(Above) – Harvey Rickles, the president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, holds the JCPA Program of Excellence Award. Joining him are (from left) Leah Fuhr, Melanie Nelkin, Lois Frank and Margo Gold.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta received the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Program of Excellence Award this month at the JCPA National Town Hall in Washington, D.C.

The award cites the JCRCA as having one of the two most outstanding programs by a U.S. Jewish organization in the past year. That program was the “Sacred Disagreements” workshop held at the Selig Center on Aug. 9.

The workshop grew out of the JCPA’s 2014 national meeting in Atlanta, which featured a presentation by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub. She spoke of her work to develop civility in disagreements and to improve communication.

Her words resounded with the JCRCA’s immediate past president, Elizabeth Appley, and with former JCPA President Lois Frank. These two women, in conversations with friends and associates in the Atlanta Jewish community, began looking for the appropriate occasion to bring Rabbi Weintraub back to Atlanta to work with the community.

Jewish Atlanta happened to provide multiple examples this year of disagreements that turned ugly, divisive and frequently personal in public. Two of the most prominent played out in the pages of this newspaper: Jewish National Fund’s plan to give an award to First Baptist Church Atlanta Pastor Charles Stanley and New Israel Fund’s efforts to establish a presence here.

Such incidents have a common denominator: the open rage that develops over differing opinions about how best to support Israel.

Jews in America have repeatedly struggled with issues that Atlanta Jews have faced:

  • Is a supporter of Israel always our ally? Where is the line?
  • Is it disloyal to criticize Israel? Where is the line?

There is no possibility of unanimity on such issues. But the JCRCA is striving to create an atmosphere in which we don’t merely tolerate one another, which is just good manners. We want to be able to learn from one another.

The JCRCA hoped that making the discussion’s playing field a safe place at the event Aug. 9 would enable everyone to better understand various issues.

The workshop with Rabbi Weintraub brought community leaders together in one room for an entire day. The JCRCA invited the parties to the various public disputes, the leaders of all the major Jewish organizations, some influential rabbis and a select group of opinion leaders. The goal was to create a balance in the areas of political affiliation, age, gender and religious affiliation.

Two non-JCRC ringers, Jan Jaben-Eilon and Paul Root Wolpe, were brought in to add their sweat and insights to the organizing committee. Frank made dozens of invitation phone calls while she was on vacation in Israel, and CRCA Vice President Melanie Nelkin made invitation calls from different time zones across the country.

The organizing committee also included JCRCA board member Rob Thaler and administrator Noah Appley.

“We believe that our workshop was a successful first step towards unifying our community by starting to eliminate the personal attacks,” the JCRCA said in announcing its award. “Perhaps more importantly, we also began the process of humanizing how other devoted Zionists came to arrive at opinions that are diametrically opposed to our own. Now we need to convince our community that their individual opinions will not be vilified, but instead they will be heard, respected, and will help expand our communal knowledge.”

With the help of the entire Jewish community, the JCRCA hopes to continue this work. “We believe that by allowing everyone to speak, as well as having everyone listen,” the council said, “we will be able to increase understanding and decrease the acrimony over what is best for Israel.”