A Global Jewish Marketplace of Dialogue and Ideas

by Jerry Silverman and Michael Siegal

These days, many of us spend a lot of time in echo chambers. Increasingly, we pay attention to columnists, bloggers and commentators who support our worldview, and we associate with people who think like we do.

That divide is most evident during election seasons (and recently in light of the US government shutdown) but as Jews, we see that divide in everyday life: What denominations we affiliate with (or don’t), what organizations we support (or don’t) – and, of course, where we stand on Israel.

It’s rare that we come together regardless of ideology to think, debate, hear varying perspectives and, most important, connect as Jews concerned about Israel and Jewish life, whether we’re Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated; young, old or middle-aged; straight or gay; politically across the spectrum.

The Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly is the rare communal event that affords us the opportunity to convene, even as we continue to debate. This year we’ll bring our many voices to Israel, joining with Israelis too, as we focus on the Jewish state’s politics and pluralism, its business industry and its economy, the Israel-Diaspora relationship, Israel advocacy and more.

We’ll hear at the GA from an array of politicians from President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich, her fellow Laborite Stav Shaffir, who is the youngest member of the Knesset, and MK Ifrat Kariv of the Yesh Atid Party. We’ll hear, too, from Israeli innovators such as Emma Butin, an entrepreneur, blogger and product strategist; SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum and from leaders of long-established businesses, including El Al Chairman Elyezer Shkedy. And, in a twist on the popular TED talks, we’ll have our own FED talks.

We’ll immerse ourselves in Israeli society by studying the many shades of black to give us insights into the haredi, ultra-Orthodox community, and we’ll tackle how Jewish identity in Israel differs from ours in the Diaspora. We’ll take an in-depth look at philanthropic efforts on the ground, with site visits to experience projects that deal with education, youth, culture, the integration of immigrants and more.

We’ll also walk through the heart of Jerusalem as a group to the Western Wall, the kotel, where we believe there is a place for every Jew and for all of the Jewish People.

This GA will dig deeply into contemporary Israeli issues, but because we’re a global community, we’ll also be looking at key Diaspora challenges. One key concern is the recent Pew survey on American Jewish life, and we’ll be exploring the study in-depth. We’ll also be looking at some of our proposed responses to Pew, which include extending programs that are already proving successful.

  • We have seen the power of Jewish preschools in engaging families in the Jewish community. Talk to involved families in any synagogue or JCC, or to parents of kids at Jewish camps and day schools, and you’ll find many drawn in by their children’s attendance at Jewish preschool. Let’s now take that a step further and widen the pipeline of families entering Jewish life through this critical early gateway and offer free preschool to every Jewish family – our own “Jewish Head Start.”
  • With studies showing that most non-Orthodox, engaged participants in the Jewish community were inspired by one of three things – Jewish camp, day school or youth trips to Israel – let’s focus right away on Jewish camps, quickly increasing the number of youngsters going to Jewish camps from 10 percent to 30 percent.
  • Let’s not lose our Birthright Israel alumni. More than 350,000 young adults have gone on these free, transformative trips to Israel, but as a community we haven’t done nearly enough to engage these young people and offer them meaningful leadership experiences once they return home.

Ironically, the areas with the lowest proportion of Jewish engagement are often the areas with the highest-density Jewish populations. Let’s work hard to penetrate these “Jewish Development Zones,” areas strong in numbers, but weak in connection, by investing in programs and experiences – a “Jewish Head Start” model, a new Jewish camp, support for existing youth programs and dynamic programs for young adults and Birthright alumni – that will connect Jews in a communal structure at vital stages of life.

This year’s GA will foster a global Jewish marketplace of dialogue and debate. We live in a world of challenges and opportunities. We may be a people with sometimes-conflicting ideologies and ideas, but we’re strongest when we come together, as one Jewish People, and together we can build a better Jewish future.

Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman and Michael Siegal are, respectively, president and CEO and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America. The General Assembly will take place in Jerusalem Nov. 10-12.