Israel returns to G.A. spotlight as community priority

NEW YORK — In the early 1990s, Israel, after decades as a rallying point, lost its star-player status at the annual gathering of American Jewish communal leaders.

With the Jewish state seemingly well on the path to peace and economic prosperity, and American Jews overwhelmed by high rates of intermarriage and assimilation, the General Assembly — reflecting communal and federation priorities in general — focused more on the domestic agenda.

Now, with violence engulfing the Jewish state, the peace process moribund amid feelings of isolation, Israel has been shifted back to the center of the gathering, known as the G.A.

Sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella system of local federations across North America, the G.A. is this year expected to draw some 4,000 communal leaders to the five-day event in Chicago, which begins Nov. 10.

The packed program, which had already included an address by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, will now include a solidarity rally. In addition, sessions are being recast to brief leaders on Middle East history and politics and strategize community action on behalf of Israel.

But does the renewed focus on Israel portend a larger, more lasting, shift in American Jews' attitudes toward Israel?

And will the "renaissance" agenda — with its day schools, summer camps and synagogue renewal efforts all responding to the assimilation of American Jews — move to the back burner?

And, ultimately, will this mean a rethinking of allocations to Israel, which have decreased significantly in recent years as communities opted to spend more resources on Jewish-identity building and social-service needs at home? So far, everyone agrees that with the situation in Israel changing daily, it is too early to know how the American Jewish community will respond over the long term. For now, most involved in the system say that the Jewish community must focus both on Israel and renaissance. But there is no doubt, they say, that Israel solidarity rallies and missions are consuming the immediate attention. Barry Shrage, president of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said that at Israel solidarity rallies in his community, he told the crowds: "I would much rather be having this rally for Jewish education and raising money" for adult education courses and social justice programs, but "Jewish history doesn't work like that." "Right now we've got to focus attention on increasing the community's support for Israel," said Shrage, one of the first communal officials to replace the term "Jewish continuity" with "Jewish renaissance." But, he added, "we've got enough resources and intelligence to do both things." John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, said that despite the conflict in Israel, "the renaissance agenda is here to stay." "If at this particular moment we need to have more attention on the extraordinary crisis that we face, so be it, but living as a Jew in the open society is an abiding challenge and opportunity for 21st century Jews," he said. Even the most ardent champions of day schools and synagogue transformation efforts are troubled by what is happening in Israel and say they cannot conduct business as usual while Israel is in crisis. Many point to Birthright Israel — a free 10-day trip to Israel aimed at strengthening young people's Jewish identities and one of the most popular new efforts — to show that building Jewish identity and supporting Israel are not mutually exclusive. "An important part of the Jewish renaissance agenda is building and maintaining a sense of Jewish peoplehood," said Jonathan Woocher, head of the UJC's Renaissance and Renewal Pillar. The pillar is one of four agenda-setting committees created a year ago. Even programs that do not have a direct Israel connection, help to build "the kind of deep personal Jewish identification that we know from every study correlates with closer identification with Israel," said Woocher, who also serves as executive director of the Jewish Education Service of North America. In fact, while other programs have been cut or altered to make room for the Israel agenda at the G.A., the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar's programming remains largely intact, said UJC officials. The pillar will host a forum on "fostering Jewish journeys" and will also sponsor 11 workshops on such topics as outreach to families, youth and "Generation J" — 20- and 30-something Jews — as well as the shortage of personnel in Jewish education. It is unclear, however, whether programs on Israel, slated for the same time slots, will diminish turnout for these sessions. Woocher said he does not expect low turnout, then added, "but if it's because people are at other important sessions, that's fine, too." Cindy Chazan, a former federation executive who will be attending the G.A., said the changes are necessary. If the UJC had planned a G.A. "that was business as usual, we would have felt a void, it would have been confusing." Chazan, now director of alumni and community development for the Wexner Foundation, which helps train young Jewish professionals, said she doesn't see this as a shift in priorities, but as a straightforward approach that says "here's a crisis, we need to come together." Louise Stoll, the UJC's chief operating officer and one of the key people planning the G.A., said that despite the focus on Israel, other matters will be addressed. "There are federations to be run, hungry people to be fed, Jewish schools to be staffed and a whole host of things that must continue," Stoll said. Asked whether renaissance efforts might be relegated to the back burner as concern for Israel grows, Stoll said, "I don't think so. We know these are existential issues as well." If the peace process resumes, she said, "you won't have noticed much departure from what's been going on in the past five to six years — assimilation and Jewish learning will definitely be the preoccupying elements." But if the conflict is protracted, she added, it "will have implications on allocations" split between local and overseas needs. For now, instead of sending over additional dollars to Israel, American Jewish leaders are organizing solidarity rallies and missions and are training activists to defend Israel in the media and to lawmakers. But money could become an issue if Israel faces an all-out war. Some believe the renaissance goal of strengthening American Jewish identity may not suffer even if more attention and perhaps money flow to Israel. "When you mobilize a generation of Jewish students on campuses today to defend Israel, that's Jewish renaissance," Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said, noting that "a lot of middle-aged people came to greater Jewish awareness" through the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "We don't want to have war and intifada and violence," he added. "But the reality is this is an opportunity for young Jews to get involved on issues related to Israel that can affect their self-definition and feelings of responsibility to Jews around the world."

For more JTA stories, go to