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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
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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.
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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.