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PROFILE: Nancy Kaufman going national with model twinning social justice and Israel

Nancy Kaufman with Dean Jep Strait, left, Father Demetrios Tonias, Pastor Wesley Roberts and Bishop Gideon Thompson on a summer study tour in Israel in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Boston JCRC)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — With the prospect for the first American universal health care plan apparently dimming in Massachusetts because the three outsize personalities vital to its passage — the state’s governor, its House speaker and its Senate president — could not agree on the details, Nancy Kaufman came to the rescue.

At a critical meeting with the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Kaufman, the director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, overwhelmed Salvatore Di Masi with statistics, broke down the cost analysis and, most critically, knew how the deal could be made.

As Kaufman spoke, the speaker visibly shifted, recalls the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, who heads the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which led lobbying for universal health care in the state since the late 1990s.

“His perception of us changed — you could see it in his face and his body language,” Hamilton recalled of Di Masi.

That’s when Hamilton knew universal health care would become a reality in Massachusetts. Within weeks of meeting with Kaufman in the fall of 2005, DiMasi had introduced the bill, and it passed less than a year later.

“Nancy was phenomenal because she knew personally all the players, from the speaker of the House and the governor and the president of the Senate to providers to chiefs of the hospitals,” Hamilton said, noting that some were Democrats and others Republicans. “She knew where they were as people, their politics. She was a phenomenal strategic thinker. And all the while her heart is wanting to serve those who have no voice, no influence.”

It’s a familiar tale: Colleagues say that in Kaufman’s 20 years directing the Boston JCRC, she combined street smarts with a passion for the underdog and made social justice an inextricable part of Jewish activism in that city.

Now she hopes to do the same on a national stage when she assumes the directorship next month of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“This is an opportunity to take everything wonderful I did in Boston and bring it to a national level,” said Kaufman, who will fill the newly created position of NCJW chief executive officer. “It’s an opportunity to have a broader impact.”

With 90,000 members in 100 chapters, NCJW is a vehicle to make social justice activism a must-have item on Jewish agendas across the country, Kaufman says. She sees the individual chapters as catalysts for change.

“I’m a community organizer by training,” she said. “People need to feel it and touch it and become advocates for making change.”

Kaufman ascends to the national stage after decades of anxious introspection by Jewish social justice groups over why issues such as workers’ rights, gender and race equality, and alleviating poverty — once the core of the Jewish agenda — have been shunted aside in favor of Israel activism, left and right.

NCJW had been searching for a successor to Stacy Kass, who left the executive director’s position at the women’s advocacy organization a year ago. Nancy Ratzan, NCJW’s president, said expanding membership was a key consideration. Like many other national groups, NCJW has been grappling with how to replenish membership.

NCJW insiders say Kaufman was hired because of her track record in wrapping the pro-Israel activism that has become a sine qua non of national Jewish advocacy with the social justice focused on women, children and families that is the group’s bread and butter.

“She was brilliant in bringing together a lot of diversity and creating a lot of welcoming mixed players into the social justice arena and combining that with the commitment to Israel in Boston,” Ratzan said. “We look forward to making what she accomplished in Boston a national model.”

In Boston, Kaufman united a politically diverse community by making clear that her Israel commitment was unassailable, said her deputy, Alan Ronkin, who is set to step in as acting director of the Boston JCRC.

Kaufman, 59, is a veteran of former Gov. Michael Dukakis’ administration, and has not been abashed about her liberalism. In 2007 she spoke out when the Anti-Defamation League fired its Boston-area director for railing against the national group’s opposition to recognizing the Armenian genocide.

The ADL eventually reversed its posture, rehiring the Boston-area director and recognizing the massacres of Armenians as “tantamount” to genocide. National director Abraham Foxman paid Kaufman the compliment of influence.

“The last thing we need now is for Barry Shrage and Nancy Kaufman to be fighting us,” Foxman told JTA at the time, referring also to Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

When Israel’s Foreign Ministry recalled its Boston consul, Nadav Tamir, for publishing a memo criticizing the Netanyahu government for how it handled its relationship with the Obama administration, Kaufman was outspoken, calling Tamir the “best Israeli diplomat I have worked with in my 19 years here.”

Her credibility with progressives is precisely what helps make the case for Israel, said Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who in November was elected the treasurer of Massachusetts. He said Kaufman’s work with local Presbyterians was the basis for this year’s rejection of Israel sanctions by the church’s General Assembly.

“The strong and valuable relationships she was able to build during moments of crisis,” Grossman said, “you see how important it is.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Kaufman’s expertise was bringing a “coherence” that tamed the Jewish community’s “cross currents.”

“She does that superbly,” he said.

The plan is to replicate programs that made the JCRC an essential part of Boston’s social activism community. At the JCRC, Kaufman launched programs that brought suburban Jewish youths to the inner city to tutor their peers. She helped form interfaith coalitions that helped bring about the country’s first universal health plan, and she led fundraising for disaster relief.

“She invented a new way for a JCRC to be a JCRC,” Shrage said.

Kaufman set a standard, he said, whereby “we need to be oriented to the Jewish community but not parochial.”