Amid surveys and studies suggesting North American Jewry may be a culture in decline, more than 3,000 Jewish leaders from all over the globe gathered near Washington, D.C., this week for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, hoping to stem the tide of anti-Semitism, disengagement and political disagreement.
While the three-day event, which ran Nov. 9 to 11 and featured presentations from Vice President Joe Biden and Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan, offered opportunities for Jewish solidarity and new global connections, addressing issues threatening the Jewish community was at the forefront. Speakers touched on European anti-Semitism, the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and the future of Jewry in North America, among other topics.
Attendees navigated through long security lines and explosives-sniffing dogs to attend the opening plenary session on Sunday, which featured personal stories, high-quality video, set changes and a star-studded lineup.
Several people lined up on the stage and shared their emotional experiences of when Jewish federations became a part of their lives, from a young woman who protested as a teen in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s with her father as they stood up for Soviet Jews to a couple that met at a federation National Young Leadership Cabinet Retreat who are now married with two children and “have become a federation family.”
There was a young woman who explained that, although she didn’t receive a Jewish upbringing from her Methodist mother and Jewish father, attending a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip “changed my life. Visiting Israel connected me to something I didn’t even realize I was missing,” she said.
Then, an Israeli woman living one mile from Gaza said her “family is a federation family, but not in a traditional sense.” Her home was under rocket fire, “but the federation was there,” she said. “You came, you helped us … and now you’re helping us rebuild and recover.”
National Public Radio political correspondent Nina Totenberg interviewed Breyer and Kagan, who spoke humorously and candidly of their work on the nation’s high court. “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell discussed fallout from the recent elections and foreign policy.
GA 2014 co-chairs Gail Norry and Howard Friedman set the tone for the GA crowd, with the theme “The World Is Our Backyard.”
“Immerse yourself in the issues,” said Friedman, a past chair of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “This year’s GA will remind us of why federation is relevant and critical, and it will send us all home to our own backyards with a common agenda for the greater Jewish world.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, offered another challenge to GA attendees.
“We disagree better than any other people in the world,” said Sacks. “What we need is not agreement; what we need is that feeling that we’re all connected to one another and we’re all responsible for one another.”
That responsibility played out in break-out sessions such as “Reality Check: Life in Europe Today.” Moderator David Brown, chair of the JFNA’s Israel and Overseas Committee, said he wished they didn’t have to hold such a session.
“Unfortunately, I don’t believe ‘never again’ is actually the reality on the ground,” Brown said, indicating that realities in Europe are similar to the environment that gave birth to the Holocaust.
Jewish leaders from Spain, the Netherlands and Israel discussed what Jewish communities in their countries are doing to combat rising anti-Semitism.
The growing Muslim population of Europe was the subject of some debate, as David Hatchwell Altaras, president of the Jewish Community of Madrid, Spain, told conference attendees he fears the projected growth in the Muslim population could mean the spread of more anti-Semitism, even in politics.
“It’s not a problem of Europe, it’s a problem of all of us,” he said. “To say that we had a tough time this summer is definitely an understatement. … It’s going to be much tougher in the future, but we have no choice.”
Esther Hilah Voet, director of the Center for Information and Documentation Israel in the Netherlands, said that Jews are scolded for pro-Israel views in her country.
“If you are a Jew who first put out that you are critical about Israel and you don’t have an understanding of their dilemmas, you are a good Jew and then you are accepted,” she explained. “If you don’t and then you stand up for Israel, you’ve got a problem.”
Voet has been called a “Zionist witch” who “has blood on her hands,” she said. “What you see right now is either you have people who don’t have the courage anymore or you have people who are tired. They are tired of defending Israel or simply don’t have the courage to again and again start the discussion.”
Altaras had his own theories as to why anti-Semitism had resurfaced.
“I think it’s a result of it being 60 years after the Shoah,” he said. “You couldn’t be anti-Semitic after that. After a certain amount of time, the anti-Semites started to look at ways to get back into this. … Anti-Semitism is tied to anti-Zionism. It’s the new way to be an anti-Semite.”
