Analysis: The Global Jewish Shuk

PM Netanyahu at the Opening Plenary greeting attendees (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

PM Netanyahu at the Opening Plenary greeting attendees (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

It was a shuk — a marketplace — of ideas. Attendees heard new and familiar voices. There was an abundance of give and take.

At the 2013 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which ran from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12 in Jerusalem, participants had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the most important issues facing the Jewish state and the Jewish people. They learned, they were challenged, and judging from the buzz in the hallways and the smiles on the shuttles, North America’s top Jewish communal leaders and professionals were refreshed and renewed.

The messages: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh , all Jews are responsible for one another. This is a challenging time, but a time of great global Jewish opportunity.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the challenges that face us,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA president and chief executive officer. “But the biggest challenge is something that I believe we take for granted until it is too late, and that is the idea that we are best when we stand together – as a single community, as one nation.”
A clear call to action: Unite.

A difficult appeal, judging by the dialogue and debate at the GA, which was branded “The Global Jewish Shuk: A Marketplace of Dialogue and Debate.”

Unlike a traditional general assembly, with dozens of sessions focused on solicitation techniques, storytelling and community study data mining (although a handful of these sessions did exist), the 2013 GA on the one hand, focused on Diaspora-Israel relations, on the challenges of a maturing Jewish state and on the need to celebrate Israel’s successes . On the other, there was much talk about Iran, the peace process and Israeli security.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says Israel’s security is his first priority. (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

Speakers ranged in stature from the prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, Knesset members with and without portfolios (Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, MK Nachman Shai, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, MK Aliza Lavie and others) to leading Israeli CEOs, journalists and activists. The more than 3,000 participants unpacked what it means to be a Jew living in Israel versus a Jew living in the Diaspora, and they deliberated about ways in which the two contingencies can live with – and learn and grow from — each other. Talks tackled issues such as civil marriage in the Jewish state, making a place for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and the need for increased Israeli philanthropy.

Some speakers urged Diaspora Jews to lobby and help move the Israeli agenda forward. Others called on American Jews to support the state but to leave the politics and the policies to those who live on the land.

“I am disturbed by Jews who live abroad and don’t have a connection to Israel,” said Ziv Shilon, a 25-year-old captain in the Israel Defense Forces. “Think right. Think left. But for Heaven’s sake, think! … Even if you don’t live here physically, live here in your mind and your soul.”

“With a 71 percent intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox, the Jewish community in North America has a lot of work to do, and they should do it before they decide what we should do here. There has always been a policy that Jews outside of Israel do not mix into Israeli politics—right or left, more or less religious,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, chief rabbi of Dimona.

All speakers called on Israeli and Diaspora Jews to talk more, and more often. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro spoke about his focus on people-to-people bonds as the “undergird for bilateral relations” and said he hopes to build new and better opportunities for exchanges.

“Our work here in Israel is not over, but it is changing,” said the JFNA’s chair of the board of trustees, Michael Siegal.

 

Defining Identity

The Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews was the elephant– or maybe the large, purple gorilla – in the room, in that North American Jewish leaders are focused today on the study’s indication that Jewish non-Orthodox young people are not affiliating, are intermarrying and think the Holocaust and Jewish humor better defines who they are than synagogue life or religious rituals.

But what was striking during the conference was how quickly it became apparent that the struggles for self-definition, the push for a more pluralistic and individualistic Jewish identity, even within the confines of the open U.S. society, were not that dissimilar from the struggles of many Jews in Israel. And that the Israeli way of relating to Judaism may be similar to the growing cultural (as opposed to religious) affiliation of many young secular North American Jews.

Calls by leaders such as MK Shelly Yacimovich, chairwoman of the Labor Party, for a civil agenda, for support for freedom of religion and worship for all sects of Judaism, for a government that supports civil marriage and gay rights (including gay marriage) were met with thunderous applause. (In 2012, the non-Orthodox Jewish community was among the most vocal contingencies in the State of Maryland lobbying for Question 6, which was also called the Maryland same-sex marriage referendum.)

