Religious pluralism a theme at General Assembly

It is a cause that elicited cheers from a roomful of participants at The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (G.A.).

Leading politicians have long championed it and are now trying to push it through a divided Knesset. Nearly two-thirds of Israelis support it, and activists say it’s crucial for ensuring Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Opponents say it could augur the downfall of Israel as we know it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance is hard to read.

It’s not peace with the Palestinians or a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program. It is the institution of civil marriage in Israel.

Under current law, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel controls marriage for Jews, which leaves Conservative, Reform, civil or same-sex marriages — not to mention interfaith marriages — unrecognized by the state.

Responding to growing calls for change, a bill proposed last month by the centrist Yesh Atid Party would institute civil unions with the same rights as the marriages now permitted by the Chief Rabbinate.

The Jewish Federations, which held its annual G.A. in Jerusalem this week, may soon be joining that fight. CEO Jerry Silverman said in an interview that the federations are “studying the issue” without a definite goal in mind.

But advocating for religious pluralism in Israel was a recurring theme at the assembly. Susie and Michael Gelman, the confab’s North American co-chairs, laid out that goal on opening night.

“We look forward to the day when Israel will realize the dream of being a Jewish, democratic and pluralist state,” they said.

A panel discussion moderated by Susie Gelman on Nov. 11 specifically addressed the issue of civil marriage, with five of six panelists advocating before an enthusiastic crowd.

“The panel charged those of us who attended to get involved and to raise our voices,” Susie Gelman said. “In terms of civil marriage, this is an issue that touches all of us. It is not just an Israeli issue.”

On Monday night, Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich said her party is planning to introduce its own civil marriage bill.

“We support civil marriage and gay rights, including same-sex marriage,” Yachimovich said. “We currently have a unique opportunity. Parties in the coalition and opposition are capable of joining forces to pass this law.”

Her speech followed calls by Finance Minister Yair Lapid to “equalize” the Jewish denominations.

“It’s very important to us that Israel would be pluralistic,” Lapid said.

Civil marriage would not be the first religious pluralism fray that the Jewish Federations has entered.

The umbrella group of American Jewish Federations was stridently opposed to the 2010 Rotem bill, which would have consolidated authority over conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. Silverman called it a “betrayal,” and Netanyahu suspended debate on the bill, which three years later has not come to a vote.

More recently, the Jewish Federations advocated for a plan formulated by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to expand Robinson’s Arch, a non-Orthodox prayer site immediately south of the Western Wall plaza.

The plan has received support, in principle, from Women of the Wall, the women’s prayer group whose monthly services at the wall brought global attention to the issue. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz also has given the plan his tacit approval.

Netanyahu endorsed the idea to raucous cheers in his Nov. 9 speech at the G.A.

“The Kotel is in Israel, but the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people,” the prime minister said, using the Hebrew term for the wall. “We have to consult together and reach a solution together.”

On Nov. 12, the G.A. ended with hundreds of delegates walking from Jerusalem City Hall to Robinson’s Arch, where they participated in an egalitarian prayer service. Speaking afterward, Sharansky praised the service as an example of Jewish unity, though he acknowledged that the current temporary platform erected there is only a first step to a solution.

“We’re not fighting to defeat the other,” Sharansky said. “We’re fighting to see how we can be one people with one God, one prayer and one Kotel.”

Regardless of whether the federations support it, Yesh Atid’s civil unions bill likely will fail in the Knesset. The Jewish Home Party is expected to block the measure — a prerogative it enjoys as a member of the governing coalition.

Yesh Atid ran for Knesset on a platform opposing Orthodox privileges in Israeli law. But while the party has won Jewish Home’s support in ending the Charedi Orthodox exemption to Israel’s mandatory military draft, Jewish Home opposes any change to the religious status quo.

A Jewish Home bill passed last month allows Israelis to register for marriage anywhere in the country, not just in their home districts — a move that eliminates one of the more onerous restrictions of the current marriage laws but leaves the Orthodox-controlled system intact.

But judging from the tenor of this year’s G.A., such changes won’t satisfy North American Jewry. While he emphasized that the Jewish Federations had not made a decision on whether to engage in the civil-marriage debate, Michael Gelman said he personally feels American Jews should be assertive in advocating for marriage reform in Israel.

“When it comes to things that affect worldwide Jewry, we need to get involved,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be a lot of noise coming out of North America on this issue.”

L.A. Federation at G.A. offers ideas for attracting young Jews

Leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles were in Jerusalem this week to take part in The Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly (G.A.). In all, the G.A. — which is held in Israel once every five years — attracted more than 3,000 participants from North America, Israel and Europe. 

While much of this year’s conference focused on challenges Israel is facing, Federation leaders and Israeli officials also spent a great deal of time discussing the recent Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jewry, which indicated that Jewish affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews is declining at an alarming rate. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the delegates his government is creating a “broad and deep initiative” to reach “the inner cores of identity of the Jewish people around the world” as a way to fight assimilation. 

