Q&A with Federation head Jay Sanderson

At the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly (GA), held this year in National Harbor, Md., Nov. 9-11, thousands of Jewish professional and lay leaders filled a conference center and hotel to listen to famous and powerful Jews, including two Supreme Court justices and the Israeli prime minister (via telecast), sit through breakout sessions and, most important, network with one another and share ideas that have been tested at Jewish Federations across the country.

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO Jay Sanderson came here this year with seven staff members and 17 lay leaders; for him, this year’s GA caps a year in which the L.A. Federation’s leadership predicts it will reach its fundraising goal of $50 million and its outreach goal of 20,000 donors by Jan. 1.

In two interviews with the Journal during the GA, Sanderson spoke with his usual candor about what the GA does and doesn’t offer, about the L.A. Federation’s successes and shortfalls in 2014, and his frustration at the inability of Israeli Americans in Los Angeles and the local Federation to create a partnership that will help further integrate Israeli Americans into the local Jewish community.

Jewish Journal: What do you see as the goal of the GA?

Jay Sanderson: This is the one time that the Federation system can tell its story to national and international lay and professional leaders.

JJ: What’s the story?

JS: There’s no organization in the world like the Federation system. There just isn’t. There hasn’t been. You’re talking about billions and billions of dollars. You’re talking about the establishment of the State of Israel, the rescuing of Soviet Jews, of Ethiopian Jews. That’s done through the Federation collective.

JJ: Is Federation losing relevance as Jews become increasingly disengaged from Jewish communal life?

JS: There are more Jews involved in Federation in L.A. today than there were 10 years ago. OK? That’s factually correct, not anecdotal — based on number of donors and number of people in leadership, and meaningful leadership. Those are things you can measure, and we have a dramatic, and growing, increase in engagement and involvement. 

Now that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of Jews are not — in your generation for sure — are not disengaged; they are disengaged from institutional life, not Federation life. They are disengaged from synagogues, they are disengaged from the Anti-Defamation League and [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] — they are disengaged. We have a majority of Jews disengaged in institutional organizational Jewish life. That is a communal challenge, that’s the Pew [Research Center] report. 

I can say in Los Angeles that we are focused on addressing that. I’d say most organizations say it, but we have strategies to do it. So the GA is — right now you’re going to meet mostly the people who drank the Kool-Aid, some of the people who make the Kool-Aid, some of the people who bathe in the Kool-Aid. You’re not going to see a lot of people here who think there’s too much sugar in Kool-Aid.

JJ: Changing topics: 2014 is almost done. What’s a goal L.A. Federation has accomplished that you’re proud of, and what’s an area where you came up short?

JS: One accomplishment was we wanted to make the Federation a better place to work. We’ve started all these programs for people to feel more engaged, and we’ve given a lot of people opportunities to do other things. So there’s been a lot of people that work at the Federation that are moving into new opportunities within the building. 

JJ: Where have you come up short in 2014?

JS: NuRoots, our initiative for young adults, is behind — timing-wise — where it should be. I thought we’d be further along in NuRoots. We launched the fellows program, we had four engagement fellows working in the community, building micro-communities in four geographic locations, and we are moving in other directions. But I think we are six to nine months [behind] where I thought we would be now. It’s gone slower than I had hoped in terms of development of the project. 

I wish we were further along in our relationship with the Israeli-American community in Los Angeles. We’ve had a lot of fits and starts trying to work with the [Israeli-American Council], and they are growing nationally and they are very successful, but I feel like there’s not the kind of partnership with the Jewish community that I was hoping for when I started this job. I think some of it is cultural challenges between the two institutions, and I don’t think it’s a big enough priority.

JJ: For either side?

JS: Maybe for either side. I think it needs to be a bigger priority for both sides.

U.S. Supreme Court justices talk about Jewish topics at G.A. opening

U.S. Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan talked about their Jewish identities at the opening plenary of the 2014 General Assembly conference of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Speaking before a crowd of more than 2,000 at the conference center just outside Washington, Breyer said the most remarkable thing about there being three Jews among the nine Supreme Court justices is how unremarkable it is in America today.

Kagan, the other justice on the panel discussion moderated by NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, said that her Jewish identity was the one thing that didn’t come up during her confirmation process.

“The one thing nobody ever said, the one thing I never heard was, ‘We don’t need a third Jewish justice,’ or ‘There’s a problem with that,’ ” she said. “So that’s a wonderful thing. My grandmother would have said ‘Only in America.’ ”

Kagan also talked about her bat mitzvah, crediting Rabbi Shlomo Riskin – then of the Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (and now rabbi in Efrat, West Bank), with enabling the ceremony even though that sort of thing was not done in Orthodox synagogues back when Kagan was a kid.

