Size Matters

Three thousand Jews from around the world will gather in Los Angeles this week for the 75th General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

So, in typical Jewish fashion, let me ask a question:

Why not 5,000?

Why not 10,000?

Why not 25,000?

Think about it. The GA is considered the preeminent event on the Jewish communal philanthropic calendar. The lay and staff leaders of federations across North America come together, along with representatives of major Jewish organizations and hundreds of community activists, and discuss the priorities of communal need, how best to raise and disburse the monies needed to meet them.

So why not an even bigger turnout?

After all, this time around, for the first time since 1982, the GA is in L.A.

Los Angeles has the second largest Jewish population in the United States, about as many Jews as in the whole of France. A few weeks ago, a fundraising techno-dance party for a hospital in northern Israel drew 2,000 Israelis to a club in Hollywood. Sinai Temple can get that many for a Friday Night Live service. About 30,000 Jews head out to Woodley Park on Israel Independence Day — atrocious parking, cold falafel and all.

So here you have a major event, with an unprecedented participation of the prime minister and foreign minister of Israel and several Cabinet members, and the expected turnout is, as they say here, in the low four figures.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With a little rethinking, the next GA could attract the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, that this one hasn’t.Two weeks ago, we reported a story about the buzz leading up to the GA. Our reporter, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, found that most people in Los Angeles hadn’t heard anything about it and that those who had assumed it had little to do with their lives.That, of course, is a problem the federation system has been grappling with for some time — how to change and still remain relevant in a fast-changing world.

But the problem cuts both ways. Jews who neglect the system of organized Jewish philanthropy are turning their backs on a network of charitable institutions that raises and distributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The UJC raised $334 million in 2005 and ranked 34th in the Philanthropy 400. Even in Hollywood, that’s almost real money: You could make two “Santa Clause 3s” for that and still have money leftover for something good.

The problem is that much of that money is coming from a smaller and smaller group of big donors. And programming follows the passions of those donors. The result is a GA that may ignite the passions of a relative handful of Jews on the inside but fails to spark the imaginations of thousands more on the outside.

Reaching those imaginations is key to bringing bodies through the door. Offhand, I can think of one way to do it: Launch very public programs that speak to the deepest concerns of even the least-affiliated Jews.

One of those concerns is our dependence on foreign oil. I’m not going to run through the facts here. Even our president has chastised us for our petroleum addiction. Anyone with a clear head can see that even as we drive our SUVs to our rallies for Israel, the gas we burn fills the coffers of Israel’s enemies. That’s not to mention the harm our oil addiction causes the environment and the absurdity of fighting a war on terror by buying oil from those who fund terrorists.

So suppose the North Americans and Israelis at this GA launch a very public effort — call it The Tel Aviv Project — to quickly develop alternative energy technologies to replace petroleum. The energy expert Amory Lovins once told me that few countries have the high-tech workforce and experience in lightweight metal and fiber technology that Israel has, thanks to its educational system and military industry. Imagine using that to develop a featherweight vehicle that can get 100 miles per gallon. Talk about exciting Jewish and non-Jewish minds.

The other concern is Darfur.

What if another very public resolution of the GA delegates and their Israeli counterparts was a joint call to action to end the genocide in Darfur, which has so far claimed 400,000 lives and created almost 1 million refugees? What a powerful message that would be to the world and to a younger generation of Jewish activists.

That resolution should include an action plan that calls for Israel to use all the leverage it can with China, Sudan’s largest patron.

A strong resolution on Darfur and an action plan on oil independence going out from the GA would send the message that the mission of Jews is not just to make more Jews, not just to beat back anti-Semitism, not even to save Israel from its enemies or from itself. Those are all projects we undertake in order to fulfill our real mission, our purpose as Jews.

That purpose is to improve the world.

If this GA wants to have a real impact beyond its meeting rooms, if it wants to shake loose monies and energies that have until now been unattainable, if it wants to resonate not just in Jerusalem and downtown Los Angeles but around the world, it will conclude with the strongest possible call for an end to oil dependency and an end to the genocide in Darfur, and it will also create action plans to make those statements a reality.

Do that, and you will not only make news, you’ll make Jews.