NEW YORK – Thousands of people – including prominent Israeli and US politicians, Jewish leaders and social activists, and one astronaut – will begin arriving in New Orleans on Friday for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly, the biggest Jewish philanthropic event of the year.

This year’s keynote speakers will be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is expected to arrive on Sunday, and US Vice President Joe Biden, who will deliver the closing speech on Monday.

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“We’re thrilled to have Prime Minister Netanyahu join us,” Federations CEO Jerry Silverman said. “The prime minister will add to an admirable lineup of global leaders who will make this an unforgettable and influential GA.”

Besides the regular ensemble of Jewish professionals, this year will feature a guest appearance by Jewish-American NASA astronaut Garret Reisman. The New Jersey-born engineer will take part in a sideline event organized by Limmud FSU, a group dedicated to promoting Jewish culture among Russian-speaking Jews.

Reisman, who speaks Russian from the time he spent in that country, took part in a Limmud seminar in New York last summer and decided to continue his affiliation with the group following that event’s success.

Click for full Jpost coverage of the GA 2010

Starting on Sunday afternoon, dozens of panels on myriad issues affecting the Jewish world will take place. Talks will touch on topical subjects such as the delegitimization of Israel’s right to exist, Jewish communities around the world and the controversies surrounding conversion to Judaism.

Ties between Jews and non- Jews will also be on the agenda.

On Tuesday, Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman and veteran Jewish activist Jeffrey Solomon will take part in a panel discussing relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel and how philanthropy can alleviate some of the tensions between the two groups.

The GA is organized by the Federations, a network of semiautonomous organizations spread out across the continent that are the primary fund-raisers from the Jewish community in North America. The billions they bring in annually are not only used to support the vast array of Jewish institutions and organizations in the US and Canada, but also go overseas through the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Thus, the gathering attracts leaders from Israel and Jewish communities around the world who rely on North American Jewry’s largesse.

Last year, the federation system collectively raised $2 billion from its annual campaign and assets, it said.

Still, Jewish giving faces serious challenges. The economic downturn in 2008 hit hard for Jewish philanthropists, many of whom were taken in by Bernard L. Madoff’s multibillion-dollar fraud. Donations have still not recovered to their pre-recession rates. Furthermore, long-term trends – like changes in patterns of giving and assimilation – mean the industry of Jewish charity is in a state of constant flux.

This year, the federations chose New Orleans to host the GA, to highlight efforts funded by the Jewish community to help the southern city recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

On Monday, the assembly will go on an afternoon break and take to the streets of the Big Easy for a tour of the work funded by Jewish charity.

“The Jewish Federations has raised and invested more than $28 million for rehabilitation since the hurricane struck, and this tour will illustrate the strides that have been made as well as the work that has yet to be completed,” a Federations representative said.

“The tour will include a stop at a Jewish day school that was destroyed after the storm but is now back up and running; an Orthodox congregation that lost its synagogue and Torah scrolls in the flooding, but is now rebuilding in partnership with the neighboring Reform congregation; some of the ongoing GA service projects where hundreds of volunteers will be working hard, and more,” the representative said.

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