UJC assembly has higher stakes in wake of war

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los angeles | The annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is generally viewed as something of a pep rally for the lay and professional leaders on the ground in the federation system. But this year’s GA, which started Sunday, Nov. 12 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, was a higher-stakes affair.

In the midst of an Israel Emergency Campaign that has to date raised roughly $348 million to help rebuild Israel after this summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon — and coming off a couple of General Assemblies that by many accounts fell flat — the UJC saw this one as an important momentum builder.

The organization revamped its program only 10 weeks before the gathering, from one that would have focused on highlighting major federation contributors and professionals to one that was primarily Israel-centric.

This year brought six Israeli Parliament members and seven Cabinet ministers — including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — and participants such as French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria.

The star power was also on hand with appearances by the likes of Hollywood actors Mare Winningham, Jeff Goldblum, and Jon Voight and Jewish musical favorites Debbie Friedman and Mike Burstyn.

But the conference’s real purpose was to pump up leaders for another year of raising both Jewish consciousness and philanthropic dollars. The networking over dinner and in organizational receptions, and the casual contacts made on the perennially snaking line to the Starbucks in the Convention Center lobby, were just as key to strengthening the Jewish network as the official program.

A highlight was the sold-out show on Monday, Nov. 13 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a Yiddish theater revue and selections from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

The closing ceremony address was given by Olmert on Tuesday, Nov. 13. Though Olmert slipped in that Israel would be willing to sit down with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at any time without any prerequisite, he spent much of his time thanking UJC and its leaders for their help in rebuilding Israel’s North.

“Our lives are interconnected,” Olmert said. “Our fates are intertwined. Israel and the Jewish diaspora is one. Your success is our success. We may be separated by an ocean, but our hearts beat together always.”

His sentiments may have quieted some of the waves made Monday by Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who told a Jerusalem Post reporter that “One day the penny will drop for American Jews and they will realize they have no future as Jews in the U.S. due to assimilation and intermarriage.”

Bielski later explained that the comment was intended to highlight the importance of aliyah.

Netanyahu used one plenary to lay out what he calls Iran’s single bomb theory — taking care of its “Jewish problem” by attacking Israel with nuclear weapons — as the first stage in a broader nuclear attack on the Western world.

“This is 1938, Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to get atomic weapons,” he repeated several times as a mantra during his speech.

Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, told reporters that the Israeli people are frustrated because many assumed an Israeli military attack on Hezbollah would produce the return of the soldiers captured by Hezbollah that sparked the conflict. But, she said, “there are some things a military action cannot achieve, and it was clear from the first days that this military operation could not bring back our boys.”

And there were some very public meetings of unlikely minds, such as a plenary at which Rabbi Norman Cohen, the provost of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion; Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, the president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University, discussed how to engage young people.

It was the first time that these Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders have appeared together, a reflection, perhaps, of the changing of the guard at the seminaries. Joel, the former director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is three years into his job at Yeshiva University, and Eisen, chairman of the religious studies department at Stanford University, is the newly elected chancellor of JTS and will begin there in July. Both appointments have been hailed as indicators that the institutions are moving in new directions.

The three leaders share the aim of trying to create seminaries more in touch with the outside world or, as Eisen said, “The sociological understanding of the realities of American Jewish life.” They all are seeking to educate Jews of all ages about Jewish life and Israel and, most importantly, exploring how to create meaningful experiences that will engage the younger generation.

“There’s no doubt that the young people today will not be just like us,” Eisen said. “There’s a lot that’s not working, a lot that’s not worth joining and there’s a lot that’s not directed at them.

“We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now.”

Most in attendance, such as Avi Naiman, the chairman of the Israel and overseas committee for the UJA federation of Northern New Jersey, felt that the UJC’s shift to a more Israel-centric program was important. “To focus on something aside from Israel would have been inappropriate,” he said.

But Naiman felt that while the General Assembly was informative, it did not provide as much as it should have in terms of tools and workshops that showcased successful models for federations to take back to their own communities. “Now we have to figure out what the next step is that is going to happen,” he said.

Making the GA less of a “one-way affair” is something that UJC “will have to work on,” he added.

The GA is traditionally a place where Jews from all walks of the federation and Jewish communal system have come together — from those such as Scott-Martin Kosofsky who came to to meet with those involved in the production of his upcoming book, a reproduction of the 1940 Arthur Szyk Haggadah, that will sell for between $6,000 and $25,000 per copy, to those such as student Alex Friedman, campus Hillel chapter president at Washington University in St. Louis.