NewsBits: The Evolving State of the North American Jewish Community

The Israeli press, who generally does not pay much attention to the doings in the American Jewish world, has been focused lately on The Jewish Federation of North America’s GA which opens later today. The Jerusalem Post recently had an extensive interview with the organizations’ new leaders. The following three stories are all from the weekend edition of Haaretz and relate to the current state of North American Jewry, and the increasing influence of the Russian-Jewish community – which itself will be the subject of several sessions over the next few days.

State of the Nation by Natasha Mozgovaya

America’s Jewish community is changing: Rabbi Julie Schonfeld became the first female executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, 23 years after the first woman was ordained in the movement, and LGBT Jewish faith communities have gained legitimacy. Changes will definitely be felt at the GA, too: Kathy Manning, chair of the UJC’s executive committee, is expected to be approved as chair of the UJC Board of Trustees – the first woman to take that role. This year the Israeli-Russian businessman, Leonid Nevzlin, will be co-chair of the GA. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington organized an event for GA delegates starring Elliott Yamin, an “American Idol” finalist.

This year, the biggest domestic concern for the community remains the economic crisis. UJC raises about $3 billion a year, and this year… “some campaigns are definitely behind pace; the average donation is down about 4.5 percent. But there are still some bright spots: It didn’t affect every federation, and some federations reacted with very creative programs to deal with crises, job training services, counseling, food programs, financial planning – things that are helping people deal with the down economy. And there is some good news: Endowments, or foundations overseen by the federation, are considered to be the fastest-growing sector of the philanthropic economy.”

The new partner by Anshel Pfeffer

Since the establishment of Israel, North American Jewish leadership has taken its position as Israel’s senior partner in the Diaspora for granted. Its community was the largest in the world, it gave the most money, and it enjoyed a unique position of influence in the corridors of Congress and in the White House. There were occasional challenges to its primacy. When Pierre Besnainou was president of the European Jewish Congress, he tried to chart an independent course from the American-dominated World Jewish Congress and even managed to oppose the opening in France of branches of powerful organizations such as AIPAC and ADL, but French Jewry was never going to have the clout to rival that of the Americans.

On paper, the communities of the former Soviet Union also lack either the numbers or the necessary organization to pose a threat to American dominancy of the Diaspora. But they do have singular advantages. While the number of Jews still living in Russia and its former satellite states is estimated at anywhere between one and two million, many of the two and a half million Jews who emigrated over the last two decades still retain close contacts with their homeland and in many cases identify more with other Russian-speakers than with co-religionists in their new countries. With major presences in Israel, the United States, Canada and Germany, they have become a global community. This has enabled them to a great extent to play the Jewish political game at a different level.

The Russians are coming – for real by Raphael Ahren

One panel planned for this year’s UJC General Assembly, in Washington, D.C., is titled “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming … Wait, They’re Here!” That begs the questions: Are they really? Where are they hiding? Russian Jews have changed the face of every society they immigrated to in significant numbers, like Israel and Germany. Yet they seem to be utterly absent from the higher echelons of the Jewish community in America.