The bat mitzvah wasn’t exactly identical to her brother’s, Kagan said – it was called a bat Torah, took place on Friday night rather than Saturday and had her chanting the haftarah portion rather than the Torah portion – but it was meaningful and groundbreaking nonetheless.

“We reached a kind of deal: It wasn’t a full bar mitzvah, but it was something,” she said. “Rabbi Riskin was very gracious, and I think it was good for the synagogue.”

Breyer said that when he thinks about what it means to be Jewish in the court, he thinks about the Jewish tradition of tzedakah.

“It’s not quite charity,” he said, “and it’s not quite rule of law either, but it’s part of trying to create a better world.”

Breyer said the great divisions of the world today are between those who believe in the rule of law and those who don’t.

“And that is a battle, and we’re on the right side of that,” he said.

The theme of this year’s General Assembly is “The world is our backyard,” and speakers will include Vice President Joe Biden and, via satellite, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This year’s G.A. will remind us of why federation is relevant and critical,” G.A. co-chair Howard Friedman said.

At G.A., Peres and Netanyahu strike different tones on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his hard line against Iran’s nuclear program in an address to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, repeatedly telling the gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that the compromise being formulated is a “bad deal.”

“What is being proposed now is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” to build a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu said Sunday. “Not one centrifuge is dismantled; not one. Iran gets to keep tons of low enriched uranium.”

Netanyahu’s comments came as negotiations between Iran and Western powers failed over the weekend to reach an agreement that would ease sanctions in return for the Islamic Republic freezing its nuclear program for six months.

Netanyahu said he would continue to criticize such an agreement and called on his audience to join him in advocating against it. Later he suggested that Iran has plans to attack the United States.

The prime minister’s sharp comments underscored what some perceive as a widening gulf between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue — speculation that Israeli President Shimon Peres sought to downplay in his address to a plenary session at the G.A. on Monday.

“The United States is our best friend, and the friendship of the United States to us is deep and meaningful,” Peres said. “[Obama] committed himself not to permit the Iranians to become a nuclear power, not just for the sake of Israel but for the sake of humanity.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who also addressed the Monday plenary, took a similar line, emphasizing that the alliance between the two countries is “as close as it has ever been.”

“There is no greater priority for the United States and Israel than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Shapiro said. “On this issue the United States and Israel share an identical objective. [Obama] will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period.”

In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his demand that in order for Israel to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also called for a continued strong bond between Israel and the North American Jewish community.

“When it comes to Jewish survival and the survival of the Jewish state, I will not be silenced, ever,” he said to loud cheers from the crowd. “We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves and speaking up. All of us, all of us, have to stand up and speak up.”

Netanyahu also said that Israel must have “robust security arrangements” in order to be confident that a peace with the Palestinians will last, and referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital.” The Palestinians claim the eastern half of the city as their capital and have slammed recent Israel announcements of building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, as have the United States and others.

“The minimum thing we can demand is that the official position of the Palestinian leadership recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “This will be a long process but it must begin with that.”

At the end of the speech, Netanyahu praised the strong relationship between Israel and the U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities. He noted his government’s efforts to reach a compromise between feuding factions at the Western Wall, long a high priority of American Jewish leaders.

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

Netanyahu appeared relaxed during the speech, cracking jokes, leaning on the podium and calling out audience members by name. And conference delegates speaking before Netanyahu echoed his speech’s main points, especially on Iran.

Speaking at a reception for the Ruderman Family Foundation before Netanyahu’s speech, former Netanyahu adviser Dore Gold called for the Jewish people “to unite on this issue of Iran.”

And introducing the prime minister, Jewish Federations Chairman Michael Siegal said the international community must oppose the Iranian nuclear program.

“A nuclear Iran is an unacceptable position,” he said. “It is unacceptable to Israel, it is unacceptable to the U.S., it is unacceptable to the world.”

On Sunday morning, at the start of the Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu called the deal on the table between the world powers and Iran “bad and dangerous.”

“It is dangerous not just for us, it is also dangerous for them [the world powers],” he said.

Thinking big about littlest Jews

When Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), addresses the umbrella organization’s upcoming General Assembly (GA) in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, he may very well be thinking about a constituency not likely to be present at the Jerusalem International Convention Center: America’s Jewish 5-year-olds. 

It was those kids — and their parents — that Siegal and JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman were targeting when they proposed offering free Jewish preschool to American Jewish kids as a way to combat the trend of assimilation and disaffiliation identified in the recent Pew Center study of American Jews. The proposal was published in an op-ed that appeared in The Forward and the Huffington Post on Oct. 24.

