The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America got underway in Washington Sunday with Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, telling the 3,000 community activists and staff how the world has changed since he last addressed the G.A. in 2014.
“Since we last met, the world has gone mad,” he said. “The world is moving into a new and dangerous phase that I call the politics of anger.”
The politics of anger comes from fear, he said. Those gathered in the Washington Hilton ballroom must counter that fear with hope, which Sacks called “the greatest gift to humanity as a whole.”
Sacks mentioned the election of Donald Trump as president four days before, but in the gentlest way. He called the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton “almost as acrimonious as a synagogue board meeting.”
The presidential election appeared to be the chief topic of the three-day G.A., the Jewish federation world’s annual convention where participants gather to re-energize their commitment to the Jewish community, network and hear from experts on Jewish issues. The election was the subject of numerous workshops and conversations throughout the convention hall.
To be sure, there were also the standard breakout sessions on Israel; on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; and on fundraising. There were showcases for local innovations, called FEDovations. Disability inclusion and reaching out to millennials were also session topics.
But the election was never far away. At an election postmortem on Sunday, Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute, explained why Trump’s win came as a surprise to so many Jews.
“Frankly, given the demographic makeup of the Jewish community, which skews toward the highly educated white-collar worker at the upper end — we were completely out of touch with the base of voters out there in rural America,” he said.
On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was interviewed on stage by Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg. Feinberg asked what effect Trump’s election will have on the Supreme Court, which is operating with eight justices with one seat vacant.
“President Trump will fill it, then perhaps Congress will do some work,” she said.
Ginsburg added that the eight-justice court is doing just fine. “I think it’s to the court’s credit that last term there were only three decisions that came down 4 to 4,” she said.
Later, over drinks and dinner with Philadelphia delegates in a Dupont Circle restaurant, Caitlin Shmidheiser said Ginsburg’s appearance was a highlight of the G.A. “She’s my feminist rock star,” she said.
Monday began with news that Trump had appointed former Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon to the position of chief strategist in his incoming administration. Bannon, with his connections to the white nationalist alt-right movement, has been dogged by accusations that he is an anti-Semite. Bannon’s appointment was criticized by some Jewish groups. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called Bannon “hostile to core American values.”
Later that morning, White House Jewish liaison Chanan Weissman talked about how Jews can respond to anti-Semitic tweets and other hate speech.
“One thing we need to do is speak out publicly whenever we can,” he told Times of Israel reporter Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil. “Whenever we see incidents like this, it’s important that we speak out against it on the record.”
Weissman, who will leave his position in January, said it is imperative for his successor to continue be a voice for the concerns of the Jewish community.
“We know what it means to be persecuted; therefore, we need to fight against persecution,” he said.
Between sessions, Sara Rabin Spira of Washington considered how the election affected her two small children.
“It’s been a difficult week,” she said. “I had to explain to my kids about Donald Trump. That was a heartbreaking conversation. I told them that what we can do is practice tikkun olam. If Trump tells us that we can litter, we’ll pick litter up.”
“I thought it was important that we have a little political debriefing, because a lot of people have concerns about how things went down,” said Beth Goldsmith, chairwoman of community planning and allocations at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “It’s the perfect time to have this G.A. for all the people who need to be healed and have some positive inspiration.”
One debriefing, a discussion among Jewish Republican operatives, demonstrated that Republicans, too, are still sorting out the election results.
Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks said he looks forward to sitting down with Bannon.
While having never met Bannon, Brooks brushed aside the accusations that have swirled around the Trump adviser. Everyone who Brooks knows who has worked for Bannon has said the man “does not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body,” Brooks said.
Panelist Noam Neusner, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said he is not optimistic about a Trump presidency.
“President-elect Trump has a lot to prove, and he knows it,” Neusner said. “I have severe doubts, but he could prove me wrong.”
But Neusner, like others on the panel, believes that Trump will work with the Jewish community on issues that are important to them.
When moderator Jacob Kornbluh, a political reporter with Jewish Insider, asked panel members whether they would be willing to serve in the incoming administration if asked, there was a noticeable pause.
“A lot of these questions I find impossible to answer because this is a candidate we know nothing about,” answered Lisa Spies, who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Tevi Troy, who served as White House Jewish liaison in the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview with Joshua Runyan, editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes the Washington Jewish Week, that Jews would be wise take a “wait-and-see” approach in their response to Trump’s election.
“I would tell the Jewish community to be wary of what they say in these early days,” he said.
Sarah Arenstein, senior philanthropic officer in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s United Jewish Endowment Fund, said that after the election, “it’s important more now than ever that the Jewish community comes together and stands united, because we have a lot of work to do as a country.”
Stephen Moss of Philadelphia said hearing Ginsburg was a treat. “To hear a Supreme Court justice speak was a really cool experience. It’s a rare opportunity and in such an interesting time for the Supreme Court,” he said.
Shmidheiser of Philadelphia said the G.A. was a great place to network. “The speakers were phenomenal. I always love seeing a big crowd represented from Philadelphia, they’re wonderful. I think that our volunteers really put their money where their mouth is, and they come and it’s awesome.”