Ron Halber has the best job in the Jewish community. At least that’s how he feels.
“I wake up every day eager to go to work and I am very proud of what I do,” said Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). “I consider it an enormous privilege to lead the JCRC in the nation’s capital.”
In advance of the JCRC’s annual gala June 11, Halber talked with Kol HaBirah about the JCRC’s mission and how the community can play a larger role in it.
What role does the JCRC serve in the community?
The JCRC is a hub, a catalyst, and a leader, and relationship building is the foundation of our success. We secure government funds on the state, local, and federal level for Jewish agencies, we provide education and advocacy opportunities in support of Israel and Holocaust commemoration, and build ties with the other faiths in our community.
We have an extraordinary array of relationships with community leaders and clergy, as well elected officials and their staff at all levels of government. People come to us if they need a lawyer, if they are facing discrimination in public schools — we are the place people turn to when they don’t know where else to go.
What would you say are the JCRC’s current top priorities?
Our goals are to make sure the Jewish agencies serving the community are well funded and that our public policies are advanced in the legislative process; to advocate for Israel; and to make sure community is framed in a positive way.
For example, in 2017 our lobbying efforts brought $3.6 million into the Jewish community, as well as a million dollar program for security funding for schools. We are strong supporters of the statewide BOOST program, which provides tuition assistance for low-income families who attend day schools. Over 100 kids in our own community benefit from this.
On campus, we’ve partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to train 700 students to be advocates for Israel on campus. We are also combating the increase of anti-Semitism in public schools and increasing our Holocaust education outreach and activities.
You’ve been the executive director of the JCRC since 2001. What have been some of your most meaningful moments?
Some of the more memorable moments include the recent Trayon White situation, working for five years to free Alan Gross, helping Bikur Cholim with permits when they were building a house, and connecting JSSA [the Jewish Social Services Agency] with Dr. Michael Berenhaus of Bethesda, who arranged to have free eyeglasses given to Holocaust survivors.
Our government relations and Israel education and advocacy efforts are comphrensive and first-rate. I love to see our efforts come to fruition on a micro level, and I’m proud that we’ve brought in tens of millions of dollars for the Jewish community and changed the legislative landscape.
When I began at the JCRC, we had a $400,000 budget. Now it’s $1.7 million, our staff has exploded in size, and we are helping so many members of our Jewish community every day. In the last two decades, no other JCRC has seen explosive growth like ours, and we are considered by most outside communal observers to be one of the best JCRCs in the nation.
How about some of the biggest challenges?
Trying to make policy decisions that represent our diverse community is like threading a needle. The current polarized environment makes it harder to navigate, and we try hard to focus on moderation. For example, some who may have been pleased about the embassy move may be uncomfortable celebrating it because of issues with the president. Our policy is to thank the president for the actions we approve of and to oppose actions we do not approve of.
Securing government dollars in a competitive environment, keeping the Jewish community solidly behind Israel, and encouraging people to disagree without being disagreeable are also among our greatest challenges.
Last but not least, there is fundraising. It can be difficult for people to understand what the JCRC does because we are removed from the program impact. For example, we raised money for JFGH the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) to get a new group home; the community sees the home, but not the work that we did to get it.
What are some misconceptions people have about the JCRC?
That we are nothing more than a subcommittee of the Democratic Party. We often take the progressive stance because that’s where most of the community lies.
We also take into account the more affiliated side of the community. For example, we make sure they have representation on the board, the food at our events is kosher, and we bring in money for Jewish day schools.
I would like to see a greater respect for those who have chosen to make Jewish communal work their career choice. They work extremely hard, often sacrificing family time at salaries that are not adequate with salaries in the private sector. I never lose an opportunity to thank our wonderful staff as well as our extraordinary board and lay leadership.
Who are some of the influential people you have developed relationships with as part of your role?
Vivian Bass, the former director of JFGH, Judge Peter Krauser, and Andy Stern have provided a lot of guidance and wisdom. In addition, Michael Gelman and David Butler are others whose advice and perspective I deeply respect.
In what ways can the community help support JCRC’s mission?
Attend our programs, answer calls to action, and donate the necessary funds. Our Jewish agencies do well because of the JCRC’s ability to secure dollars via legislative efforts. As a community, we should never take that for granted.
Also, don’t assume someone else is taking care of an issue. Take action, write that email. Anti-Israel activists are turning up the heat, but our community is not as involved. We need activism, fundraising, and lobbying.