The GA: A smorgasbord of Jewish vitality

‘Tell the Israeli people our thoughts are with them now as they always are,’ says Jewish Federations of North America official.

union for reform judaism PRESIDENT Rick Jacobs 311 (photo credit: Allison O’Brien/URJ)
union for reform judaism PRESIDENT Rick Jacobs 311
(photo credit: Allison O’Brien/URJ)
With hundreds of sessions crammed into three intense days, frustration is an inevitable by-product of attending the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). It’s simply impossible to taste everything on offer in this enticing smorgasbord of Jewish vitality and creativity.
Here is what I did manage to sample on day two. Join me for a helping of inspiration.
8:00 a.m. I begin my day at Café Ivrit, an innovation of the World Zionist Organization where GA attendees have the opportunity to enjoy “a cup of coffee and a slice of Hebrew.” Israeli music is playing in the background and staff engage customers in Hebrew conversation. I am there to teach Yehuda Amichai’s poetry on Jerusalem to anyone who is interested.
“This year I traveled a long way / to view the silence of my city. / A baby calms down when you rock it, a city calms down / from the distance. I dwelled in longing… / Now that I’ve come back, I’m screaming again…/” We discuss what it means to live in Jerusalem. We discuss what it means to be living in longing.
9:00 a.m. A GA plenary. Michael Siegal, incoming chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees, begins his remarks with a reference to the barrage of rockets raining down on Israel’s southern region.
“15 seconds,” he says. “15 seconds. That’s the amount of time in which one needs to be able to get to a shelter after a warning siren is sounded,” he tells the crowd. “Can you imagine what that means for a young mother caring for three small children?” He turns to the representatives of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry sitting in the audience.
“Send our prayers and our love to the people of Israel, and tell them that our thoughts are with them now as they always are.”
11:00 a.m. Bruce Arbit, chairman of the United Israel Appeal, introduces a panel of rabbis who are there to address their colleagues participating in a track titled “Rabbis Engaging with Israel,” sponsored jointly by the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet, the World Zionist Organization and The Jewish Agency for Israel.
Rabbi Heshie Billet, past president of the Orthodox Rabbinic Council of America, tells us that one of his rules is, “Never advocate against Israel in America. If you have an issue with the government of Israel, take it up there.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says that it is the duty of religious leadership to encourage discussion of those things that are troublesome to American Jews, that we need to enlarge the circle of conversation to include voices that we have too frequently shut out. “We need to speak passionately,” he says, “but also respectfully.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, chairman of the JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet and Israel Advocacy officer of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, agrees that American Jews need to speak out on matters relating to Israel, but warns that “our criticisms must not be voiced more loudly than our expressions of love.”
12:30 p.m. Lunch with Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul-general in New York. He offers an insightful overview of the challenges facing Israel today and warns us of the intangible threat to Israel’s existence, which he sees as being the ever growing segment of the American public unable to relate to Israel because it is seen only in context of conflict.
“Don’t allow Israel to be defined by our enemies,” he urges the audience, “and don’t judge the country by its imperfections, but rather by its efforts to repair them.”
2:00 p.m. A special plenary featuring Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky reflecting on the historic march on Washington they organized 25 years ago on behalf of Russian Jewry. They both credit the dedication and passion of “the army of housewives and students” with ultimately bringing about the Soviet Union’s acquiescence to their demand to “Let my people go.” That dedication and passion is as critical now as it was a quarter of a century ago, they conclude.
Ours is a global Jewish community, and today it need be galvanized in support of Israel, whose existence is still being threatened 65 years after its establishment.
4:00 p.m. I show someone around the interactive exhibition on Zionism set up at the GA, on loan from the WZO’s new Herzl Education Center in Jerusalem. Its purpose is to encourage visitors to imagine Israel’s future in idealistic terms against the background of our founding father’s vision of the exemplary society he so believed would come into being.
“This is exactly what Zionism needs to be about today,” effuses my visitor, “holding Israeli society accountable for its deficiencies.”
Neither of us believes that is going to happen overnight, but we concur that the dream is as compelling today as it was more than a century ago, and that the challenge before us is to excite a younger generation about making it their own.
5:30 p.m. I engage in conversation with an impressive group of student journalists participating in a WZO-run seminar of professional development.
Avi Tutman, studying at UC Santa Cruz, is thrilled to be at the GA.
“This is family, big-time,” he enthuses, “people who really care. I’ve never experienced energy anything like this in my life.”
Jeremy Jick of the University of Pennsylvania agrees, saying that he feels “totally at home here, though I’m surprised by the number of JStreet supporters around relative to AIPAC people.”
Jeremy Ginsberg of UC Santa Barbara finds this multiplicity of perspectives stimulating and loves “the way the GA is inclusive of such diverse populations.”
All agree that the workshops they are attending will enhance their advocacy efforts.
“This is great,” says Hallie Jacobs, a student at San Diego State. “It’s making me think about things in different ways. That’s important. To effectively make arguments of your own, you first have to think of the counter arguments people are going to throw back at you.”
Alisa Rudy of Baruch College concurs. “Effective advocacy demands precision, dedication, and knowledge. The sessions are helping us with all these things.”
An evening reception awaits us, but I’m already full.
The writer is attending the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America in his capacity as vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization.
He will be sharing his personal reflections on the gathering throughout its three-day duration.