We Are Family? JNF CEO Fails to Win Over Critics

We Are Family? JNF CEO Fails to Win Over Critics

By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Jewish National Fund CEO Russell Robinson visited The Temple on Friday, May 8, bearing a message of partnership to resolve what he portrayed as a family squabble within Jewish Atlanta.

JNF CEO Russell Robinson
JNF CEO Russell Robinson (photo via JNF.org)

He failed to defuse the anger many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their supporters felt over JNF’s plan to honor First Baptist Church Atlanta Senior Pastor Charles Stanley at the annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast on April 23. But the 90-minute public discussion at least opened the lines of communication.

Teshuvah (repentance) takes time, Young Israel of Toco Hills Rabbi Adam Starr said. “I think this is the beginning of something.”

Rabbis across the denominational spectrum were part of the crowd of about 50 people who joined Robinson and other representatives of JNF’s national office in New York for a bagel breakfast. The group included JNF Southeast Regional Director Beth Gluck and members of the regional board on one side, representatives of SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity on the other, and members of the Jewish Community Relations Council in the middle.

Robinson said that because JNF is all about Israel and takes no positions on other political issues, “we bring everybody together.”

He apologized for any pain JNF caused by deciding to honor Stanley for his decades-long support of Israel while ignoring his well-publicized statements on LGBT issues. Robinson said JNF will strive to do a better job of screening honorees.

“We are all family, and at times family has its relatives who don’t agree with one another,” Robinson said.

His opening statement caused some agitation within the extended family in the room. For example, he said Stanley’s offensive statements were at least 20 years old, but SOJOURN Assistant Director Robbie Medwed responded that Stanley made some comments at least as recently as 2012.

Robinson emphasized his organization’s long record of equal treatment of LGBT employees and lay leaders and said he was hurt that JNF faced LGBT-related criticism.

SOJOURN board member Leanne Rubenstein pleaded with Robinson to acknowledge her pain as a lesbian and a Jew specifically in the South.

The public meeting followed a much smaller private meeting that included Robinson, SOJOURN Executive Director Rebecca Stapel-Wax and Temple Senior Rabbi Peter Berg. All three said the meeting was productive and provided a path toward better cooperation.

“There was a commitment that there has to be a better way” than trading angry words in public, Rabbi Berg said. He and his fellow Temple clergy attended the Hirsch Memorial Breakfast, held at their building, only after Stanley withdrew as the main honoree.

Rubenstein said Stanley emerged as a mensch because he did the right thing and withdrew, while JNF failed to respond positively to nine days of behind-the-scenes pressure to drop the award before the controversy went public in early April.

“I am sadder today about JNF than I was before I came to this meeting,” said Congregation Gesher L’Torah Rabbi Michael Bernstein, who attended the April 23 breakfast only because Stanley withdrew.

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