With hundreds of sessions crammed into three intense days, frustration is an
inevitable by-product of attending the General Assembly of The Jewish
Federations of North America (JFNA). It’s simply impossible to taste everything
on offer in this enticing smorgasbord of Jewish vitality and
Here is what I did manage to sample on day two. Join me for a
helping of inspiration.
8:00 a.m. I begin my day at Café Ivrit, an
innovation of the World Zionist Organization where GA attendees have the
opportunity to enjoy “a cup of coffee and a slice of Hebrew.” Israeli music is
playing in the background and staff engage customers in Hebrew conversation. I
am there to teach Yehuda Amichai’s poetry on Jerusalem to anyone who is
“This year I traveled a long way / to view the silence of my
city. / A baby calms down when you rock it, a city calms down / from the
distance. I dwelled in longing… / Now that I’ve come back, I’m screaming
again…/” We discuss what it means to live in Jerusalem. We discuss what it means
to be living in longing.
9:00 a.m. A GA plenary. Michael Siegal,
incoming chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees, begins his remarks with a
reference to the barrage of rockets raining down on Israel’s southern
“15 seconds,” he says. “15 seconds. That’s the amount of time in
which one needs to be able to get to a shelter after a warning siren is
sounded,” he tells the crowd. “Can you imagine what that means for a young
mother caring for three small children?” He turns to the representatives of
Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry sitting in the audience.
prayers and our love to the people of Israel, and tell them that our thoughts
are with them now as they always are.”
11:00 a.m. Bruce Arbit, chairman
of the United Israel Appeal, introduces a panel of rabbis who are there to
address their colleagues participating in a track titled “Rabbis Engaging with
Israel,” sponsored jointly by the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet, the World Zionist
Organization and The Jewish Agency for Israel.
Rabbi Heshie Billet, past
president of the Orthodox Rabbinic Council of America, tells us that one of his
rules is, “Never advocate against Israel in America. If you have an issue with
the government of Israel, take it up there.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president
of the Union for Reform Judaism, says that it is the duty of religious
leadership to encourage discussion of those things that are troublesome to
American Jews, that we need to enlarge the circle of conversation to include
voices that we have too frequently shut out. “We need to speak passionately,” he
says, “but also respectfully.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, chairman of the
JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet and Israel Advocacy officer of the Conservative Movement’s
Rabbinical Assembly, agrees that American Jews need to speak out on matters
relating to Israel, but warns that “our criticisms must not be voiced more
loudly than our expressions of love.”
12:30 p.m. Lunch with Ido Aharoni,
Israel’s consul-general in New York. He offers an insightful overview of the
challenges facing Israel today and warns us of the intangible threat to Israel’s
existence, which he sees as being the ever growing segment of the American
public unable to relate to Israel because it is seen only in context of
“Don’t allow Israel to be defined by our enemies,” he urges the
audience, “and don’t judge the country by its imperfections, but rather by its
efforts to repair them.”
2:00 p.m. A special plenary featuring Elie
Wiesel and Natan Sharansky reflecting on the historic march on Washington they
organized 25 years ago on behalf of Russian Jewry. They both credit the
dedication and passion of “the army of housewives and students” with ultimately
bringing about the Soviet Union’s acquiescence to their demand to “Let my people
go.” That dedication and passion is as critical now as it was a quarter of a
century ago, they conclude.
Ours is a global Jewish community, and today
it need be galvanized in support of Israel, whose existence is still being
threatened 65 years after its establishment.
4:00 p.m. I show someone
around the interactive exhibition on Zionism set up at the GA, on loan from the
WZO’s new Herzl Education Center in Jerusalem. Its purpose is to encourage
visitors to imagine Israel’s future in idealistic terms against the background
of our founding father’s vision of the exemplary society he so believed would
come into being.
“This is exactly what Zionism needs to be about today,”
effuses my visitor, “holding Israeli society accountable for its
Neither of us believes that is going to happen overnight,
but we concur that the dream is as compelling today as it was more than a
century ago, and that the challenge before us is to excite a younger generation
about making it their own.
5:30 p.m. I engage in conversation with an
impressive group of student journalists participating in a WZO-run seminar of
Avi Tutman, studying at UC Santa Cruz, is
thrilled to be at the GA.
“This is family, big-time,” he enthuses,
“people who really care. I’ve never experienced energy anything like this in my
Jeremy Jick of the University of Pennsylvania agrees, saying that
he feels “totally at home here, though I’m surprised by the number of JStreet
supporters around relative to AIPAC people.”
Jeremy Ginsberg of UC Santa
Barbara finds this multiplicity of perspectives stimulating and loves “the way
the GA is inclusive of such diverse populations.”
All agree that the
workshops they are attending will enhance their advocacy efforts.
is great,” says Hallie Jacobs, a student at San Diego State. “It’s making me
think about things in different ways. That’s important. To effectively make
arguments of your own, you first have to think of the counter arguments people
are going to throw back at you.”
Alisa Rudy of Baruch College concurs.
“Effective advocacy demands precision, dedication, and knowledge. The sessions
are helping us with all these things.”
An evening reception awaits us,
but I’m already full.
The writer is attending the General Assembly of The
Jewish Federations of North America in his capacity as vice chairman of the
World Zionist Organization.
He will be sharing his personal reflections
on the gathering throughout its three-day duration.