(November 12, 2013 / JNS)
JERUSALEM—Several halls of Jerusalem’s International Congress Center were filled with booths representing the best of Israeli innovations as the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) held its General Assembly in Jerusalem for the third time since 2003.
From 1998-2012, the Federations sent more than $4.5 billion to Israel, so it’s no wonder that Israeli organizations as diverse as the world-renowned Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to the fledgling Hasdera social change organization were vying for the attention of the 1,500 North American delegates. Representatives of smaller organizations that can’t afford a booth wandered around the halls looking for opportunities to talk with potential donors and hand out a business card or brochure.
The annual gathering of Federation leadership generally takes place in the U.S., but every five years the organization representing more than 400 North American communities convenes in Jerusalem.
This year, the 1,500 North Americans were joined by an equal number of Israelis, representing the gamut of the country’s social services, commerce, and public institutions.
The theme for the 2013 GA was “The Global Jewish Shuk: A Marketplace of Dialogue and Debate,” with 22 sessions packed into a one-and-a-half-day conference. An additional day was set aside for site visits in and around Jerusalem, culminating in a solidarity walk from Jerusalem’s City Hall in Safra Square to the Western Wall.
For many delegates, the GA was the culmination of a weeklong mission that combines visits to Federation-funded projects with visits to Israel’s best cultural events.
At the opening plenary, headlined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the tone was set by the introductory speech given by GA co-chairs Michael and Susie Gelman. “We dream of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, pluralistic state,” stated Susie Gelman.
One Israeli blogger present retorted: “You mean we’re NOT? That bus I took to this very conference filled with an amalgam of Haredi, National Religious, white, black and Peruvian Jews was not a pluralistic environment? That election in which I voted earlier this year in which I had the privacy to choose whatever ballot I wished was not a democratic vote?”
The gap in understanding between Israelis and Diaspora Jews concerns Member of Knesset Nachman Shai (Kadima), a former director of the Israel office of JFNA, who organized two Federation general assemblies during his tenure.
The recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jewry is indicative of “a continuing steady change in attitude that indicates [Americans Jews and Israelis are] in two worlds,” Shai told JNS.org.
Israelis and Diaspora Jews “have to work harder” to understand each other, Shai said, citing two committees he chairs “to strengthen the Jewish people.” One is a joint Jewish Agency for Israel-Knesset committee on Jewish identity, and the other, convened by the Ruderman Family Foundation, aims to educate Knesset members about North American Jewry.
Over and over, Israelis in various sessions spoke of the existential threat facing the Jewish state: El Al executive and former Israel Air Force head Eliezer Shkedy told a Monday plenary session, “We’re fighting for our lives here.” Opposition Leader Shelly Yachimovich told delegates she agrees with Netanyahu that Iran “must be stopped from getting the bomb.”
For GA delegates like Iantha Sidell of Seattle, however, the clear top priority item for Jewish Federations is the findings of the Pew survey of American Jews.
“When that study was published, it changed the agenda,” Sidell explained. “The rates of intermarriage and the quest to find ways to engage young people in Jewish life are things we have to deal with now. We have to have content that interests them. I hope we can get some new ideas here,” she added.
Back over at the Hasdera booth, an earnest young Israeli tried to explain in English to a slightly perplexed Federation leader from Miami how his social change organization helps promote public participation in Israeli social causes.
In his address to the plenary on Sunday, Netanyahu tried to bridge the gap by laying out his assessment of the Iranian threat, telling the audience, “Coming to a theater near you. They need those ICBMs to reach North America.” He urged American Jews to “do something about it.”
Netanyahu also mentioned the Israeli government’s new joint initiative with the Jewish Agency “to unite the Jewish people, to initiate programs to help reach the inner cords of identity of the Jewish people around the world, and then put forward programs to help solidify the core of the conviction and identity that is so central to securing our future.”