Cityfront: At the GA in a volunteer vest

Zionism is the height of fashion at this week's UJC event.

general assembly 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
general assembly 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Where are the bathrooms?" "Where is this plenary?" "Where can I get a cup of coffee?" While those were the great majority of questions I fielded as a volunteer with the four-day Annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) held here this week, the GA proved to be an eye-opener about Israel, North American Jewry and their evolving relationship. First, Israel. In a lesson about cultural dissonance, I watched with bemused incredulity as the organizers handed out maps of the Jerusalem International Convention Center, at a volunteer-orientation meeting in which the rooms were labeled with a numbering system that didn't correspond to the halls' actual names. Rather than fix this glaringly inadequate map, the cadre of 250 volunteers were marched around the building, pens in hand, making the corrections. Having grown acculturated to Israel, we all seemed to think this was normal. Told to arrive at 6:45 a.m. and to park in the underground garage, I discovered the parking lot to be locked - with a huge column of cars waiting for the gate to be unlocked. Needless to say, we were all late. Again we shrugged in the typically Israeli way. Similarly, the volunteer office, which was to be installed near the front door, mysteriously never materialized. Another shrug because none of that incompetence and chaos really mattered: the GA is about people, Jewish people and lots of 'em, and the niceties of conference organization were secondary. "You've got these kinderlach from the IDF, and these activists from America, and we're the backbone," beamed Sara Averick, a volunteer with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), which served as the GA's host community. The GA, the largest annual gathering of Jewish leaders, activists and professionals in North America, has been meeting in Jerusalem once every five years since 1998. What struck me about the 5,000 delegates who paid thousands of dollars each to participate in this third GA conference in Israel was their utter earnestness. Many came up to me and sought assistance in Yankee-accented Hebrew. Those with whom I had a chance to speak almost invariably told me about their family now living in Israel. Their grown children have settled here, they said. And now the generation of machers that grew up with a proxy relationship with embattled Israel has come to see the tables turned. Israel is enjoying relative fiscal stability, even as the United States lurches toward a depression. Those machers who once vicariously adored Israel as a place of turn-the-desert-green miracles are more sophisticated today. For many, fact-finding missions have given way to family reunions with the children and grandchildren. After scores of visits, these veterans of the Israel overseas fan club have matured and grown savvy. Decades earlier, some attended Israeli universities for a junior year abroad. Others came to volunteer on secular kibbutzim. Now, many of them have kippot and tzitzit on display. A frequent refrain was the desire to retire in the sunny eastern Mediterranean - to be close to family and to live the Zionist dream. Equally, others confessed that they were torn by having grandchildren scattered across the US or Canada and couldn't see themselves uprooting their lives to relocate in a country both familiar and foreign. Mentions of Skype, e-mail and jet aircraft, which have shrunk the distances in our global village, brought knowing looks. Almost completely absent from the marketplace set up on the mezzanine and in front of the lower level conference rooms was anything for sale. The booths there were almost all about attracting donor fish with the glittering bait of public relations material. David Bernstein, the director of development at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, wondered if this hadn't become mission impossible, given the reduced financial circumstances many American Jews today find themselves in. Bernstein is hoping for a mega-donor or two to pay for Bezalel's new campus downtown near the Russian Compound, he says. Equally optimistic were a few realtors. One booth was touting a seaside condo project in Tel Aviv, where the smallest units start at $1.4 million. A blood donor booth run by American Friends of Magen David Adom was doing a brisk business, allowing GA participants to make a visceral declaration of love for Israel. Watching the GA participants guzzle program after program dedicated to exploring Israel's angst-filled matzav, it struck me how these people were the last believers in Zionism. In Israel itself that term began falling out of fashion 60 years ago when the state was founded, fulfilling Zionism's initial raison d'etre. Living in post-Zionist, post-modern Israel, volunteering at the GA reminded me of what had attracted us to make aliya in the first place.