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November 06, 1987 - Image 24

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-11-06

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Council Crossroads

The Jewish Community Council
Detroit Jewry's spokesman and
communal forum — faces
change as it begins its second 50 years


Staff Writer


eon Cohan's 24th-floor office
in the Edison Building in
downtown Detroit offers a
magnificent view of Detroit
on three sides. "On a clear
day you can see as far as the Silver-
dome:' he says, pointing out to the
cloud-canopied horizon.
The president of the Jewish Com-
munity Council is trying to look into
the future these days, rather than off
into the distance. The Council is cur-
rently celebrating 50 years as a
community-relations arm of the
Jewish community, bringing together
300 or so local Jewish organizations,
and working to further the interests
of Detroit's Jews and the causes of
Jews everywhere, as Colio.n describes
the Council's mission.
During the past half-century, says
Cohan, the Council has worked for
the creation of and then supported the
State of Israel, combatted local anti-
Semitism, championed the separation
of religion and state, fostered coali-
tions with other ethnic minorities and
coordinated activities of its consti-
tuent organizations through such
means as a calendar of local Jewish
events, which the Council publishes
to avoid scheduling conflicts.
The Jewish Community Council
of the future will have a broader base
of active people, be more in tune with
the times and more successfully
utilize communications techniques
than at present, predicts Cohan, who
is halfway through his third and final
year as Council president.
Cohan's crystal ball is the Long
Range Strategic Plan, whose aim is
to structurally reform the Council.
"There is a tendency in any organiza-
tion to do things by rote," he explains.
"I said, 'Let's take a fresh look at
everything.' "
Detroit's Jewish community today
is vastly different than it was 50 years


10. 1. 111.1 A‘i




ago, Cohan points out. "We're a
smaller community. We're more in-
volved in the general society. We're an
economically successful community.
The State of Israel now exists and we
have more political clout in this coun-
"As the community changes, the
Council has to change," says David
Lebenbom, a past Council president.
"If it doesn't restructure itself, it
becomes an anachronism."
Realizing that "we wouldn't be
able to do it from the inside," in early
1986 Cohan turned to the Touche
Ross accounting firm to draw up the
Long Range Strategic Plan. Cohan
received the final draft in February
1987. While declining to name the
specifics of the plan, Cohan says it in-
cludes changes in the Council's con-
stitution, external and internal rela-
tions, programming, membership,
media relations, and overall manage-
ment, staff and budgetary structure.
In September, Cohan appointed
four task forces to determine how to
put the plan's recommendations into
effect. He will present the task force
reports to the Council's executive
committee for review on Nov. 19. "By
the time I finish my tenure, we will
have this plan in implementation," he
Alvin Kushner, the Council's ex-
ecutive director, has been handling
the nitty-gritty running of the
organization for the past 14 years.
Although he was injured in a car ac-
cident and suffered a heart attack in
the past year, Kushner today seems fit
and very much in charge.
"The Jewish Community Council
is the only umbrella organization for
all Jewish organizations," he ex-
plains. "We speak for the organized
Jewish community, we gather infor-
mation and we feed information
which is vital to the Jewish communi-


The 3,600 persons on the Council
mailing list receive monthly bulletins
and action alerts, says Kushner. The
list includes delegates to the Council
and the officers of its constituent
How central is the Council as an
information source? Kushner smiles
and says, "Even The Jewish News
comes to us. Something buzzes in the
community and I get a call. I bet we
get half-a-dozen calls a week from the
Jewish Information Service."
One of the Council's main thrusts
is outreach to non-Jewish Detroiters,
with particular emphasis on the
black, Arab, Polish and Hispanic com-
munities, according to Cohan. A re-
cent Council project, for example,
paired Jewish families with families
of the other minority groups. Kushner
says he would like to see still more
resources channeled towards
outreach. "I lean away from what the
Long Range Plan says. We need more
outreach to the non-Jewish communi-
The Council has acted as a role
model for other minority groups,
Cohan says, and others concur:
"We are a replication of the
Jewish Community Council:' says
Horace Sheffield, director of the
Detroit Association of Black
Organizations. "I think there's no
question that they do a good job. Do
they permeate the total [black] com-
munity? That's not the case. Not even
the black leadership does that."
"I believe that the idea of a cen-
tral group with leadership that is
public and is reaching out to other
minorities is a good model:' com-
ments George Bashara, a member of
the Arab Chaldean Community
Social Services Council.
Kushner is visibly proud of the
press contacts he has cultivated over

the years, particularly at the Detroit
Free Press. The media have been sen-
sitized to Jewish interests due to
those contacts, he says. "Writers are
influenced by their ability to get in-
formation;' explains Free Press Editor
Joe Stroud. "[Kushner] makes it his
business to see they get information.
If we've been insensitive, he's not shy
about telling me about it."
Aside from media and communi-
ty relations, the Council concentrates
on two other areas of endeavor. Near-
ly half the Council's $467,000 budget
for this year is devoted to its Soviet
Jewry Committee and to "Middle
East and international concerns" —
which basically translates to mean
"Israel advocacy." About two-thirds of
that sum goes towards staff and office
costs, the rest to programs.
There is no doubt that the Soviet
Jewry Committee is the Council's
pride and joy. "I can't imagine how
the Soviet Jewry Committee could be
more effective than it is," says Cohan,
"because the people are committed."
Five years ago there was prac-
tically no pro-Soviet Jewry activity in
Detroit, David Lebenbom recalls.
"Now it's unusual to have a bar mitz-
vah without a twinning in this town."
Committee members are
fanatically committed to their cause.
But the Council's approach to the
Soviet Jewry effort is not without its
critics. They argue that since the
Council relies on a broad consensus
before reaching any decision, actions
on behalf of Soviet Jews are ultimate-
ly watered down and, thus, less effec-
tive, than in an independent organiza-
tion (See Sidebar).
The Council's efforts on behalf of
Israel are in the realm of education,
particularly of non-Jews, according to
Kushner. "The question is mode —
how do we best spend the money?" A

Continued on Page 26

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