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Participants enjoy Israeli food before the opening plenary (Photo by AG for JFNA)

Statements by top leaders such as Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush, that “the more committed halachic Jews need to understand that pushing religion down the throats of Israelis endears Judaism to no one” nearly echoed the sentiments of young American Jews who sat on a panel about engagement.

“Young adults want Judaism like their music. They want access to everyone, and they want to make their own playlist,” said Rachel Hodes, planning associate in the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York.

“The Pew study confirms there is not one Jewish identity, there are Jewish identities. Regardless of all these different names that I have for myself [Sephardi, white Jew, Israeli, American], one thing that unites all of them is the fact that I am Jewish. … You can define in different ways and still be Jewish,” said Oren Okhovat, an intern at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In a talk titled “It’s Different Here: Is Jewish Identity in Israel Distinct from Diaspora Jewish Identity?” secular Israeli Jews expressed that they see the Bible as their inspiration but create a Judaism for themselves that resonates with them in 2013.

“I take inspiration from these stories [in the Bible], said Bella Alexandrov, director of Tor Hamidbar. “I don’t ask myself if it happened or if it didn’t happen. I take it as it is, and when I want to do something with it, I create from it a ritual to which I have a connection. It is not a source of authority, but of inspiration.”

“Judaism means history and heritage and family and a Jewish calendar and school system,” said MK Nitzan Horowitz in a separate session. “I see myself not less Jewish [than the rabbis] … even though I am secular. I feel Jewish, and I am 100 percent Jewish.”

The story of Jewish life in Israel, as speakers stood up and expressed at the end of the identity session, is best grasped through its people. And in Israel, while the news reports show a society of black and white, as one participant indicated, “There isn’t one kind of Judaism, one option; everyone can find [his or her] own place.”

Stop The Bomb

This was a second underlying theme of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. From Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech on the opening night until MK Shelly Yacimovich’s talk at the final plenary, the theme of no deal is better than a bad deal when it comes to Iran could clearly be heard from right, left and center politicians and security officials.

The PM told attendees that an Iran without a nuclear weapon was good not only for Israel, but also for the world. But, he said, “For us, it is a matter of our existence.”

Netanyahu lashed out at the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France, plus Germany) who at the time of this writing was negotiating with Iran in Geneva. He said agreeing to lighten sanctions on Iran because it comes to the table pleading is making a bad deal. He said Iran is ready to negotiate because the sanctions are having impact and that if the P5+1 placed demands on Iran to cease and desist the building of capabilities to produce atomic bombs, and Iran is on its knees, why now would we want to come to a deal without Iran dismantling anything?

Elyezer Shkedy, a retired Israeli Air Force major and president of El Al, said “I think we should do everything in order to prevent them [Iran] from getting nuclear capability. I think we should, at least in the beginning, work with the U.S. But in the end, the prime minister of Israel is the leader of the State of Israel and the Jewish nation around the world, and he will have to be able to look into the mirror and know he is doing the right thing.”

Minister of Finance Yair Lapid also spoke in terms of a potential military attack. He said some people draw parallels between the Iranian threat and the Holocaust. He said he refused to believe it was inevitable that Iran would have nuclear capabilities and made clear, “No one will scare us anymore. We have the capabilities to protect ourselves.”

While he noted that “diplomacy is always better than war,” he said that when in discourse with people who “lie for a living” one has to be extra careful.

“My role is to bring alternative ideas to the public, to speak out and challenge the government,” said Yacimovich in reference to her role as the head of the opposition party. “But sometimes we must put aside our disagreements. There is no disagreement that Iran must be stopped from getting the bomb.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

Peres Calls For Peace, For Courage

President Shimon Peres addressed the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly on Monday with a message of courage and call for a celebration of human life.

Israeli President Shimon Peres told 3,500 GA listeners that Israel must have courage.

