Wednesday, May 25, 2022

On June 24, New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council virtually hosted its annual gala. Over 400 “attendees” set a fundraising record, exceeding $2.7 million, supporting JCRC-NY’s work uniting Jewish and non-Jewish New Yorkers. The event paid special tribute to JCRC-NY’s bridge-builder, Rabbi Michael Miller, who stepped down on June 30 after 36 years as Executive Vice President and CEO to become CEO Emeritus. Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented the inaugural Rabbi Israel Miller and Rabbi Michael S. Miller Generation-to-Generation Award, which also honors Miller’s father’s legacy as a Bronx, YU and world Jewish leader.

During the program, in an interview with NY1’s Political Anchor Errol Louis, Miller explained how he began his professional career as an army chaplain, and a pulpit rabbi in Massachusetts. “I volunteered communally for the Jewish Federation in Springfield. Even though I was the Orthodox rabbi and not a Conservative, Reform, liberal or progressive Rabbi, I was assigned to the community relations committee,” Miller said. “It wasn’t too long before I became the chair of the committee. Probably the most momentous experience I had was travelling behind the Iron Curtain to the former Soviet Union, to visit with refuseniks.”

Miller considers going to the Soviet Union pivotal; showing him he was in the wrong field. He moved into the world of community relations.

Miller reflected back on the 1991 situation in Crown Heights. “In those days, there were no community relations in Crown Heights per se. Neither was JCRC poised to engage in their community relations and pain they experienced. We needed to do something about that. We could not prevent what took place, because the structures weren’t there.”

He continued, “It was vital that we, as the representative organization of Jews in New York, step in, and attempt to build, not rebuild, because there was nothing there. Probably the most exciting, exhilarating but challenging experience is that we started with nothing and built upon it.”

Miller also looked back on some of New York’s darker times. “After 9/11, people were afraid to walk the streets. There was an overwhelming sadness that descended on the city. I think, for a lot of New Yorkers, there was a lot of rage, too, but what I mostly remember was just the sadness.” Miller included the 1994 murder of Ari Halberstam on the Brooklyn Bridge in his memories. “There was a great concern for the safety of the Jewish community, because the perpetrator was still at large.”

As for the future of JCRC, Miller stated, “We are the Jewish community in New York, a minority within a flourishing majority, representing a full spectrum of ethnic communities. We need to strengthen ourselves internally as well as externally. We can’t afford for there to be internal polarization. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished within this organization. And thank God for the almost 1,500 people we’ve taken to Israel, over the years. We’re not always going to agree on the issues, but we can communicate with each other. To me, that’s community relations. We can talk, have dialogue, cooperate, coalesce and build.”

Miller spoke with The Jewish Link after the event, describing the impact of JCRC trips to Israel with local elected officials, and how it changed their mindset. Not knowing they would later join Congress, Miller took New York Councilman Ritchie Torres and Assembly members Greg Meeks, Grace Meng and Hakeem Jeffries to Israel. Thinking back 30 years, prior to one of those trips, Miller noted, “I don’t know whether Greg Meeks knew that he was going to be running for Congress; if he had foundational experience on Israel, because the New York State Assembly doesn’t deal with foreign policy and governments. He is now chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His introduction to Judaism and Israel was through a JCRC mission.”

Miller also recalled Congressman Jeffries, a potential Speaker of the House, whose first trip to Israel was as a New York State Assembly member, which he frequently talks about. Miller mentioned Representative Meng, vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, and co-chair of the House Task Force combating antisemitism. Her first experience in Israel was with JCRC. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is another political leader who has developed a love for Israel due to his JCRC relationship.

When asked if there has been one specific moment of the past 36 years that stands out, Miller responded, “Of all those things that I’ve been privileged to be associated with, it’s hard to be selective. I have been able to invest almost 40 years of my life at one organization. That’s just not done anymore. Millennials, in particular, bounce around from place to place after two or three years. Being in one place all this time, we kept on reimagining and retooling the organization. Choosing one particular thing would not be doing justice to all the other particular things.”

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