The GA: Missing Out

Council of Jewish Federations President Dr. Conrad L. Giles(left) and GA Co-Chair Joel Tauber, both of Detroit, greeted PrimeMinister Netanyahu at Indianapolis Airport. Photo by Robert A.Cumins

If a Jew yells in Indiana, will a Jew in Los Angeles pay attention?

For six days in mid-November, 4,400 mostly bright, all intenselycommitted Jews gathered in Indianapolis to wrestle with the toughissues of contemporary Jewish life. And, if you’re like the bulk ofLos Angeles Jewry, you probably couldn’t care less.

The General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, thelargest and most important annual gathering of Jewish lay andprofessional leaders, took place at Indianapolis’ Convention Centerfrom Nov. 14 to 19. The GA attracted lay leaders, volunteers andstaffers from 160 Jewish federations from six nations, not to mentionmayors, a governor, Israeli Cabinet members, Israel’s prime ministerand, for the first time in the GA’s 66-year history, the president ofthe United States.

What the GA didn’t attract was a lot of attention from Angelenos.The Los Angeles contingent at the six-day marathon of seminars,speeches, banquets, receptions and cultural events numbered about 21,of whom only a handful hung around longer than a day or two. The Jewsof St. Louis sent a larger delegation.

According to GA veterans, Los Angeles never makes a huge splashnationally, a fact that concerns some Angelenos. “We are a big partof the national Jewish population,” said Earl Greinetz, a formerpresident of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance who toughed outthe entire GA. “But we have very little say in what goes onnationally. We’re sort of a little bit on the outside.”

But this year’s mere shpritz was understandable. Those who wouldordinarily attend had just returned from a 50th-anniversary missionto Israel, and Jewish Federation Council leaders had to be home towelcome Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his West Coast visit.

But what does the second-largest Jewish community in North America”miss out” on by ducking the GA’s sturm und drang? More to thepoint, what do you miss “out on?”

That’s a tough question, since the GA itself is a drawn-outvariety show, a hybrid of Zionist youth rally (though youth is notespecially abundant there), academic seminar, shareholder’s meetingand Tupperware convention. Spend a week there, as Encino residentsSally and Paul Golub have been doing for the past 17 years, and youwill be firmly in touch with the mainstream of American Jewry.

Out of the 193 pages of seminars, panels and plenaries offered inthe program book, out of the reams of printed matter distributed toeach attendee, and out of the millions of words whispered andhollered in convention hallways, a few trends and insights intoJewish life, circa 1997, emerged:

* Organized Jewry hasn’t given up on “Jewish unity.” That phrasewas repeated ad infinitum by speaker after speaker. The only wordsthat received as much of a workout were “Hoosier Hospitality.” Ofcourse, the latter is indeed a fact. (Indianians are so consideratethat the lead metro story in the Indianapolis daily was about thecapture of an unarmed bank robber who stole money from bank tellerssimply by asking for it.) Jewish unity may turn out to be morefantasy, or as CLAL’s president, Rabbi Irwin J. Kula, put it, “Jewishunity usually equals ‘do it my way.'”

For all the talk of Jewish unity, the Orthodox make up arelatively small percentage of conference participants. And anunsavory air of anti-Orthodox bias infected some of the proceedings.At one point, Orthodox Israeli journalist David Landau and anaudience member pleaded for others not to judge them by the yarmulkesthey wore.

Expect at least more rhetoric and at most some efforts invested ininterdenominational dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

* If an election were held today, Labor Party leader Ehud Barakwould win, hands down, over Netanyahu — if American Jews werevoting. Barak fairly wowed the crowd with his plenary address,attended by virtually all delegates. (In contrast, when Netanyahu wasopposition leader at the 1995 GA in Denver, only a meager audienceturned out.) Barak reportedly worked for days on his speech anddelivered it with genuine humor and passion. The prime minister, incontrast, read his remarks off the page and refused to commit, asBarak did, to facing down Israel’s religious parties on the questionof conversion.

* Jewish day-school education matters more and more. Sessionsabout making Jewish day and religious schools excellent andaffordable were packed. The representatives of multimillionairephilanthropists — and sometimes, in the case of Chicago businessmanGeorge Hanus — prowled hallways and podiums to press theirindependent crusades for more investment in Jewish education.

* Judaism’s a religion too. Squeezed in among all the talk ofpolitics and money were an increasing number of spiritually orientedprograms. Rabbis David Aaron and Abraham Twerski attracted anenthusiastic crowd for their lectures on Kabbalah and spiritualhealing, and CLAL’s Kula brought the plenary audience of some 3,000to its feet with a Chassidic niggun and blessing.

Many of the younger participants said that these more spirituallyoriented sessions were a highlight for them. Perhaps mainstreamJewish programming, as well as next year’s GA, to be held inJerusalem, will incorporate even more spirituality.

* When President Clinton spoke on live satellite feed to thedelegates, there was no talk of Jewish fractiousness, Reformobstinateness or Orthodox hegemony. For one glorious, quiet, peaceful20 minutes, all the Jews in Indianapolis were united — as Americans.