More than 3,000 Jewish leaders poured into Baltimore last Sunday for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. The event theme, “Where the Jewish community uploads/downloads/shares,” focused on just that — sharing information and best practices.
The GA represented 155 Jewish federations across North America (400 network communities). Annually, the system raises more than $1 billion for social welfare projects, education and Jewish identity building.
A basement-level marketplace hustled and bustled for three days in the spacious Baltimore Convention Center, the main hub of the GA. The booths represented many well-known organizations and causes — Birthright, Magen David Adom, Haaretz — but others were sometimes peculiar and often surprising, offering services, products and do-gooder causes.
Above ground, the GA was host to a number of famous personalities, including a special plenary session with Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky, considered two of the Jewish world’s greatest living heroes. They came together to mark the 25th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Soviet Jewry.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, via video, told the audience he has confidence in President Barack Obama and that the two leaders could or would work together to advance peace and security in the Middle East.
Netanyahu reiterated the danger of Iranian nuclear proliferation and the need to forge a realistic path toward peace with the Palestinians. He said he looks forward to continued U.S.-Israeli partnership.
“For over six decades, the partnership between the U.S. and Israel has helped make Israel the strong and vibrant democracy it is today,” Netanyahu said.
The GA offered dozens of sessions ranging in topic from social issues to how to fund raise to how best to reach out to the unengaged. Sessions on Israel and other Jewish communities overseas also topped the agenda, with several sessions committed to how best to allocate federation money abroad.
On the first evening, Nov. 11, the first-ever index on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion within Jewish organizations in North America was released. The report was presented at a special reception hosted by Keshet, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Morningstar Foundation and Stuart Kurlander.
A hot topic was how to keep the next generation engaged. Speaking to a group from the University of Maryland on Sunday evening, Federation President and CEO Jerry Silverman was confronted by one student who said, “You’re asking the wrong question [about how to include young people], because we’re sitting in the audience and you’re talking about us like we’re not even there, and what we need to be is part of the solution. We need to be at the table.”
Silverman told JNS.org the next day that he believes the more the federation system can do to create dialogue about engagement, involvement, sharing, educating and learning together, the quicker there will be a solution and the engagement question “will go away.”
In Monday’s “Connected or Disconnected: Who is the New Millennial Jew?” a panel discussion focused on problems and solutions for engagement on campus.
Speaker Evan Gildenblatt, who described himself as the first-ever “openly Jewish” student body president at Kent State University, explained that of the 23,000 undergrads at his Ohio university, only about 1,000 are Jewish and he doesn’t feel much of a Jewish presence.
“I think a lot of them are in hiding because I never see them,” Gildenblatt said. “We have amazing facilities, but the interesting thing is we seem to have issues engaging the younger students and keeping them engaged.”
Seated in the crowd, Sammie Marks empathized with Gildenblatt’s frustration.
Marks, a junior at University of Iowa and co-president of the school’s Hillel, said that retaining interest from her fellow Jewish peers is a constant challenge.
Of the approximately 600 U of I students who identified themselves as Jewish on their entrance applications, Marks estimates that only 100 to 200 have set foot in Hillel.
“It’s not because they are not interested in us. It’s because they are just genuinely not interested in Hillel or Jewish life on campus,” she said.
Marks explained that she and others at U of I have been forced to get “creative” with their recruitment methods. They employ a “buddy system” where each board member has at least two students they routinely call to provide information about upcoming activities and events. Marks said they specifically focus on targeting freshmen and sophomores with hopes of building a core group of
underclassmen to continue the effort in the future.
In a session run by ELI Talks (ELI = engagement, literacy, identity), Sam Glassenberg, CEO of Funtactix, cited JDate as one of the most successful attempts at ensuring Jews stay engaged — and stay Jewish. He said the JDate model was successful because it wasn’t started to solve a problem but to fill a consumer need.
He said, “I used to think that young Jews need free — free food, free trips. JDate flipped the model around.”
So how can other Jewish problems be tackled using the JDate model? Glassenberg had a ready answer for how to get young Jews excited about Jewish education: video games. He even screened a sample video game featuring scenes from Jewish history.
Improving accessibility and inclusivity for interfaith couples and families was also a key topic this GA, and many presented it as among the most important ways of ensuring the future of the U.S. Jewish community. During a session entitled, “Engaging Interfaith Families: Strategies for Increased Community Involvement,” Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said he believes through increased participation and deeper Jewish engagement there can be a more vibrant and meaningful community. This, he added, should be done through casting the widest net possible through “big-tent Judaism.”
“Some people look at the issue of interfaith marriage as a problem or a challenge. We see it as a one of missed opportunities,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “This is a Jewish community that allows for the positions of people I don’t agree with. It allows for a community in which everybody is welcomed and feels embraced no matter what your specific subgroup might be.”
