Making the Most of the JFNA General Assembly in Israel

Most of the [GA] program is taken up by plenary sessions and large group sessions where people are making presentations and speaking at each othernot with each other. High-profile Israelis make their presentations, express their opinions, and then leave the conference.

by Stephen G. Donshik

The annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) will be taking place in Israel, November 10 – 12, 2013. It has become a recent tradition to hold the annual gathering every few years in Israel. It provides a wonderful opportunity to expose the Federation system’s professional and volunteer leadership to Israeli culture and leadership and to expose Israelis to the North American Jewish communities and the issues that they face in building, maintaining, and strengthening local Federations and the national organization. The question is, does the format and structure of the meetings in Israel maximize the opportunities for Israelis and North Americans to really get to know each other?

In November 1988, I was director of the Israel Office of the Council of Jewish Federations of North America, a precursor to the JFNA, and it was time of negotiations involving Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, Z”L, as they attempted to form a coalition government. Although a National Unity Government was eventually created based on a rotation agreement between the Labor and Likud political parties, in the midst of the give and take, there were heated discussions with the religious parties over changing the Law of Return. (This is the Israeli law that provides the opportunity for any Jew born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism who wants to immigrate to Israel to receive Israeli citizenship.)

Based on the news reports at the time, it appeared that Shamir and Peres were willing to change the wording of the Law of Return in order to create a coalition government. From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, the problem with the Law of Return was that it accepted non-Orthodox conversions from Jewish communities outside of Israel. They wanted to amend the Law of Return to include the phrase “conversion according to Jewish Law (Halacha),” thereby restricting conversions to those performed by Orthodox rabbis.

All this was happening as the GA was meeting in New Orleans, where the decision was made to schedule a series of trips to Israel so that Jewish leaders from North American communities could meet with Israeli politicians and convince them that such a change would be disastrous to the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews. Within a few weeks the first of a number of delegations composed of people from large, intermediate, and small Jewish communities traveled to Israel.

These delegations had meetings with representatives of all the major political parties. For some of the Israelis it was their first introduction to the strong feelings North American Jews had for Israel and how such a change in the Law of Return would put a wedge between them and Israel, particularly alienating Reform and Conservative Jews; the meetings were a real “eye opener.” Many of the Israeli politicians were shocked by the magnitude of the response to a proposed change in an Israeli law.

In the end, agreement on forming a National Unity Government was reached, which meant that neither Shamir nor Peres had to sell out to the ultra-Orthodox religious parties to form a coalition. Yet the definition of “Who Is a Jew” continues to be a challenge since the issue is raised every few years. Each time an alarm is set off in non-Orthodox Jewish communities around the world, immediately evoking responses from national and international Jewish organizations urging Israel politicians not to change the Law of Return.

However, the piece that continues to be missing is an understanding of how critical issues, such as this one, are perceived differently by Israeli leaders and politicians and by Diaspora leaders. The GA could be a place and time to bring these two groups closer together, but unfortunately to date it has been a missed opportunity. Most of the program is taken up by plenary sessions and large group sessions where people are making presentations and speaking at each othernot with each other. High-profile Israelis make their presentations, express their opinions, and then leave the conference.

Yes, the GA is held in Israel to bridge the cultural and religious gap between Israelis and North Americans, and some sessions directly aim to strengthen connections between the two. However, it is questionable whether these sessions actually provide the opportunity for serious and close dialogue between people who need so urgently to understand each other.

After the 1988 “Who Is A Jew” crisis, I strongly recommended that all Federation missions be structured to provide opportunities for participants to meet with Israeli politicians and volunteer leaders. A plan was developed to provide briefing sessions to mission participants to orient them to the issues, questions, and content areas to be discussed with the Israelis they would be meeting. Implementing this “AIPAC approach” of having small group meetings with Israelis in the public and voluntary sector would have an impact on what Israelis understood about the North American Jewish community and the needs and interests of individual Jews and their families. Unfortunately, this approach was not adopted and continues to be ignored.

The GA is a perfect opportunity to divide the delegates up into small groups and have them meet with Israelis to discuss the issues that are important to their local communities and why they have made the effort to participate in a GA in Israel. These meetings could take place in the Israelis’ offices or homes or at community centers. Rather than being spoken to and at, the GA participants could have a very intimate exchange with Israelis that could lead to mutual respect and understanding, which have yet to be achieved in the relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities around the world. Without conversations among and between small groups of people, there is no way that we can become closer to each other. It is difficult to understand why the precursors to the JFNA failed to adopt a more personal approach to arrange conversations and dialogues and why the JFNA continues along the same path. It is as if the conference organizers are most concerned with arranging for the big name Israelis to address GA participants and for the big name Israelis to be able to say they spoke at the GA. It is time we moved beyond the big names and provided opportunities for learning about each other through real conversations.

The response to crisis situations, whether it is the “Women of the Wall” or “Who Is A Jew,” continues to reflect the lack of understanding on the Israeli side and the siege mentality that the North American Jewish community continues to implement when it disagrees with Israel on various issues and policies. We can gain a lot from the AIPAC approach of learning about the person you want to meet with and using your knowledge to create a real connection. Adopting that approach might mean a more meaningful, growth experience for all participants.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.