From the GA: Tying a survival knot

Present and future dangers to the Jews defined Diaspora-Israel relations in LA.

olmert ga 298 (photo credit: AP)
olmert ga 298
(photo credit: AP)
Kalanit Mona-Lusky, 27, made aliya on Thursday. Born in Israel, Mona-Lusky was raised in Seattle and then Arizona, where she worked in corporate sales. She owned the house in which she lived, and other properties which she rented out. She had a car, among other possessions, a circle of friends and a steady (non-Jewish) boyfriend. But something didn't sit right - something she still can't put her finger on. "It never really felt like home," she told The Jerusalem Post during the El Al flight that was taking her to Israel, away from a strong social network, sound financial base and promising future in the United States.
  • Reporters on the Job: Skydiving for Israel, Pt. 2 Like 70 percent of young American Jews, Kalanit had no formal connection to her local Jewish community, and didn't attend synagogue. Unlike them, however, she did have a strong connection to Israel. Her father is a native Israeli, with an extended family in the holy land. Also unlike most of her peers, she had spent six months studying in Israel and paid other occasional visits. According to Jewish Agency statistics, the vast majority of American-Jewish youth neither have that kind of connection to Israel now, nor ever will. What does this mean for Jews on either side of the ocean? The 75th annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, held this past week in Los Angeles, dealt with this very question. The "GA," as it is commonly known - which this year attracted more than 5,000 American-Jewish (and Israeli) leaders - focused almost exclusively on strengthening the Diaspora-Israel relationship. Titled "Together on the Front Line: One People, One Destiny," the GA was devoted to sessions and working groups on "Identity, Israel, the Jewish People and the Next Generation," "Jewish business investment in Israel," "Israel on North American campuses" and other related topics. But if one needed a reminder that - despite a shared religious and cultural heritage - Israelis and Diaspora Jews are two distinct entities, it came from Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post just prior to the GA, Bielski said that American Jewry would eventually disappear. "One day the penny will drop... and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the US due to assimilation and intermarriage," Bielski asserted - a comment which became the talk of the GA and which drew widespread condemnation among participants. Bielski later explained that his statement was intended to highlight the importance of aliya. THERE ARE an estimated 5.2 million Jews in America, a population that is both shrinking and aging. The latest statistics show that the Jewish median age is now 42 - five years older than it was in 1990, and seven years older than the overall American median age. Among this diminishing number is a core community of 30-40 percent that invests in Jewish renewal and education - which Jewish Federation officials believe constitutes a strong enough base for self-preservation and survival. But Jewish survival in the Diaspora was only one concern of the GA. Another, perhaps more urgent, worry centered on financial, political and moral support for Israel. LA Federation President John Fishel said the Israel Emergency Campaign, for which the federations amassed $355 million for Israel during the war in Lebanon, galvanized the community. "The question is, 'How do we maintain the unity we saw during the war?'" he explained. Carole Solomon, chair of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, added that the war "brought out the best of the Diaspora and the Israeli people." WITH THE Iranian nuclear threat looming large, and with prospects for peace with the Palestinians and Syria looking worse than bleak, many at the GA expressed the sentiment that a strong Israel-Diaspora connection was more crucial than ever. Indeed, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said as much in her address to the opening session, terming the relationship "a strategic asset" for Israel. "We face a regime that denies and mocks the Holocaust, while seeking the weapons to perpetrate one," Livni said. "Iran's words and actions are not only a direct threat to Israel, but they are no less a threat to the values that the international community as a whole claims to hold dear. "If these values mean anything - if the promise of 'never again' is more important than the price of oil - then the time for international indifference and hesitation in the face of the Iranian threat has long passed," she said. On Wednesday, the UJC adopted a resolution on Iran. Passed by the group's Board of Trustees and the GA Delegates Assembly, it calls for education and media outreach to raise awareness about "the drumbeat of hostility against Israel and the Jewish people emanating from Iran" and the global threat posed by Iran's potential nuclear capability. The resolution - which came on the heels of the plenary session at which Likud opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu equated Iran with Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust - also calls on the Bush administration to "forcefully address" Iran's nuclear efforts. UJC officials said this week that the strong focus on Israel at this year's GA - as evidenced by the remaking of the entire conference agenda, the focus on the Israel Emergency Campaign and the number of government ministers in attendance - pointed to the start of a process of "blurring the lines of philanthropy and government responsibility" in Israel. Examples of these "blurred lines" are the financing of improved bombs shelters by the UJC during the war; the evacuation of children from the North; and reconstruction and development projects planned for the Galilee. Can Diaspora Jews sustain the will and the means to aid Israel in times of crisis - many more of which are being anticipated? The answer is not so simple, because of a number of paradoxes. On the one hand, the federations have fewer and fewer donors every year. On the other hand, they are managing to raise more money than ever before, by returning to the same donors and asking them for larger contributions. On the one hand, endowments are growing as the Jewish population ages. On the other hand, Jews are extremely mobile - and once a Jewish family relocates, there is no guarantee it will make contact with a synagogue, federation or Jewish community center in its new hometown. According to UJC data, 30% of its donor base has been lost in the past 15 years, which is why it is going online to attract young Jewish philanthropists. On the other hand, there are 1.6 million non-profit organizations in the US, and these, too, are competing for Jewish donors.