On the issue of anti-Semitism among the Muslim community, Akiva Tor, head of the bureau of world Jewish affairs and world religions for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered up that it may be the responsibility of European governments to deal with this population, which isn’t necessarily culturally assimilated.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the GA Tuesday afternoon by video from Jerusalem, he spoke about what some feel is a very real anti-Semitic threat to the Jewish people: Iran.
“Our goal must not be merely preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons today, we must also be preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons tomorrow,” he said. “Unfortunately, the international community is reportedly ready to leave Iran’s nuclear program largely intact.”
But when Vice President Joe Biden spoke on Monday, he made it clear Netanyahu was not alone in that mentality.
“I’ve heard so much malarkey about our position on Iran, let me say to you clearly in a ‘Biden-esque’ way: we will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. Period,” Biden said.
While Iran is a complex enemy, in both the Netherlands and Spain, Altaras and Voet said the key is education, especially educating the younger generations about the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy.
“Six million is an abstract number,” she said. “Only when you get close and personal to real conversations, the real story, that’s when you come to the heart.”
Voet also touched on the BDS movement, which she’s seen in Dutch academia. BDS was the topic of one hour-and-a-half-long session, hosted by the Israel Action Network.
“The BDS movement does not promote itself as the ‘Wipe Israel off the Map Movement,’” said Noam Gilboord, director of community strategy at IAN. Instead, he continued, it models itself as a civil rights movement to attract populations Gil-boord identified as “vulnerable,” such as women, minorities, liberal academics, young people and mainline Protestants.
The session divided the packed room into three groups assigned a different scenario: One faced a BDS vote within an organization of college professors; another addressed a hypothetical BDS conference hosted at a local church; and a third involved a vote by students at a local university to divest from and boycott Israeli institutions.
Each group worked together to identify the messages they wanted to send to the group at the center of each scenario, the messengers they wanted to deliver that message and the way in which they wanted to communicate.
“It’s a situation where the more people know about it, the more likely it is we will prevail,” said Stephen Stone, a professor of medicine at Southern Illinois School of Medicine.
Though his medical school has not had any BDS-related incidents on campus, Stone was interested to see how IAN suggested handling cases, should they arise.
“There’s nothing similar to this in our area … yet,” said Stone, but “it’s certainly a concern.”
Other sessions looked at attitudes toward Israel Defense Forces soldiers, the living conditions of Israelis in the southern portion of the country, and the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communal programming.
“We need to be making sure there is a space for the disabled,” said Janet Behrend Livingston, who serves as co-chair of The Associated’s Caring Commission. “They need to be welcomed and accepted. It’s important that people with disabilities should be at the table when decisions are being made.”
Livingston has worked in the community to expand access for those with disabilities and said Baltimore does a good job including those with disabilities. But, she added, “We all can do better.”
A longtime veteran of GA conferences, Livingston said this year’s event stood out from years’ past. “They really made these stories personal,” she said of organizers’ decision to allow those who benefit from federation initiatives to speak on the subject rather than those on the operations side of the community.
For Barak Hermann, president of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, and Mark Neumann, chair of The Associated, the real benefit came in the relationships built with members of other Jewish communities across the country.
“It’s pretty amazing that we have a JFNA that brings this many people together,” said Neumann. “We all learn so much from each other.”
Echoed Hermann: “[It’s inspiring to realize] there are other people like me who go to bed at night worried” about the same issues.
Phyllis Seaman, who traveled from Naples, Fla., to attend this year’s GA, said the number of young people milling about and sitting in on the talks was encouraging.
“That’s the next generation. That’s leadership,” she said at a reception honoring the work of Howard Friedman and Linda Hurwitz, JFNA national campaign chair. “I was overwhelmed.”
But one of the young community members present, Towson University junior and Hillel member Brett Kaufman, said he had hoped to see a bit more substantial student presence.
“Why am I the only one here?” he asked, referring to other Jewish students from the region.
With a multitude of sessions devoted to engaging young people and combating some of the challenges they face as young Jews however, Kaufman was glad for what chance he did get to interact with students from across North America.
“I [met] students that are more involved that I am,” he said. “I am not alone in my desire to make an impact.”
Melissa Gerr and Melissa Apter contributed to this report.