The shuk of Jewish ideas

The 153 Jewish Federations and 300 smaller Network communities across North America compose one of the world’s largest charitable organizations, raising nearly $1 billion annually.

November 7, 2013 20:04
4 minute read.
Jewish identity panel at Tomorrow Conference

Jewish identity panel at Tomorrow Conference 370. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger)


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North American Jews have supported and advocated for Israel since the earliest pre-state days. We have always been deeply engaged with the needs and aspirations of our worldwide Jewish family, whether down the street or across the globe. What has changed, however – what is forever changing, from decade to decade, year to year – is how we may best understand and help meet those needs and aspirations, in real time.

The recent Pew Research Center survey put the challenges faced by North American Jewry into sharp relief, and at a time of enormous upheaval in the region, the future of Israel and its relationship with the Diaspora all require robust engagement.

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The 153 Jewish Federations and 300 smaller Network communities across North America compose one of the world’s largest charitable organizations, raising nearly $1 billion annually.

JFNA’s General Assembly is the signature event of North American Jewish communal life, our central communal gathering, with a breadth of programs and depth of debate unlike any other event.

We will be joined next week in Jerusalem by Israeli leaders from all fields: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres; Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett; US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Elyezer Shkedy, CEO of El Al and former commander of the Israel Air Force, and Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream International; the youngest member of Knesset, MK Stav Shaffir, and opposition leader MK Shelly Yacimovich.

Altogether we’ve got more than 140 diverse speakers featured, half of them women; we’ll be hearing from the people leading Israel forward in politics, philanthropy, business, religion and culture, and together we will explore the core issues facing the Jewish state and the global Jewish family: Jewish pluralism and religious freedom in Israel; social and economic challenges; the future of North American Jewry.

Ultimately, it’s our shared responsibility to respond to the most vulnerable among us; this informs every Federation, from Miami to Vancouver, from San Diego to Toronto to Maine. It’s from within that framework that the 2013 GA will address Israel’s place on the world stage; the social challenges and pressures faced by Israel from within; recent shifts within the world of Jewish philanthropy; and, as always, the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

A crucial piece of this puzzle is how we choose to respond to the issues raised in the Pew study. We must engage not just with each other but also with community members who may be less involved, often younger people or the religiously unaffiliated. The creation of a Jewish Head Start – a free pre-school for all North American Jewish families – the significant expansion of Jewish summer camps, and the establishment of Jewish Development Zones in which we target areas of high Jewish population with low Jewish connection, would all allow us to reach out to those who are proud of their heritage but haven’t found a way to give that heritage enough expression.

We must also be sure that we leverage the expanding Birthright generation – to not allow the experience to end when our young people come home. We must engage across the generations, not to tell anyone what to do, but to ask everyone what they need. This is why Federations from Boston to Detroit to Los Angeles are offering innovative, non-traditional programming to create meaningful connections for younger Jews – so they may be inspired and grow into our future leaders. TribeFest, a non-traditional gathering in celebration of the richness of Jewish culture, is just one way that the JFNA has drawn in young people who have not been involved in the past.

At the GA, we’ll be discussing all of these ideas, with a focus on the things we’re already doing that are making an impact. Our closing event will center on the Israel-Diaspora dynamic, with a major show of Jewish unity at the Kotel. At the end of the day, the goal is to return home even more energized and ready to continue building our community at home, in Israel and in more than 70 countries worldwide.

Jewish Federations unite every year, but only once every five as a large group in Israel. Visiting the Jewish state demonstrates our commitment to Zion and our resolve to strengthen the Israel- Diaspora relationship. At the GA, we will engage with thought leaders and focus on the most pressing issues of the day. We’re calling the GA “a marketplace of dialogue and debate,” and we’re looking forward to joining our friends and colleagues in this “shuk” of Jewish ideas.

Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman and Michael Siegal are, respectively, president and CEO and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America.

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