Ten years ago, when Washington’s Michael and Susie Gelman chaired the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Israel, the focus was on security and solidarity. Susie Gelman remembers that it was during the second Intifada, a time of terror attacks, and many American Jews were staying away from Israel. The GA brought them back.
“We had an amazing turnout. Thousands of people came,” she said. “The highlight was a nighttime walk from Binyanei HaUma through Mahane Yehuda to Kikar Tzion in downtown Jerusalem. We were all carrying signs and singing songs as we marched. The shopkeepers were applauding, handing out candy and hugging us. They were so grateful to see the shuk full of life once more. It was an unforgettable moment for all who experienced it.”
Fast forward to 2013, and the Gelmans are once again the chairs of the GA — in Israel. However, the conference, which takes place in the Jewish state every five years, will look different than it did in 2003. Scheduled to take place between Nov. 10 and Nov. 12, in a year when Israel is immersed in quiet peace talks with the Palestinians, the GA will focus on dialogue and debate, on sessions surrounding the challenges and successes of a more mature Israel.
“The agenda was developed in the context of Israel no longer being a developing country,” said Michael Gelman, “but a mature democracy and all of the challenges and successes that entails.”
There will be a session examining the aftermath of the 2011 Israeli social justice protests, a series of ongoing demonstrations in Israel involving hundreds of thousands of protesters from a variety of socioeconomic and religious backgrounds opposing the continuing rise in the cost of living (particularly housing) and the deterioration of public services such as health and education. Another one, moderated by Susie Gelman, will focus on civil marriage in Israel, which does not currently exist. Due to the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate’s authority over all matters of personal status, including marriage and divorce, 20 percent of Israelis opt to get married overseas. Other talks will feature Israeli politics, philanthropy, spirituality, women’s issues and economic issues.
But the list of dozens of plenaries and other sessions, skewed heavily to a dialogue about the Jewish state, begs the question: This is the JFNA GA, so why are we talking more about Israel than our own domestic affairs?
JFNA chair of the board Michael D. Siegal said he, the GA chairs and the robust committee that has been planning this program for upward of one year, felt it was important to seize the opportunity to access Israeli thought leaders and share in a debate about the future of Diaspora-Israel relations, about what tikkun olam (repairing the world) means in Israel and in America.
“We want to hear from you [the Israelis] about your issues and problems and understand how we can best help and how you can lead us. We can use your wonderful narrative to strengthen our community at home,” explained Siegal.
A recent Pew survey will factor into the conversation, of course, with talks on Jewish innovation, relevancy and renewal. In a first-ever format for the GA, there will be Fed Talks, a play on the popular Ted Talks, as well as a Pitch Your Idea session, where select individuals will have two minutes to share the essence of their programming ideas; it’s almost like speed dating for Jewish communal professionals.
“With these different modalities, we are trying to give the GA a freshness that perhaps it has not had previously,” said Susie Gelman.
The speakers will provide a “wow” factor, too. Attendees will hear from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Mayor Nir Barkat, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, among dozens of others.
Siegal and Susie Gelman said it was challenging to balance the scheduling, but recruiting speakers was not hard. Said Gelman: “Politicians and other public figures in Israel understand the importance of participating in the GA … that this is the pre-eminent conference of Diaspora communal leadership. I don’t think anyone has to be convinced of coming to the GA.”
JFNA represents half of the world’s Jews, with 154 federations and 300 network communities throughout North America.
And what makes it especially promising is that not only are the names big, but they are diverse. They come from all perspective of Israeli political and social life, offering people a chance to be educated, informed and to come to their own conclusions through interactive dialogue.
The Greater Washington area is sending the largest contingency of participants this year and has two young leadership award recipients. Mike Plostock and Josh Stevens have won the Jerome J. Dick Young Leadership Award. The Greater Washington Federation is also bringing home an honor in the form of the Sapir Award for Outstanding Annual Campaigns. This award is given to local federations that exemplify the highest standard in campaign achievement.
“We are honored to receive the prestigious Sapir Award for Annual Campaign Excellence from JFNA. It’s a testament to the dedication and hard work of outstanding volunteers and professionals, working in partnership to build a strong Jewish community at home and abroad,” said Steve Rakitt, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Surrounding the GA are federation mini-missions. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is offering its travelers three tracks as part of its Israel Your Way mission — business, arts and culture, and a first-timers mission.
Robert Zahler is on the first-timers mission. Active in the federation for decades, Zahler has traveled around the world but never to Israel. For now, he told WJW, “I am very excited for it.”
What will be the result of 2 1/2 days immersed in thoughtful dialogue with 3,000 Jewish leaders? That’s different for everyone, said Siegal, but he hopes the conference will help convey the message of JFNA to the younger generation that it will reinvigorate leaders to do more locally and will spawn a dialogue that continues throughout the 2014 campaign year.
“The most exciting thing for a Jew is to be in a room with 3,000 other Jews like you,” said Siegal. “I think it is really exciting to be with people who want to explore how to bring joy into Judaism.”
Added Susie Gelman: The GA will breathe some extra energy into federation leaders, so that we will return to our home communities, redouble our efforts and deepen the dialogue between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.”
Washington Jewish Week will be covering the GA from Israel. To read daily updates, visit washingtonjewishweek.com/GA2013.
Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of Baltimore Jewish Times, sister publication of WJW. Eric Schwartz, reporter for WJW contributed to this piece.