“We often hear there is a fear of not belonging, a sense of exclusion those [interfaith families] feel,” said Eva Stern, director of training at the Jewish Outreach Institute. “So when we think not just about promoting our programs, but also communicating a sense of belonging in our Jewish community, it is essential we take into account those fears, assumptions and perceptions.”
InterfaithFamily is one organization that is trying to take such an approach. Edmund Case, the chief executive officer of the Massachusetts-based group, said what is needed in a community to engage interfaith families with Judaism is a web platform, training for institutions and programs for interfaith families.
Case added that for such an approach to be successful, it would be ideal for an independent organization to be devoted exclusively to this agenda.
“Too often there are examples of people hired to start programs in various communities at the JCCs and federations and they are not there anymore,” Case said. “They are not there anymore because for some reason it doesn’t get priority or there are competing priorities or there are financial pressures.”
As part of its approach, InterfaithFamily has begun to develop grassroots efforts in specific communities to engage interfaith families and to find ways of expanding the role of Judaism in their lives. This includes setting up offices in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Said Rabbi Ari Moffic, director of InterfaithFamily/ Chicago: “I think your interest and passion for supporting interfaith couples and families is essential, and that when families get a taste of meaningful, relevant ... Judaism it adds meaning ... and order to their lives.”
Fighting An Existential Threat
While GA attendees were in some rooms grappling with the threat of losing a generation, others were examining how to preserve the Jewish state in the here and now.
Many sessions touched on the growing threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation. In his remarks at the opening plenary session, David Richmond Gergen, an American political commentator and former presidential adviser, said he expects the Iran issue to “explode” and that the chance for a military conflict is upward of 50 percent.”
“The sanctions are getting tougher and tougher, and they [Iran] keep pushing forward,” Gergen said.
He noted that if Netanyahu does come to the U.S. for a green light, there would be tremendous angst among those in the Obama administration; Israel wants to draw the line at the time that Iran develops nuclear capability while the U.S. wants to wait until Iran has a bomb. But, said Gergen, “Iran with a bomb could mean annihilation for Israel. This is one of the toughest problems we’ve ever seen.”
The topic was again explored in a Monday afternoon session moderated by the Honorable Irwin Cotler, a member of the Parliament of Canada. During that panel, Ambassador Barukh Binah, deputy head of mission for the Embassy of Israel, Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, and Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, a partner with Covington & Burling LLP, debated whether the best next steps were to attack.
While Eizenstat argued that the best policy is to wait on the sanctions and trust in the sanctions, Bryen felt strongly the other way. She told the audience that sanctions have never worked and made it clear that the sanctions we have today are “punishment sanctions” and not meant to deter Iran. That already has not worked.
Bryen said it was OK to be patient to a point, but she feels that if we wait too long, it will be too late. “Sanctions fall on the people, not the government,” she said. “Saddam [Hussein] never collapsed with sanctions.”
Ending With OptimismBut even as the conference was wrought with discussions of challenges and how to maximize opportunities, former Jewish Federation of Greater Washington President Susie Gelman put the finishing touches on this year’s GA by extending an invitation to the 2013 event in Jerusalem; next year will mark the State of Israel’s 65th birthday. At that final session, the audience heard the words of Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Oren told the audience that he had the “best job in the world,” representing Israel. Even with the constant security conflict it faces, he said Israel is one of the world’s happiest, healthiest and best-educated nations. He made the audience laugh when he told them that last year when he spoke to the GA, Israel was exporting wine to France. This year, he said that his country was sending caviar and snow-making equipment to Russian ski resorts. Oren said Jews in Israel and North America are living in a “golden age.” But he asked the audience if we were really “celebrating together” or were we a divided people? He talked of how, in a meeting, Israel’s First Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion made an agreement with Baltimore philanthropist Jacob Blaustein. Ben-Gurion promised to reduce the aliyah demand on American Jews. Blaustein, a past president of the American Jewish Committee, promised to help the new nation build for the future. Oren warned the two communities to not speak “past each other” and to instead “talk with each other.” He asked that both communities clarify before they criticize. “We can be a transformative generation,” said Oren. “We can usher in a genuine golden age (of the Israeli-American Jewish experience). This is our time and our test. The fate of our people is in our hands.”
“To be in this big place with so many Jews wanting to learn and discuss — it’s a good time.” Emily Shoyer, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School
“We haven’t pushed the boundaries yet.” Bill Robinson, Jewish Education Project
“I think strategic planning needs to be thrown out.” Ellen Kagen Waghelstein, Rockville-based leadership consultant
“We are the ones who have the attitude, the walk and the ‘Yes we can!’” Jerry Silverman, Jewish Federations of North America
“I’m going to try to inoculate you: You are going to be a sucker in Israel.” Anat Hoffman, Women at the Wall