When TV cameras have already left scenes of tragedy at home and in Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America is still on the scene. That’s what William C. Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office, emphasized at a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona leadership campaign summit on Dec. 5.
Daroff, who was named one of the 50 most influential Jews in America by The Forward newspaper in 2008, is a leading advocate for the Jewish community in Washington, D.C. In Tucson, he explained that JFNA decisions are “consensus based,” and are made as the umbrella organization of 155 Jewish federations. The Jewish Diaspora exists “outside of the five boroughs of New York City,” he quipped to around 50 people at Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort.
Standing in front of the Tucson Jewish community’s freedom quilt, marking the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington in support of Jews in the Former Soviet Union, Daroff noted JFNA’s ongoing contributions to domestic Jewish social service agencies, as well as causes around the globe.
“Sometimes a small thing can change your life,” said Tucsonan Barbara Holtzman, who joined Daroff at a JFSA summit meeting Dec. 6, commemorating local efforts in the 1970s to assist Soviet Jews. The Soviet Jews were known as “refuseniks” because they were refused visas to emigrate to Israel. A group of 10 women from the JCRC’s Soviet Jewry Committee morphed into the Women’s Minyan for Soviet Jewry, led by Margie Fenton, then director of the JCRC. Stephanie Aaron, now the rabbi at Congregation Chaverim, had the idea of holding a community-wide Freedom Run for Soviet Jewry, said Holtzman.
“For many years our race attracted more than 1,200 runners plus great publicity on the air and in the news. The greater [Tucson] community not only ran, but signed petitions to our government and to the Soviet government, adopted refuseniks and ran [to support] them,” said Holtzman.
“People in Tucson no longer thought of the Soviet Jewry movement as being about Soviet jewelry. Through our work and persistence, three of our elected officials — Gov. Bruce Babbit, Sen. Dennis DeConcini and U.S. Rep. Mo Udall —
visited refuseniks and brought their plight to the attention of Soviet leaders.”
In the United States today, JFNA is a strong lobbying organization for Jewish causes. As the orgnization’s chief lobbyist and principle spokesperson on public policy and international affairs, Daroff plays a prominent role on Capitol Hill and with the executive branch. Prior to his position with JFNA he was deputy executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“We’re working on a new charitable tax deduction policy [in Congress]. We don’t donate because of tax deductions,” Daroff said Dec. 5, but because of “the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam,” repairing the world. However, “99 percent of our donations online come in December and 90 percent of our donations come from the top 10 percent of donors.”
JFNA also focuses on Israel “stopping Iran from developing a nuclear capacity,” said Daroff. “We try to stop the delegitimization of Israel, which you’ve seen at the University of Arizona. During what’s been called the Eight-Day War, [referring to the recent Pillar of Defense conflict in Gaza], Jewish federations immediately contributed $5 milion,” he said, adding “support from the president was unprecedented. Every statement that came from [President Obama] supported [Prime Minister] Netanyahu.”
The Federation supports JFNA’s Israel Action Network, said Daroff, noting, “I know you have professors here at the University of Arizona spewing hatred of Israel” or people taking Israeli products off the shelves at Trader Joe’s.
“Let’s not treat Israel in a way different from any other sovereign nation,” he told the audience. “We see this across the board at the United Nations. Look at Syria where 40,000 people have been murdered, compared to the number of resolutions against Israel. When Israel takes [one tank] across the line it becomes an international calamity.”
Following the huge destruction from Hurricane Sandy, “one thing I’m proud of,” said Daroff, is the assistance “we’ve given to the Jewish community as well as the non-Jewish community. There are still people who are homeless, who don’t have electricity. We’re still there to help people after the TV cameras have left.”
In 2005, post-Hurricane Katrina, Daroff toured the massive destruction in New Orleans and southern Mississippi. “It reminded me of Dresden, with cars in trees and trees in cars,” he said. “We did support the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, literally paying every bill for two years. We supported the Jewish day school.”
In Biloxi, Miss., JFNA was there nine weeks after the storm, working with the emergency management director whom everyone called “colonel,” said Daroff. “He was most worried about the socio-psychological needs of the community. When we figured out how to get insurance companies to pay,” JFNA funded an emergency psychological counseling center. “It continues today although it’s not covered in the media.”
At the opening of the Biloxi center, “the colonel said, ‘Six months ago, I had never met a Jewish person, and today before I go to bed at night I thank God for the Jews,’” said Daroff. And you could say that what goes around comes around: JFNA’s “very first donation for Sandy victims was from the Jewish Federation of New Orleans.”