Lest we forget: How the General Assembly developed

(Left to right) The three giants of American Jewry: Abba Hillel Silver, Israel Goldstein and Stephen Wise (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(Left to right) The three giants of American Jewry: Abba Hillel Silver, Israel Goldstein and Stephen Wise
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For the first time since 1932 when the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America was born, the event will be held in Tel Aviv this year with some 2,500 participants. The central core of the meeting is “We need to talk,” an opportunity for Israelis and North Americans to delve into the issues that bring us together and tear us apart. The past year has witnessed very acute discussions of key problems that have pushed North American Jewry away from Israelis. The General Assembly of 2018 hopes to reactivate this linkage by drawing upon the roots of the two communities to confront the problems which tend to separate and find those elements which will bring these “natural allies” closer once more.
My interest is in the past rather than the present. In 1932, the year before Hitler rose to power and the year the New Deal was about to be established by FDR, the Bureau of Jewish Social Research created the National Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. We are beholden to those early leaders because they chose Harry L. Lurie to be the executive director. Lurie, noted for his leadership in the field of American social services and American Jewish social services fashioned the “GA” through his innovative ideas until he retired in 1954.
In 1936, when the GA was about to be held in St. Louis, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency offered this description for the fourth birthday event. “The General Assembly is the deliberative and legislative body of the National Council, a cooperative organization established by the organized Jewish communities of the country to serve as a clearing house for welfare ideas and experiences.”
The National Council had one other prime function. It was “to act as a research and experimental body in developing principles for Jewish social work and in coordinating Jewish welfare activities.”
During the last 86 years, the General Assembly has been the major agency of North America, which never hesitated to face the problems from displaced persons to rebuilding Jewish communities in Europe. The GA played a major role in bringing Israel into being and focusing on the problems which the Jewish nation has faced in these last 70 years.
An example of an issue occurred with which the GA dealt directly was when young American Jews believed the GA was not offering them the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process of American Jewry. I was present in Pittsburgh, in 1971, when Hillel Levine, a 20-year-old activist, wanted more programming for American Jewish youth and Jewish college youth to deepen their commitment to Judaism.
He and a group of 50 students confronted the GA leadership and called for funds to be allocated for these important areas to enrich Jewish youth Jewishly, so when they became leaders they would be prepared to plan the future for American Jewry. The GA acted with caution but a number of programs were developed, which answered the call to action of those students. I had never been to a GA so my eyes were opened.
We return to January 1942 when the GA met in Chicago. Only one month before, World War II had begun for the US, following the Pearl Harbor bombing. Sidney Hollander, then GA president, emphasized the following. “As the war begins, there is a call for unity in the ranks of American Jewry so that it will be better able to fulfill the tasks at home and abroad for the duration of the war.”
At that time, American Jews were enlisting in great numbers because they wanted to join their fellow Americans to fight and crush the Nazis and the Japanese. Hollander added, “All have to put forth maximum energy to help achieve victory and the establishment of a world order in which democracy and justice will prevail.” The year 1942 provided the first recognition of the decimation of European Jewry by the Nazis.
Although President Roosevelt knew in the summer of 1942 that two million Jews had been killed, he forced Rabbi Stephen Wise to keep that information secret. In December 1942, those tragic numbers were revealed to American Jews and all citizens of the US and the world.
The GA in Cleveland in January 1943 had to face this unbelievable information.
There was also the confrontation of Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver. Wise wanted to negotiate through the offices of the American government. Silver wanted American Jewry to be much more forceful in its demands to save European Jewry.
The great American Jewish leader Dr. Israel Goldstein was able to calm these two leading figures so that the GA could continue its intensive efforts to deal with this growing tragedy.
As we know, the Jewish leaders around Roosevelt were not sufficiently motivated to act and save more of the six million.
In November 1979, one of the most boisterous GAs ever was held in Montreal.
According to the JTA report, “the plight of the Jews of Ethiopia (Falashas) and the problems of Sephardic Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora created the most ferment and passion.”
Among those present was Yona Bogale, the leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community for the previous 50 years. He urgently appealed to the GA participants “to increase efforts being made in Israel to rescue the 25,000 Jews who remained trapped in Ethiopia.”
Then his appeal grew dramatic. “We have been killed, sold into slavery, forced to convert to other religions and physically threatened even unto this day amongst unspeakable conditions...we were once 250,000 people; now are less than 25,000. Time is against us – we are losing our youth to war, to discrimination and to persecution.”
The Assembly was moved by Bogale’s passionate appeal, but the Indochinese refugees were more important. The journalist Murray Zuckoff commented, “The Ethiopian Jews received a 70-word resolution – while the Indochinese refugees received a 400 word resolution.” Sadly, North American Jewry was not yet prepared to handle this “Jewish refugee issue.”
The major confrontation at the GA occurred when Sephardic leaders from Montreal handed out a sheet with printed statements for the 2,000 people present. This leaflet emphasized that “since the creation of the Israeli state, Sephardic Oriental Jewry have been condemned to a second-class status.”
Personally, I would have known nothing about relegating the Sephardic Jews into inferior status. However, when I and my family made aliyah in 1977, my first job was with the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History. My work was dissemin ating information about the “glorious” history of Sephardi Jewry. I conducted seminars all over Israel with history teachers from high schools. I distributed new books to them, which were published by the Shazar Center on Sephardim and their roots and background.
When I was told that only 6 percent of Sephardim matriculated in the universities of Israel, it was staggering. The Sephardim then made up a majority of Israel’s population but they had not been given an opportunity to advance educationally and businesswise.
At a previously unplanned session, Aryeh Dulzin, then the head of the Jewish Agency, was challenged by Sephardi leaders. The discussions became very abrasive, and there were angry confrontations with Dulzin. From news reports, it appeared that he was the only one answering them. Dulzin tried to defend the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel, explaining how these two bodies were seeking to ameliorate the situation.
All those 2,000 present had been in the dark on the prejudice directed against the Sephardim. Resolutions were passed, their implementation took over a decade. Fortunately, the majority of Sephardim have full rights in Israel today.
To solidify the base of North American Jewry, the fundraising arm – United Jewish Appeal – merged into the Conference of Jewish Federations in 1999. Currently, the name of the umbrella body is the Jewish Federations of North America.
The GA’s annual meeting of all federations is a very positive forum for the discussion of major Jewish and Israeli issues. Unfortunately, the activities of the GA are mostly lost on the Israeli population. At this GA in Tel Aviv, Israelis from various sectors, mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s are part of the panels. The confrontation should actually be fierce because the chasm between the two largest Jewish communities in the world is growing.
Hopefully, Israeli journalists and media figures will analyze for Israelis how the participants in these sessions have dealt with the significant issues of the Jewish world today.
The writer, who served as a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta before making aliyah with his wife, Rita, is turning 80 this month. Happy birthday, Rabbi Geffen!