Israeli President Shimon Peres told 3,500 GA listeners that Israel must have courage.

Peres, speaking to the close to 3,500 attendees at the federation’s annual conference, coined “The Global Jewish Shuk,” told listeners that he remembers the days of Israel’s founding, when the people arrived to a small piece of land, which was unfriendly, with swamps in the north and desert in the south and with only the mosquitos as neighbors – the rest were enemies.

“There was no water. We had two lakes. One was dead and the other was dying. There was one river, the Jordan River, which is full of fame and short of water – not for irrigation. … We had no guns. We were outnumbered with no support,” said Peres. “But you know what we discovered? The greatest treasure in life is the human being. When you have nothing, you have people. Israel is a story of people.”

Peres said that he has heard of the debate about whether or not Israel should be – or is – more Jewish or more democratic and at the notion that there would even be such a discussion he scoffed. .

“The first democrat on earth was Moses. … Every person was born in image of the Lord, which was first declaration of democracy. When it says [in the Torah] we should not be like slaves and what fight oppressors, a second declaration. When it says love your fellow man like yourself, a third declaration,” Peres said. “Democracy is a love of people and a belief in them.”

Answering questions posed by David Horovitz, founder and editor of “Times of Israel,” Peres made clear that the strength of the Jewish people is its brains and he said it is in science and education that the Jewish state should invest. He also called on the people to stay focused on peace.

“Peace is our goal,” he said.

Though he did not indicate that there would be an easy path.

Is peace at hand? He said people have to understand, “We are negotiating not because we agree, but because we do not agree. Negotiating is to convert disagreements to agreements, to convert enemies to friends. … When we start out it is difficult, complicated, we have to change many prejudices.”

And he said sometimes the greatest prejudices lie within your own people and it is them you have to convince.

A final call to action was to the young generation.

“We are not owners of land, we are creators of ambition,” said Peres. “The ambition is to do and to make a better world and now is your time.”

He continued: “Logic has a limit, not courage.”

Find out what is happening with the Washington, D.C. delegation>> 

 

 

Netanyahu At The GA: ‘Security’

Security. This was the only message that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered to a crowd of more than 2,000 people on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the opening plenary of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke to a crowd of over 2,000 people at this year's JFNA GA. The keyword: security.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke to a crowd of over 2,000 people at this year’s JFNA GA. The keyword: security.

“The most important thing is to assure the security and the future of the Jewish state, the one and only Jewish state of Israel,” said Netanyahu as he launched into a more than 30-minute speech.

The PM started with Iran. He told the audience of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders that an Iran without nuclear weapons is essential not only for Israel, but for the entire world – the U.S., Europe, the Arabs, the Chinese and the Russians.

“But for us,” said Netanyahu, “it is a matter of our existence.”

Netanyahu lashed out at the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany) for agreeing to lighten sanctions on Iran when it came to the table pleading, ready to negotiate because the sanctions are having impact. He said the P5+1 placed demands on Iran to cease and desist the building of capabilities to produce atomic bombs that have brought Iran to its knees, why now would we want to come to a deal without Iran dismantling anything.

“Why Iran has come for a deal is obvious. It is because the sanctions are biting, are crippling that regime. They came to the table because they have to,” he said, expressing exasperation that the group would agree to lghten sanctions when “not one centrifuge is dismantled – not one.”

He said Iran can in a matter of a few weeks take the capabilities it has and produce a nuclear weapon.

“Iran does not roll back its nuclear making capacity at all, but P5+1 are rolling back sanctions? That is a bad deal, it is a dangerous deal. … That affects our survival,” said Netanyahu. “I will not be silenced – never. … When the Jewish people were silenced on matters relating to our survival you know what happened.”

Then he told the audience that Iran was not only targeting his country, but most certainly the U.S., too.

“Who is Iran targeting when it builds the ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles)? They already have rockets and missiles to reach us. They need those [ICBMs] to reach North America. And they can be nuclear tipped. That is the plan –  coming to a theater near you. Do you want that? Well, do something about it,” he charged.

