In Nashville, American Jewry takes a hard look at itself

More than in previous years, this year's GA isn't about Israel or hungry Jews around the world.

The home of country music and Christian pop is an unexpected location for the largest annual convention of the central American Jewish umbrella organization, a conference focused on Jewish continuity. As the three-day General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities got underway Sunday, the dissonance between the conference and the cultural backdrop of Nashville underscored the changing priorities of American Jewry. More than in previous years, this year's GA isn't about Israel or hungry Jews around the world. Though Nashville's Jewish community is old - the first minyans date back to the 1840s - it is tiny, comprising fewer than 8,000 souls. And the entire state of Tennessee has about 20,000 Jews. So it isn't about Nashville, either. In coming to Nashville, American Jewry is making a dramatic statement: that it must look inward toward its own growing problems and must focus its minds, JEWISH AGENCY Chairman Ze'ev Bielski (left) meets Howard Dean, chairman of the National Democratic Committee, in Nashville, Tennessee, yesterday. institutions and financiers on the troubling future of a community that is both the strongest and, in some ways, the most endangered on the planet. Flush with cash and armed with significant political and social influence at all levels of American politics and society, American Jews, accounting for almost 80 percent of the Diaspora, are seeing a generational shift that is realigning the loyalties and aspirations of the average American Jew. Young Jewish professionals are increasingly abandoning the community's institutions in favor of mainstream, mobile and increasingly "personalized" tech-savvy American life. All American communities are under siege from this trend away from traditional communities - mainline Protestant churches, the Catholic Church and even the Rotary Club face shrinking participation among the young - and the Jewish community has not yet found a way to reverse this trend. In that context, Nashville may be a symbolic venue. Tennessee's community is a telling microcosm of American Jewry in general. The tiny Jewish presence in small-town Tennessee has become almost extinct as the community aged and the ambitious young left for the big cities and universities. Meanwhile, the big cities, including Nashville's expanding job market, have attracted Jewish professionals from out of state. And in the cities, as in the rest of America, assimilation is taking its demographic toll. So for three days this week, Nashville's Jewish community will grow by almost half, as some 3,000 delegates from North America and Israel descend on the town's Gaylord Opryland Resort. The Israeli delegation will be small. MKs Yoel Hasson (Kadima) and Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) and Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) are here, and some sessions will discuss investment in Israel and trips there as part of American Jewish identity-building. But the hallway conversations, the constant unstructured buzz that is the reason most delegates come, will focus on America. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will speak at the closing plenary on Tuesday, joining former presidential candidate and current Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen in representing the American political establishment. Last year's GA in Los Angeles dealt extensively with Israel's security and social welfare in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. Next year's GA will bring thousands of representatives of American Jewry to Jerusalem. This year, far from its centers of gravity, American Jewry is taking a breath and looking inward.