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J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks during the Washington conference. – Photo by Moshe Zusman

By Jan Jaben-Eilon

While the fifth national conference of the pro-Israel, pro-peace J Street lobbying group made headlines around the world in late March, Atlanta chapter members were caught a bit off-guard by what didn’t make the news.

For the past year or so, Atlanta J Street activists had felt diminished support from the Washington-based organization, created in 2008. The Atlanta chapter had co-sponsored writer and political analyst Peter Beinart in November 2012, the Israeli film “The Gatekeepers,” in April 2013, and a debate between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami in February 2014 for the entire Atlanta Jewish community.

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Photo by Moshe Zusman – Palestinian leader Saeb Erekat, whose participation in the J Street conference was blamed for Hillel head Eric Fingerhut’s withdrawal, speaks during a panel discussion at the conference.

The chapter also held several smaller programs for members. But many Atlanta activists said they’d felt adrift lately.

In an interview at the conference with the Atlanta Jewish Times, Rachel A. Lerner, the senior vice president for community relations at J Street, acknowledged that the organization has decided to refocus its limited resources.

“Over the past year and a half, we’ve re-evaluated our field organization,” she said. “We’re creating effective advocacy networks across the country in places without an enormous Jewish community to effectively engage with Congress.”

Those networks are being dubbed J-Span, according to Jessica L.D. Rosenblum, the director of communications and media outreach at J Street. The term, she said, was coined in 2014 to refer to “areas where we are focusing on cultivating local leadership to support our advocacy work but where we don’t yet have a full chapter presence.”

Dotan Z. Harpak, one of the Atlanta chapter’s leaders, said that was news to him. He didn’t recall being informed of any new policy affecting the Atlanta chapter, nor had he heard of J-Span.

J Street activists in other Southeastern cities also expressed ignorance of J-Span.

Lerner said J-Span will focus on “influential people” in these communities to engage with Congress, defining the term as rabbis, Jewish leaders and political donors. “We’re an organization with limited recourses, and our top priority is to engage members of Congress. Where resources are limited, that’s where we want to focus.”

Untouched by this new direction are Atlanta-area students who are part of J Street U, the student arm of J Street, which was prominently displayed at the conference in Washington with more than 1,100 students, one-third of the participants.

Atlanta native and Emory University junior Leah Michalove returned from the conference, titled “A Clear Choice for a Better Future,” fired up to develop the pro-Israel conversation at Emory.

“At the student session at the conference,” she said, “we talked about our successes and new initiatives to bring home, such as how we as students can address the power held by conservative donors.”

J Street used the conference to pose two new challenges to its activists around the country: to approach local Jewish federations to find out whether they fund any programs on the Palestinian side of the Green Line and to replace any maps of Israel in local Jewish institutions that don’t display the Green Line. Such maps were provided to everyone at the J Street conference.

The United Israel Appeal identifies the Green Line as the boundaries before the June 1967 war, plus Jerusalem as defined by the state of Israel. The UIA is an independent legal entity that is responsible for the allocation and oversight of funds raised by U.S. Jewish federation campaigns on behalf of Israel.

An example of what J Street wants was added to the website of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Ore.: “No core Federation dollars go beyond the Green Line. UIA does not fund, nor does it build, any buildings beyond the Green Line.”

According to news reports, university students in Portland approached that city’s federation CEO, Marc Blattner, the former chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, to seek clarification about funding beyond the Green Line. The website addition was a response to their challenge to make a formal declaration about funding.

A spokeswoman for Federation in Atlanta said none of its funding is sent over the Green Line, although J Street has not contacted Federation about the issue.

J Street’s strategy is to push Jewish organizations that say they favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to delineate what that means and display it for all members of the community.

Michalove said she was heartened by a meeting J Street U students held with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, at the Washington conference.

“He committed to making that change at every URJ camp,” she said. That would include Camp Coleman in Cleveland.