He said Israel is in charge of defending itself and that is what it will do.

And not only when it comes to Iran.

The PM next turned to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and said, again, that first and foremost was the safety, security and longevity of the Jewish state.

“We need to end this conflict once and for all and to end it there is a simple principle. That principle is two nation states, two states for two peoples. Not one state for one people, for the Palestinians. And then another state for two peoples. No, two states for two peoples,” said the PM.

He told the crowd that if the Palestinians expect Israel to recognize a Palestinian state, they must recognize a Jewish state for the Jewish people. He said, “That is what peace is about.”

Netanyahu walked attendees through Israel’s painful and bloody past, through the 1921 attack on the Jewish immigration office in Jaffa, through the horrible beheading of babies in 1929 with the Hebron massacre and on through the systematic attacks by the Arabs on the Jewish community between 1936 and 1939. During World War II, he reminded, it was Haj Amin al-Husseini who partnered with Adolf Hitler and called for a final solution. He then said that in 1947 the Jews accepted a two-state solution while the Arabs refused and when the Jews established their state, they were attacked on all fronts, attacks which lasted until the 1967 war.

“For 46 years there were systemic attacks on the very nature of the Jewish state. Not on settlements,” he said. “There were not any settlement. …. Not about a Palestinian state, they rejected it. … It was about the Jewish state. They have to recognize the Jewish state. … What is their struggle for? Palestine. What is Palestine? It is Kiryat Shemona to Eilat, it is from the river to the sea.”

And so, bringing the talk back to the issue of security, Netanyahu then said that even if the Palestinians agreed to recognize Israel, “there is no durable peace that is not based on security. … A peace agreement that is not based on absolutely robust security for Israel by Israel will not stand test of time. We need a peace based on security. That is the other fundamental piece. We need security to defend the peace — and security to defend Israel in case peace unravels. And in our region, peace has a tendency to unravel.”

Next, and also connected to Israel’s peace and security, Netanyahu spoke about shalom bayit between Israel and Diaspora Jews. He claimed it his responsibility as PM of Israel to keep the peace of the Jewish people. And he said it was he who asked Natan Sharansky to head a Kotel task force and that he is confident we are on the cusp of making a final solution come to fruition.

He cited an announcement made earlier this week at the Jewish Agency for Israel conference about new plans (see “Exclusive Briefing: JAFI’s Misha Galperin On New Program To Ignite Stronger Diaspora-Israeli Connection>>“) to further connect young Diaspora Jews with Israel and noted that he has agreed to invest Israeli money in the endeavor.

“We are committed to it,” said Netanyahu. “We know the challenge of Jewish unity. There are the forces of assimilation and intermarriage [in the States]. … We have sponsored this initiative to work together, to think through [these things] together, and to put forward programs to solidify … a Jewish identity that is so central to our future.”

Netanyahu continued: “When I think of challenges we have overcome over the last 4,000 years – challenges to our physical survival, challenges to our spiritual survival and cohesion — I know we have that inner strength to guarantee the Jewish future. … To defend and secure the Jewish people and the one and only Jewish state.”

 View Earlier Posts:
Exclusive Briefing: JAFI’s Misha Galperin On New Program To Ignite Stronger Diaspora-Israeli Connection>>
GA 2013: Opening Plenary at 7:15 P.M.>>

Read what’s happening with the group traveling from Washington, D.C.>>

Exclusive Briefing: JAFI’s Misha Galperin On New Program To Ignite Stronger Diaspora-Israeli Connection

With change there is always opportunity, said Debs Weinberg of Baltimore at a morning session run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. And Weinberg’s message was one that will become increasingly more relevant as JAFI, working with the government of Israel and nonprofits from across the world, works to better engage young (between the ages of 13 and 35) Jews with Israel and to enhance their Jewish identities.

