’s spoken at the GA [General Assembly], which is our largest gathering. And we took last [the incident at the Wall] for a great opportunity for every one of the large organizations to jointly prepare a letter and send it to Lapid to say: “Don’t think for a minute that this isn’t the most important thing right now happening for the Diaspora.” Part of our agenda is to be extremely loud about issues of pluralism. We are pluralistic Judaism in the United States of America, and it must be responded to by our Israeli partners.

We feel very good as funders of so many things that happen in Israel, but there’s no bribe here. There are no strings attached. We’ll always take care of those things, help with absorption and those things that matter to us in our ethics and values as Jews, but we’re not quiet nor have ever been. The government that we’re talking to tends to change pretty frequently, but that doesn’t change the passion with which we speak, and we do speak loudly.

JPP: What challenges are you facing as the new chairwoman of the JFNA? US Jewry is going through serious challenges right now, whether it’s antisemitism and community and synagogue safety, or general polarization across America with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the mid-term elections coming up.

JP: I will begin by saying we’re an apolitical organization. The things that we do, we are doing for every Jew, wherever they live, wherever their political leanings find them.

One of the things that I just completed as national campaign chair of JFNA, I just completed my service was something called LiveSecure. We don’t have the luxury of not securing the North American Jewish community. I had the honor of leading the effort, raising what originally was a goal of $54 million and we actually raised $62 million in a national fund that will be matched by every community in North America, through a vetting process to provide them what they need for physical security. How sad we needed it. How grateful I am that we were able to raise it.

Antisemitism is pretty rampant in North America. In order for us to focus on flourishing Jewish life and engaging Jewish life, if you’re afraid to walk into the space where it’s happening, it’ll never happen.

Now we’re out in the phase of giving the money to the local communities through this application process so that we can do all the beautiful things that we want to do to make life flourish in North America.

JPP: The atmosphere on college campuses has become more hostile. What is the Federation doing or what do you think that American Jewish institutions can do to make people be proud to be Jewish and not be afraid to be openly Jewish?

JP: I don’t think any of us has one answer, but one of the things that we are hearing and feeling from our communities is this great desire to come up with answers. So the Israel Action Network that is part of Jewish Federations of North America is formulating a plan that speaks to the social media space. There is a need to have influencers who can speak proudly and loudly about being Jewish. We are very actively engaging those voices as best that we can, but there’s much more to be done.

The college campus space is overwhelming. There isn’t a day that goes by that someone doesn’t send me a terrible story about a professor who is giving up tenure because they just can’t stay in that space any longer.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that we won’t rest until we figure it out or do the very best that we can. It’s on college campuses, it’s with the students, but it’s with the faculty, it’s with our educational system in a way that is mind-blowing and terribly disturbing.

JPP: JFNA is supporting programs bringing Jewish high school students to Israel for a week or for a summer, and to attend Jewish summer camps in the US. But the thing that would give people especially strong tools for a strong Jewish identity and knowledge about Israel is Jewish schools, which have become less and less affordable over the years. Is the Federation trying to help more children attend Jewish schools and trying to make them more accessible to more Jews?

JP: I’m going to answer you from the Jewish camp view first. I actually think Jewish camping is one of the secret sauces that responds to what you’re saying. We’ve done a tremendous amount in the Jewish camping space, which is a piece of affordability that we can bite off without waiting. I come to this job from having previously been the chair of the board of the Foundation for Jewish Camp for four years and I am the product of Jewish camp.

Day school education is astronomically expensive. It’s on the agenda of every Jewish organization of how do we crack it and who’s going to be successful at the kind of endowment funds that are necessary. I don’t know the answer. I’ll simply tell you... to know that it is recognized as a huge problem, the expensiveness across the spectrum of getting kids into a Jewish day school education, but camp is one of the things that has been successful and that we can afford to get behind.

You can read literally any study of Jewish life in America. You send a kid to a Jewish summer camp, their relationship with the Jewish people will last a lifetime. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas. There was no day school and the same goes for many of those 300 communities I just talked to you about. They don’t have a day school, so we can’t rely on day schools to be the answer. The thing that got me to sitting here with you and being the chair of Jewish Federations of North America, happened at my parents’ Shabbat table, for sure, but 100% happened at Jewish summer camp.

JPP: We would be remiss if we didn’t ask you about your son, Tony, Emmy and Grammy-winning actor Ben Platt. He’s only an Oscar away from an EGOT and he’s 28 years old. What’s the secret to raising such a great artist?

JP: Before I start, I am the mother of five children. Ben is the fourth of my five, and I have six grandchildren. I am lucky enough to have two other sons who are engaged in the entertainment business as well, and in all of the cases, we were highly intentional. That’s the answer I will give you.

My husband is also in the entertainment business. He’s a producer, as well, and we made a decision very early on that we would try to bring our children up in a richly observant and engaged family. My children are the products of Jewish day school and of Jewish summer camp. They live by the example of my parents and my grandparents before us and that my husband and I have tried to model for them. They are simply continuing in an organic way to live out their Jewish values.

Ben is one of them. He is proudly Jewish. I don’t think there are many people who have sung “Guys and Dolls” in Hebrew on a late-night TV show. My older son, Jonah, is very outspoken on Twitter about his pro-Israel feelings and is one of those influencers that I’m extremely proud of.