The Federations’ GA: Through Israeli Eyes

Election and storm-weary attendees of the General Assembly find relaxation at The Jewish Agency/Masa exhibition booth; photo by David Karp, courtesy The Jewish Agency.

by David Breakstone

How many Jews does it take to change the world? At last count, somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000.

That’s more or less the number of participants taking part in this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the annual premier communal event of Diaspora Jewry which opened this week in Baltimore with a plenary dedicated to no less ambitious a theme than “Changing the World.” Keynote speaker and GA scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, enthusiastically embraced the daunting challenge, referring to “tikkun olam as no less a religious practice than prayer.”

The same sentiment was expressed by Jacqueline Levine, a veteran leader of the Jewish Federation of MetroWest, New Jersey. She animated those assembled with her inspiring reminiscence of half a century of social activism, which included marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965.

She recalled Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarking at the time that “when I marched in Selma [Alabama] my feet were praying.” The message, according to Jacobs, is that this “hunger for righteousness” is still very much present among the younger generation and can serve as a means of engaging them in Jewish life. He called upon all the streams of Judaism to seek new ways to involve their congregants in such efforts.

“It is the broadest door through which to invite Jews to participate in Jewish life,” he asserted.

“Our world is badly fractured and in need of repair,” he concluded, challenging the audience with a declaration and a question: “God is counting on us. What are we waiting for?” Listening to other speakers at the session, one could easily surmise that the answer is “nothing.” In addition to Levine’s long litany of a “life lived in pursuit of peace, justice, equality and freedom,” the outgoing chairwoman of the JFNA board, spoke personally and emotionally of her pride in being part of a collective effort through which “we don’t just do good work, we change lives.”

Speaking of JFNA’s impact on Jews of the former Soviet Union, Ethiopian immigrants and the children of Israel’s periphery, she said she has learned from her tenure that “while one can’t predict where there will be Jews facing trouble at any given moment, one can be assured that wherever it might be, the Federation system will be there to provide assistance.”

The chairwoman went on to argue that because of our ability to act together, “what we do matters, to the Jewish people and to the world.” A case in point is the response of JFNA in general, and of the UJANew York Federation in particular, to the ongoing havoc wreaked by superstorm Sandy two weeks ago.

The personal stories of loss and devastation that I have heard from the storm’s victims since arriving in the States several days ago reveal a saga of suffering and destruction far worse than that suggested even by the sensational headlines appearing in the Israeli press. And Jerry Levin, president of UJA-NY Federation, spoke with a mixture of sorrow and pride in describing the efforts of his organization, in concert with its partners around the country, in meeting the immediate needs of so many who so abruptly found themselves “drowning, starving and freezing to death.”

Without any bureaucratic delay, no less than $10,000,000 was all at once allocated to “rescuing, feeding, and clothing those in need of assistance, no questions asked.”

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA would have expected nothing less.

“The challenge of Hurricane Sandy has galvanized the North American community coming together for the General Assembly as a collective who takes responsibility for those in need around the world, and at home, in a continuing testament to the Jewish Federations,” he observed. It should be noted that the complex of JFNA offices, located in lower Manhattan, was closed in its entirety for more than a week after Sandy hit, meaning that he and his staff had to complete the preparation for this mega-event without access to their files, computers, lists and papers.

Lest these opening speeches be dismissed as the self-congratulatory rhetoric of interested parties, let the record show that the JFNA network of 155 Jewish Federations and 400 associated communities continues to collectively raise more than $1 billion annually for social welfare, social services and the educational needs of the community, advancing and enhancing the well-being of Jews at home and abroad.

I do not work for JFNA. I have no particular interest in advocating on its behalf.

And I know that there are legitimate concerns to be raised about its efficacy, sustainability and priorities – as there surely are in regard to any organization.

But as an outsider looking in, as an Israeli naturally skeptical about the vitality of Diaspora Jewish life, and as vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization who would like to see many more North American Jews joining their fate to ours inside the Jewish state, I nevertheless cannot help but be impressed by the degree of commitment to Jewish continuity expressed by the organization’s leadership and constituency, who have convened “to think together about the best new ways to overcome the challenges facing today’s Jewish community.”

Whether or not these 3,000 Jews whom JFNA brings together each year will indeed change the world, I will leave to others to ponder. I will attest only to the commitment that is there.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. He last shared his GA reflections with our readers during the 2010 New Orleans program. Published courtesy of the author.