This follows Netanyahu’s statement during a government summit on Diaspora issues last week that it is “particularly important to embrace this initiative and work together” and to “create a firm base of identity” for Jews outside Israel. Details on the plan have not yet been announced. 

During the G.A., leaders from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles helped lead sessions on Federation innovation and Jewish continuity. They told other community leaders about Nu Roots, a new program they are launching in Los Angeles  to engage 20- and 30-somethings in a proactive Jewish life. 

“For two decades” many American Jewish leaders “have ignored the trending revealed by Pew,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of the L.A. Federation, told the Jewish Journal. “Truth be told, the non-Orthodox community is dwindling at a rapid rate. Jews are proud to be Jewish but not necessarily to connect Jewishly. This is a wakeup call, an electric shock.” 

Richard Sandler, chairman of the L.A. Federation, said it is focused more than ever on providing young members of the community  “multiple entry points to their Jewish journey. It’s something we’ve developed following a lot of research. We’re looking at what others are doing to connect people to their Judaism and learning from the best models.”  

Sandler said G.A. participants spent a great deal of time discussing why many young Jews find Judaism irrelevant to their lives. 

“We really believe that one of our failings is that we don’t really educate our kids well as to what it means to be Jewish, to really teach them the value system and what has preserved us for thousands of years.” 

Far too many young people don’t grasp that being Jewish “is a life of meaning, a life of giving” long after a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, Sandler said.

He spoke of a sermon by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, that emphasized the importance of asking children why it is important to them to be Jewish. 

“It needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. That’s what we’re focusing on here,” Sandler said. 

Sanderson believes the American Jewish community has “created a Jewish community based on ‘episodic Judaism.’ There’s the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, Birthright, but they’re not linked to other events. The L.A. Jewish Federation believes we must change the model, to adapt to the findings of the Pew report. ” 

Many Jewish community leaders, Sandler said, are so preoccupied with their community’s immediate needs, from providing food to the poor to housing for the elderly, that they sometimes find it difficult to plan for the future. 

Les Bider, the Los Angeles Federation’s incoming chairman of the board, said the L.A. contingent shared its fundraising model with the leadership of other federations in hopes of inspiring change.  

“It was an opportunity for us to meet with people from different communities, to vet ideas about how we and they are changing.”

Many communities, Bider said, start with a fundraising budget and the activities that budget has funded in previous years as a way of determining what to fund in the coming year. “It’s funding first, then programming,” Bider noted. He said L.A.’s Federation does things differently.

“We define what the needs of our community are by engaging with the community and then raising funds to support those needs.” To do otherwise, Bider said, “means being less in touch with the community.” 

“Communicating our message from L.A. is starting to impact Jewish life in a positive way, and we’re pushing that agenda,” Sanderson said. 

While the G.A. focused first and foremost on strategy, it was also a chance for Israel-based organizations to meet some of the people who support their programs from abroad. 

At a booth in the Jerusalem Conference Center, where the G.A. was held, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, director of Kol HaOt, which provides interactive Jewish educational visual and performing arts programs in Israel, noted that the L.A. Valley Alliance Women’s Mission had participated in a Kol HaOt program just a few days earlier. 

“It was exciting and gratifying that they could finally see us in action. We’ve work with their missions, their Birthright groups and a Catholic educators mission, but to have those women who are so involved in the Federation was really very special,” Rabinowitz said.

Federation plan a blow to Jewish Agency for Israel

After a decades-long partnership that saw the Jewish Agency for Israel serve as the official, exclusive Zionist arm of North America’s Jewish community federations, the federation system is getting ready to date other partners.

But Jewish Agency officials say it feels more like the beginning of a divorce.

On Nov. 8, at the conclusion of its General Assembly in Denver, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) board was expected to approve a plan that will dramatically transform the historic commitment of the federations to fund the agency. 

JFNA maintains that the change is part of a grand strategy to re-establish the collective power of the federations at a time when collective action by Diaspora Jewry is harder and harder to muster. Under the new model, representatives of North America’s 157 federations on a so-called Global Planning Table will make spending decisions for overseas allocations, deciding together how the money they raise will be doled out to various organizations and programs.

For decades, the federations’ overseas allocations had gone automatically to the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in a 75-25 percent split. Under the new arrangement, the Jewish Agency and JDC still will get a share, but they will have to compete for it with other groups. They also will have less discretion than they do now about how to spend their allocations; the federations will be dictating more of the spending program to them.

“We will set the meta priorities,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA’s CEO. “The people who raise the money get to be part of the discussion of allocating the money.”

In recent years, federations increasingly have been opting out of the historic overseas funding arrangement, cutting funding to the Jewish Agency or giving directly to causes in Israel and elsewhere around the world. Backers of the plan hope that the new arrangement will keep federations doing things together by offering collective decision-making and more options for overseas spending.

