Among the alphabet soup of organizations representing the Jewish population of New York, there are a few that originated in a time when consensus existed despite the religious and political divides. Rabbi Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Council of New York (JCRC-NY) is respected across the Jewish spectrum for his pro-Israel advocacy, outreach to elected officials, and combating anti-Semitism.
At the JCRC’s virtual gala last Thursday, he announced his retirement after 36 years as its executive vice president and CEO. “It was bittersweet to pay tribute to our CEO, Michael Miller, as he steps aside after 36 years to become CEO Emeritus,” said JCRC-NY President Cheryl Fishbein.
In his video statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a proclamation declaring June 24 as Michael Miller Day. “We’ve got some people in this city who are just treasures – particularly the sacred issue of keeping this city together. The most diverse city on earth needs shepherds who make sure that all the diverse communities stay in communication, that even in times of crisis we find unity.”
De Blasio shared a photo of himself standing with Rabbi Miller, and another where they met with the city’s Catholic leaders. “We hold him dear as a friend and as a guide,” he said. “Rabbi Miller was one of the leaders who led the vaccination drive for Holocaust survivors.”
Upon receiving the proclamation, Rabbi Miller echoed de Blasio’s remarks, noting that they’ve known each other for nearly 30 years, when de Blasio was a staffer for Mayor David Dinkins, and later in his role as Public Advocate, when he went on a JCRC tour of Israel. “You could not have done better,” de Blasio said.
Having known almost every elected official in New York, he was also praised by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, President Bill Clinton, among other dignitaries.
Rabbi Miller was raised in the example of his father, Rabbi Israel Miller zt”l, an activist who led the effort to obtain compensation for Holocaust survivors, emigration for Soviet Jews, pro-Israel advocacy, and education as a vice president of Yeshiva University. He established relationships with politicians that continued with his son, who received his s’michah at Yeshiva University, served as an army chaplain, and as a pulpit rabbi in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was appointed to the JCRC in 1986 by Malcolm Hoenlein, who then went on to lead the Conference of Presidents, also a consensus-building Jewish organization.
There have been times when Rabbi Miller appeared on the streets rallying against anti-Semitism, and in court cases involving anti-Semitism and discrimination, but most of his work involved personal diplomacy, and building relationships with rising political figures.
Among New York’s Congressional delegation, outspoken supporters of Israel such as Reps. Ritchie Torres and Grace Meng, first got to know Rabbi Miller when they served on the city and state levels, respectively. They went on the JCRC’s mission to Israel, and it left an impression on them that reflected in their words and deeds. In a lecture given to honors program students at Yeshiva College last year, he spoke on Mipnei Darchei Shalom as his inspiration behind consensus-building.
At times, this included public conversations with progressive lawmakers who support the boycott of Israel, such as his online talk with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last April. Rather than focusing on BDS, they spoke of funding for early childhood education, senior programs, access to food, and including anti-Semitism in the conversation on hatred. Such outreach was criticized by some Jewish activists as “kumbaya,” but it is also respected because of his record in delivering for the Jewish community from politicians of all stripes.
“He has built bridges across divides large and small and leaves an unmatched record of accomplishments as his legacy,” said Councilman Barry Grodenchik. From his decades of work with Rabbi Miller, he noted “his wisdom, hard work, and incredible dedication to both Klal Yisrael and the community at large.”
The JCRC’s role as the organizer of the Celebrate Israel Parade also tested the limits of his ability to build a big tent. In 2015, the organization released a rule for parade participants that they cannot “fund, nor advocate, for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel, which seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel by not recognizing it as a Jewish state.”
Queens communal leaders praised Rabbi Miller for recognizing the needs of the community. “He was always helpful,” said Queens Jewish Community Council Executive Director Cynthia Zalisky. “He was a major voice for combating anti-Semitism and he made sure to give the QJCC a voice among the Jewish organizations.”
Shimi Pelman, a Democratic District Leader and president of Tomchei Shabbos of Queens, described him as a “leader par excellence” who impressed elected officials and diplomats with his knowledge and humility.
The appreciation for Rabbi Miller on his retirement resulted in a record $2.7 million raised at the virtual gala. He will be succeeded as CEO by Gideon Taylor, who previously served as executive vice president at the Claims Conference. Founded in 1976, JCRC-NY functions as a bridge-builder between Jewish denominations, communities of other faiths, and elected officials. It also provides assistance to more than 60 Jewish organizations in their legal work, Russian-Jewish outreach, and counter-missionary programs. The Celebrate Israel Parade, which is the largest annual pro-Israel gathering in the country, is hosted by JCRC-NY, which handles the logistics, permits, and schedule of this event.
“Rabbi Miller has played an outsized role in building strong ties between New York State and Israel,” said Assemblymember Daniel Rosenthal. “His ability to build relationships, support various social service missions, and be a true leader in our community is a testament to his commitment to service. I applaud him on his retirement and thank him for the lasting impact of his work.”
By Sergey Kadinsky