Misha Galperin discussed a new project that will focus on Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

Misha Galperin discussed a new project that will focus on Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development, told a group of about 15 people in an exclusive briefing on Sunday morning that over the course of the JAFI conference, which is currently taking place in Israel, a group of more than 100 thought leaders met to more formalize plans for a collaborative initiative that will bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and invest in Israel education on campuses outside of the Jewish state.

Galperin explained that this program was nearly a decade in the making, as it was current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who signed the legislation in the ‘90s that launched invested by the government of Israel in Birthright.

“This was the first time in history that Israeli tax payers’ money was put into a pot that funded free trips for American kids, which many thought here [in Israel] was a criminal thing to do; it was supposed to the other way around,” said Galperin.

Since then, a number of other development occurred, like the formation of MASA Israel, which was co-founded and is jointly managed by the government and the Jewish Agency.

“At this point, about $120 million a year are allocated by the government of Israel for various prorams that have to with the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish communities [outside of Israel,” said Galperin.

When Natan Sharansky left his seat in the Knesset to become head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, he started exploring what might be next – after or in conjunction with Birthright and MASA.

About one year ago, the PM empowered a team to explore that question in conjunction with leaders in the Diaspora. A late April 2013 meeting help by the PM with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett solidified that there would need to be something done.

“The prime minister said this is important for the Jewish people – that it is in the strategic interest of the Jewish people,” noted Galperin.

Several meetings, focus groups and a white paper later, led to the Nov. 6 to 7 meetings of world thought leaders in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Uma and the revelation that the government will invest likely double what it is investing now to ramp up programming for young Diaspora Jews. That money – though an exact amount could not be named – would be expected to be matched by overseas nonprofit organizations/philanthropists and by participants’ fees.

“I was personally very anxious about what would happen and how this would work,” said Galperin. “This is a very different planning model. For the government of Israel, it is revolutionary. The government has never done this before – engaged in a collaborative planning process with Diaspora and on-governmental organizations.”

What can Galperin say on the record now?

“This effort is moving ahead,” he said, noting that between now and April when the government would have to present a resolution and ensure funding for the initiative is allocated in the fiscal budget, “exactly what we are doing, in what sequence, how it is going to be evaluated and all that, has to be worked out.”

The outcome could have a fundamental impact on the destiny of the Jewish people – not so much in terms of the types of programming but in terms of how the programming is being worked out — this new method of Jewish collaboration.

Galperin said there will likely be a series of pilot projects in the first year, but details could not be available at this time. What he could say was that while initial talks were focused on growing Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel, and while that is still a part of it, “now we are talking about Jewish identity.”

View previous GA 2012 posts:
GA 2013: Opening Plenary at 7:15 P.M.>>
‘We Want To Hear From You’>>

Read what’s happening with the group traveling from Washington, D.C.>>

GA 2013: Opening Plenary at 7:15 P.M.

The 2013 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America starts this evening. The anticipation for an opening plenary with a talk by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a performance by Ohad Naharin and his dancers is hard to contain.

Last year, the GA was in Baltimore and thousands of people came to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to experience the magic of Charm City and the charisma of Jewish Baltimore. It was amazing to host such an event, where the agenda of the Jewish federations was discussed and moved forward.

But this year, the GA is in Jerusalem. Being in the Holy City changes the dialogue from a focus on North America to a focus on the connection between the Diaspora and Israel. And also a focus on Israel and its challenges and successes.

In a curtain raiser (see ‘We Want To Hear From You’), the JT spoke with GA Chairs Susie and Michael Gelman (who are also investors in the Baltimore Jewish Times) and with JFNA Chair Michael Siegal.

Now, the focus will be on what is heard in the hallways and the power of the plenaries and sessions.

Make sure you are following us at jewishtimes.com/ga2013 for daily updates and to keep your finger on the pulse of the federation and how the dialogue at the GA might impact life in Jewish Baltimore moving forward.

 

Read what’s happening with the group traveling from Washington, D.C.>>