TEL AVIV — Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for a “reverse Birthright” that would take Israelis to see the American Jewish community firsthand at the opening of the General Assembly, the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, in Tel Aviv.
Titled “We Need to Talk,” this year’s three-day conference that opened on Oct. 22 focused on the divisions between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. More than 3,000 participants were on hand for the event.
The Jewish Federations of North America is the umbrella body for nearly 150 Jewish federations, which act as central fundraising bodies for Jewish causes and institutions in metropolitan areas throughout the United States and Canada.
On hand were Lauren Ades and Doni Greenwald of Baltimore, who attended the GA as recipients of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Harry Greenstein Young Leadership Award.
Greenwald said he was honored to have been selected for the award and to have the opportunity to attend the GA in Tel Aviv.
“It was special to be able to attend alongside Jews from all over North America with a single purpose of bringing Jews together and caring for the Jewish community,” he said. “In meeting people between sessions from other communities across the country and across North America, I learned people had high admiration for how our Associated system is run and I felt proud to be a part of The Associated.”
As a member of the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet, Ades got to commune with 20 people from other federations across the country.
“Getting the chance to reconnect with them and finding out what they are doing in their communities and what was working well was extremely rewarding,” she said.
On the second day of the conference, Ades said participants heard a lot about Israel-U.S. partnerships. “There was a representative from the mayor’s office in Parkland, Florida. We learned that the Israel Trauma Coalition had sent counselors. Looking back on it now, especially after [the shootings] this weekend, it really resonated with me,” she said. “And I brought back with me a better understanding of Israel and Israeli culture. I work a lot with young family engagement, and I hope to encourage exposure to Israel earlier in children’s lives. I think it’s very important.”
Several controversial events in recent years have created rifts between the views of U.S. Jewish organizations and Israeli government policies. The groups have objected to, among other things, the government’s freezing of a plan meant to expand a non-Orthodox prayer area at the Western Wall; the passage of a law this year officially defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews; a proposed reform of Israel’s conversion policy that would have given more power to Israel’s haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate; and a 2017 law barring entry to supporters of the movement to boycott Israel.
Speaking at the conference’s opening session, Rivlin said that while Diaspora and Israeli Jews have differences, they need to prioritize maintaining their relationship. He said that Israelis need to take it upon themselves to learn more about Diaspora Jews, in part through a “reverse Taglit,” Hebrew for Birthright, the free, 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults.
“We need to create wider circles of answers here in Israel,” he said. “For many young Israeli Jews, being a Jew means being Israeli. We must increase their exposure to your schools, camps and communities. They need to realize and to feel that they have a family, a family that [they] must take into account.”
On Oct. 21, at an event at Rivlin’s official residence in Jerusalem preceding the General Assembly, the head of New York’s UJA-Federation said some young American Jews did not see their values reflected in Israel’s policies.
Eric Goldstein, the federation’s CEO, said “The Jewish identity of many young American Jews is reflected through the lens of tikkun olam, social justice values, and they experience a mental discomfort when they use that lens to look at many current Israeli government policies: settlement policy, nation-state law, treatment of asylum seekers, marriage equality and marriage rights — more broadly, the monopoly that the Orthodox has over religion and state in Israel.”
For Doni Greenwald, the assembly was fruitful, but he thought the Diaspora dialog could go even deeper.
“This year’s theme of the GA, ‘We Need to Talk,’ stressed the divide between American Jews and Israel. I think that’s something that should be replicated on a local level,” he said. “However, although I felt this year’s ‘We Need to Talk’ agenda interesting, I believe there is so much more that unites us than divides us. I wish we could have focused more on that.”