Federations and Israeli leaders converge on L.A.
The 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of United Jewish Communities, which begins Sunday and continues through Wednesday, will feature prime ministers, award-winning journalists and celebrated academics, among the nearly 4,000 Jewish leaders expected to attend.
But the event’s biggest star will be Israel, a country nearly 8,000 miles away.
This year’s theme is “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” which is meant to suggest the connectedness of Israelis and Diaspora Jews, as well as their shared concerns about Israel and the Jewish people. The most prominent Israeli officials are expected to appear, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni; Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog; Education Minister Uli Tamir; and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
The spotlight will also shine, to a lesser extent, on the local Jewish community and the city of Los Angeles, which is hosting the conference for the first time in 26 years.
An estimated 750 local volunteers have signed up to work the GA, and several prominent Jewish leaders, including West Coast Chabad head Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, talk show host Dennis Prager and Jewish World Watch co-founder Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, are slated to speak. To get a flavor of Jewish Los Angeles, tours are planned for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. The Federation will also co-host a concert of Jewish music at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Nov. 13.
“People are really pumped and excited about showing L.A. off as a world-class city and as a center of Jewish life,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who will join Schulweis and American Jewish World Service Executive Director Ruth Messinger in a session about the genocide in Darfur.
The conference will be staged at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown and is among the largest Jewish events in North America. In the aftermath of the summer’s conflicts, it will focus on all things Israel: the future of the Jewish state, its enemies, its relations with the Diaspora and the way that Israel is perceived on college campuses, among many other subjects.
Session topics include: “Israel on the North American Campus”; “What’s Next for Israel and the Palestinians?”; “Iran: What Are the Options?”; “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”; and “The Israel Economy: Investing in Israel Today.”
“There’s a greater need for the people of North America to connect with Israel and for the people of Israel to connect with North America,” said Michael Kotzin, the GA’s lead consultant for Israel programming and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Originally, the GA had been planned with a lighter theme, “Be With The Stars,” a reference both to the glitz and glam of Hollywood and to the Jewish big-wigs expected to attend the event. However, the war against Hezbollah and Hamas changed all that.
As a reflection of North American Jews’ concern about Israel, the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) Israel Emergency Campaign has raised nearly $350 million since its creation in July. Equally important, Kotzin said, the Middle East crisis has reminded American Jews of their deep concern for the Jewish state. For Israelis, the Diaspora’s heartfelt reaction to their suffering has made them more appreciative of their special relationship with American and other Jews, he added.
Kotzin anticipates that the GA will inspire North American federation leaders to increase the number of missions to the Jewish state and to support new programming there. Given American Jews’ response to Israel’s difficulties this summer, he said, communal executives might raise more money in future annual campaigns by spotlighting how communal charitable dollars support overseas programming in Israel.
GA participants will discuss issues other than Israel during the four-day conference, including Jewish education, Ethiopian Jewry, ways to reach young philanthropists and the challenges facing Jews in the former Soviet Union. Non-Israel sessions include: “Working to Save Darfur,” “The Jewish Advocacy Agenda in Canada,” “What to Do When the Bucks Stop,” and “Connect to a Career with Meaning, Connect to Federation.”
The UJC represents 155 federations and 400 independent communities across North America. All events, including the concert at Disney Hall, are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.
“All of us will return home with new approaches, tools and inspiration for engagement, leadership and community building,” UJC Chair Robert Goldberg said.
For more information, visit www.ujc.org.