‘We Want To Hear From You’

GA co-chair Susie Gelman says the general assembly will reinvigorate federation leadership. (Jewish Federations of North America)

GA co-chair Susie Gelman says the general assembly will reinvigorate federation leadership. (Jewish Federations of North America)

Ten years ago, when Michael and Susie Gelman chaired the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North American 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 Machane 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 with 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 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 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.

Michael Siegal, chair of the board of the Jewish Federations of North America, says this year’s GA will focus on Diaspora-Israeli relations. (Jewish Federations of North America)

Michael Siegal, chair of the board of the Jewish Federations of North America, says this year’s GA will focus on Diaspora-Israeli relations. (Jewish Federations of North America)

The speakers will provide a “wow” factor, too. Attendees will hear from Prime Minister Binyamin 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. Baltimore is also sending a hearty group, including many who will be receiving awards from JFNA. Jakir Manela, for example, will receive the JCSA Young Professional Award. Katie Applefeld will get the Harry Greenstein Young Leadership Award.

Applefeld told the JT, “I am psyched and excited. … I am traveling with an incredible group from Baltimore, and there will be just incredible programming and a chance to see our overseas partners up close and in person. There is nothing like being with a group of committed leaders from around the country, celebrating the work of the federation, while in Israel.”

Washington also 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 Rakkit, executive director of the Greater Washington Federation.

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 the JT, “I am very excited for it.”

What will be the result of two-and-a-half days immersed in thoughtful dialogue with 3,000 Jewish leaders? That’s different for everyone, said Siegal, but he hopes that the conference will help to 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.”

The Baltimore Jewish Times will be covering the GA from Israel. To read daily updates, visit jewishtimes.com/GA2013.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief

Worth The Fight

Bike For the Fight riders were greeted by students at various schools along the way. (Provided)

Bike For the Fight riders were greeted by students at various schools along the way. (Provided)

Optimistic. Determined. Inexhaustible.

Pick a synonym for any of the above, and you can use it to describe the team of young Israelis pedaling each year across the United States to cure cancer.

Earlier this week, the participants of Bike For the Fight completed their second annual ride, which took them through the Baltimore, Rockville and D.C. areas, to encourage people to donate to the Israel Cancer Research Fund, a North American organization that gives grants to top Israeli cancer researchers. Ride founder Tom Peled, 25, a student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzylia, said the group met their fundraising goal, raising more than $85,000.

For Peled, the mission is personal.

Peled lost his father, who was 58, to a 10-year battle against cancer in 2011. At the time of his father’s diagnosis, Peled was only 15. He channeled his grief into a 3,000-mile bike ride through Europe. By the end, he said he realized he wanted to find a way to both honor his father and devote himself to fighting the insidious disease that robbed him of so many precious years with his dad. The result was Bike For the Fight.

Peled told the JT that in its first year, BFF was an “adventure into the unknown,” as he had never planned anything but a backyard barbecue. But he said that when he got started and people saw his heart was in the right place, they helped. This year, he said, the team has grown (400 riders took part at different intervals along the way) – and grown up.

The ride is not based on speed, but on telling the story. They bike 60 to 70 miles per day.

“We want, as much as we can, to share the story with as many people as we can,” said Peled, who gave talks this year at Goucher College, Chabad of Towson University and Johns Hopkins University during his ride that went from Toronto to Boston, through upstate New York and Massachusetts and then down the East Coast through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C. It culminated at the Israeli Embassy, where dignitaries met BFF with flags, balloons and cheers.

The team relies on home hospitality; throughout its more than 60-day journey, BFF participants only slept in motels for four nights. In Rockville, they stayed with Alex and Miri Livnat; in Baltimore, with Bruce Sholk and Beth Kaplan.

Sholk said he was introduced to Peled though a business partner and his daughter ahead of BFF’s first ride. He went to a kickoff ceremony and saw that the organization was being supported by a wide representation of Israelis, from prominent business people to young activists. Sholk was enthralled.

“While they could have much more easily done this in Israel or Europe, they have chosen to bring this to the U.S. and now Canada to expose the Jewish and non-Jewish community not only to the importance of cancer research, but to the commitment of Israeli and Jewish young adults to do good,” said Sholk. “It is clear from the range of people they have interacted with along their journeys that they have succeeded in both goals.”

Peled’s partners, Director of Technology Inbal Brakha and trip manager Eran Rozen, also have tragic stories to propel them forward. Brakha lost her father to cancer one week before Peled. Rozen’s father was killed in a plane crash. Several of the other riders have stories, too.

“It’s the idea of taking something negative in your life, healing yourself and then turning it in to something positive to help heal others,” said Peled. “In my small way, I want to try to bring progress to finding a cure for cancer through raising money for research being done in Israel.”

Peled said everyone has difficulties, but they are faced with two choices: running away or overcoming them.

He also said BFF is about innovation and entrepreneurship.

“I started this at 23 with no experience at organizing anything,” he said. “But when you do something you believe in and it comes from a pure and honest place, people will help. People are looking to do good, you just need to show them how.”

Learn more about Bike For the Fight at bikeforthefight.com.

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