“Our goal is to keep our federations a collective to continue to change Jewish history,” Silverman said. “We’re thinking about the community as a whole.”

From the perspective of the Jewish Agency, however, which gets approximately 50 percent of its $270 million annual budget from the federations and has no real fundraising apparatus of its own, the change is seen as the beginning of a shift that could deal a significant blow to the agency.

Some federation executives suggest that’s not such a bad thing.

“Have you ever heard an Israeli say, ‘Give more money to the Jewish Agency’?” asked Barry Shrage, president of the Boston federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “They’re stuck in bureaucracies. We’re on the ground working with our local Israeli partners directly. If the Jewish Agency had something compelling, we’d invest in them, too.”

Officials at the Jewish Agency, whose mission is to settle immigrants in Israel and promote Zionism around the world, declined to comment for this story except to express concern about jeopardizing the collective commitment of Diaspora Jewry to the Zionist enterprise.

“There is maybe a problem of divorce from the collective, and you can’t guarantee the future of the Jewish people without a collective,” Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, said. “There is a danger people will choose to opt out of the collective, and then to restore it will be impossible.”

Federation officials say the reality is that’s already happening; federations like the one in Boston already are doing overseas allocations on their own. The Global Planning Table represents an effort to revive collective action, they say. By empowering the federations to make spending decisions without the encumbrances of exclusive partnerships with the JDC and the Jewish Agency, JFNA officials say they believe overseas giving ultimately will rise.

“It’s really about engaging more Jews, creating a new, dynamic venue to elevate the profile of and get new support for global Jewish needs,” said Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for JFNA.

For its part, the JDC welcomes the change. Unlike the Jewish Agency, whose governing board is controlled in large part by the federations, the JDC has an independent board, a robust fundraising apparatus and a strong reputation in the federation world. The JDC, which has a $300 million annual budget, has not been happy with its 25 percent share of the federation system’s overseas dollars, and JDC officials think they can do better with the open field that the Global Planning Table represents.

“Competition isn’t evil; it’s healthy,” said Steven Schwager, CEO of the JDC. “The JDC doesn’t mind competing for designated dollars. The JDC delivers high-quality, important programs that benefit the Jewish people. I believe that when I get to make that case, we will at least maintain, if not increase, the level of funding.”

A few separate factors are converging to drive this major change in the federations’ philanthropy.

One is the economic downturn, which has hurt federation campaigns and overseas giving.

Another is dismay with operations at the Jewish Agency. In recent years, the agency has reshuffled its priorities away from immigration to Israel, which it still handles, and toward Zionist education in the Diaspora. Some critics question why the federations should send money to Israel just so the Jewish Agency can use it to ship Zionist emissaries back to Diaspora Jewish communities.

Jewish Agency officials counter that they have not abandoned aliyah at all and are merely more focused on making Israel central to the vast majority of Diaspora Jews who do not plan on making aliyah.

Another factor is the growing influence of foundations in the Jewish philanthropic landscape. Birthright Israel, the big Jewish idea of the last decade, came from the foundation world, not from the federations. Under the new Global Planning Table, there could be closer collaborations between federation and philanthropic foundations, and by absolving itself of its exclusive commitments to the Jewish Agency and the JDC, the federation system will have more discretion to funnel money to the right ideas.

“It’s an opportunity for us to partner with foundations in ways we haven’t previously,” said Joanne Moore, senior vice president of global planning at JFNA.

“Any effort to try to make individual federations more empowered and more engaged to follow needs is good in principle,” said Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “Whether the Global Planning Table does that or not I don’t know.”

The process by which the Global Planning Table will go about making allocation decisions involves new commissions and committees — lots of them.

First, committees composed of representatives of the federations, the Jewish Agency, the JDC and others will discuss priorities for the federation system. Then the Global Planning Table’s executive steering committee, which will include federations but not the Jewish Agency or JDC, will decide on those priorities.

Commissions then will research how best to achieve those priorities, including consultations with outside experts, and goals for overseas spending will be set by the executive steering committee. Once that committee makes its allocations recommendations, JFNA’s board of trustees will make the final determinations about allocations; the JDC and Jewish Agency will not have a vote.

It remains to be seen whether this process will result in smarter allocations and collective action, or whether the Global Planning Table’s giving will reflect the personal and institutional relationships and predilections of federation leaders.

“It will be those who sit closest to the trough who eat first,” said one opponent of the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity.

What is almost certain is that the Global Planning Table will add a layer of complexity, work and deliberation to federations’ overseas giving. Moore acknowledges the process probably will require the hiring of new staff to help manage it. But ultimately, according to JFNA, it will be worth it.

“Imagine a world where the greatest challenges and most exciting opportunities to strengthen and build the Jewish people are discussed, studied, and understood,” says a white paper by the organization outlining the Global Planning Table. “The mission of the GPT is to inspire the Jewish Federations’ collective global work and drive collective solutions to important issues within the global Jewish community.”