CHICAGO – A beautiful Jewish song played in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton hotel, sung by two American Jews of color – one of them an orthodox rabbi.
Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, who serves as Public Affairs Adviser at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), was playing “Beshem Hashem” (in the Name of God), a song composed by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and performed by his daughter Neshama.
His colleague, Dr. Harriette Wimms, a clinical psychologist specializing in supporting LGBTQIA+ Jews, as well as people of color who have experienced trauma, closed her eyes and joined him in song. Wimms works for the Jewish Federation in Baltimore.
They were playing Jewish music, talking about Jewish life and the challenges of assisting Jews from different backgrounds. At the same time, hassidic music was quietly played in the background at the lounge area at the General Assembly (GA) of the JFNA at the same hotel in downtown Chicago; more than 1,200 Jews from all backgrounds and streams of Judaism drinking coffee and eating a kosher lunch.
Many thought that this event that for years was one of the central get-togethers of the American Jewish community wouldn’t survive after a three-year hiatus – in the form of online zoom meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic – but they were wrong. In the absence of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s annual policy conference, the GA has become the most important and central conference of the organized American Jewish community.
The hiatus did good to this Jewish organization: it became more inclusive and varied. The hassidic music in the background of the lounge would probably never have been played at this event a few years ago. The musical duo of this year’s GA were Yonina, a religious Zionist Israeli husband and wife.
One of the keynote speakers at the opening plenary was Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a modern-orthodox rabbi, thought leader and former activist for Soviet Jewry. Conservative Tablet Magazine’s editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse participated in one of the panels and the cast of Unorthodox, Tablet’s popular podcast, recorded a live show in front of the GA audience.
And yet, the progressive Jewish side was also represented and discussions of Jews of Color (JoC) and social activism were a part of the broad list of topics discussed.
When the GA conference was held in Israel in 2018, I wrote an op-ed criticizing the Federation for not offering enough diversity to the participants of this important conference: “My North American brethren, I am not interested in rejecting such a significant organization and certainly do not wish to judge an event before it takes place. But I truly hope that you will try during the three conference days here to meet with Israelis who don’t think like you – settlers, haredim, people from the country’s periphery, [Mizrahi] Jews, traditionalists. The sort who will say things you won’t necessarily like. Only this way can we bring about real dialogue, rather than an internal and thus fruitless monologue.”
"An echo chamber"
Am Echad, an organization of Orthodox Jewish leaders across North America, launched a campaign in 2018 against the event. “Their voices are not heard at the GA,” a statement published by Am Echad read. “Too many Israeli voices disappeared from the discourse.”
I remember feeling that, as an Orthodox Israeli Jew, I didn’t feel represented; but this GA was different.
“Typically, the GA was sort of an echo chamber,” Rothstein said during the conference.
“The very fact that in the last 20 years, Jewish Federations around the country have been adding Jewish engagement to their work, such as hiring rabbis, is historical,” Rothstein said and added that “there’s more rabbis working for Jewish Federation’s than ever before.”
He explained that certain groups have been “historically underrepresented.” Another focus group that Rothstein is engaging in are those that he considers “non-native English speakers.” He explained that, in his opinion, many of the GA’s in former years were all about “getting as many butts of influential or well connected Jews on seats.”
Rothstein runs JFNA’s Jewish Equity, Diversity & Inclusion department (JEDI). “Our mission is to create a culture of belonging for all Jews and our loved ones,” he said. Some of these groups are related to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, faith, religious affiliation, non-native English speakers such as Russian- and Hebrew-speaking Jews in North America and people with different types of disabilities.”