“Children laugh without the inhibition that they’re going to be judged. We have to bring that joyfulness back,” Siegal said in an interview with the Journal on Oct. 31. “And clearly, a 5-year-old can influence their parents.”

Siegal, 60, says becoming a grandfather made him favor this idea, but the chairman and CEO of Cleveland-based Olympic Steel — which was a family-owned business before he built it into a publicly traded company valued today at about $290 million — pushed any sentimentality aside, estimating such a giveaway could cost roughly $400 million per year. 

It’s a staggering sum — JFNA as a whole spent a total of $317 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012 — and the idea is still in its earliest phases of gestation. But in light of the Pew study’s findings, Siegal said, bold actions are required. 

“If we can’t get the money to do all of this, what part of this can we do?” Siegal asked. “Because we want to make an impact that changes the narrative 70 years from now.”

That Siegal and JFNA are addressing the Pew study results at the GA at all is itself a change — as of early October, Silverman said that the Pew study wouldn’t be on the agenda. 

But just weeks before the three-day gathering, which will begin with a plenary featuring a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, JFNA assembled a panel about the Pew research that includes executives from Federations across the country — including Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The topic seems likely to take up some of the other sessions at the GA as well. The more than 2,500 Jewish leaders from across the continent who are expected to attend — including about 20 from Los Angeles — will also witness a conversation between public opinion pollster Mark Mellman and five members of the “millennial generation,” which the Pew study found to be the least engaged of all adult Jews in the United States. 

Siegal and Silverman also mooted an increase in support for Jewish camp and proposed designating certain American cities as “Jewish empowerment zones,” where innovative pilot projects could be tested. They also urged Birthright to share its database of contact information for its more than 350,000 past participants.

Whether their proposals will drive discussion in Jerusalem remains to be seen. 

 “We threw these ideas out there for the debate,” Siegal said, “and that’s what we want to do at the GA.” 

A number of other controversial topics are up for debate at the GA — including the contentious argument over the future of the Western Wall. The GA will host the first public conversation between Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, which has been holding female-led prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site for 25 years, and Ronit Peskin, who directs a new group, Women for the Wall, that opposes any changes to the current restrictions. 

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, who has been working to come up with a resolution that might appease — if not please — all parties, will also appear on the panel, along with MK Aliza Lavie, a member of the Knesset committee focused on the status of women. 

On Nov. 12, GA participants will walk to the Western Wall, where they’ll be invited to pray — as they wish, where they wish — or not. 

“Our walk is to state that Israel is a dream, and Israel is a reality,” Siegal said. “The fact that we’ve got leadership in Israel trying to connect the dream to the reality and trying to come up with solutions … we want to support the government.” 

The GA takes place in Jerusalem every few years, and this year’s gathering will focus on Israeli issues and on connections between Jews in the Diaspora to the Jewish state. 

But Siegal clearly sees his task as strengthening the Jewish American communities represented by JFNA. As such, at the end of his ranging conversation with the Journal, he returned to the themes — and concerns — raised by the Pew study.

“America is intoxicating, America is a drug,” Siegal said, seeming to simultaneously emphasize the positive and negative aspects embodied in his metaphor. “Minorities disappear and become Americans and are replaced by other minorities. 

“The reality is,” he continued, “Jews don’t have a lot of people to replace themselves with. We have to stand tall by ourselves and say that our responsibility is to the great-grandchildren that none of us will ever meet, for them to have the same vibrancy that we have today, if not better. And we’re heading down some paths that give us some pause.”

As federations await new funding model, no big buzz at GA

A year since its creation, the grandly named Global Planning Table (GPT) remains the great white hope of the Jewish Federations of North America, which held its annual General Assembly in Baltimore this week.

Introduced a year ago, the GPT aims to reshape the way federations spend money outside their local communities by making decisions on collective spending more transparent and communal. Federation officials hope this will stem the decline in overseas spending and bring more clout — and money — to federations’ collective action. (For news on Los Angeles’ delegation to the GA, see story on page 16.)

“Some say the federation system is an old model that won’t survive” because donors are more independent, Kathy Manning, the outgoing JFNA board chair, said at the GA’s opening plenary on Nov. 11. “I believe the secret of the Jewish community’s success is our ability to act together.”

A year on, the GPT is still in its embryonic stages. No money has been doled out under GPT guidelines, and over the summer, the professional director of the project resigned. The Jewish Federations subsequently announced that implementation of the GPT, which will end the traditional arrangement by which federation overseas dollars automatically went to the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee along a 75/25 percent split, will be delayed by a year.

“This is slower than I would like it to be, but I understand we have to get a lot of buy-in,” said Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “I’m still optimistic we can get the right thing done, but something has to happen in 2013. There needs to be some tachles,” he said, using the Yiddish term for substance.

The central challenge of the Jewish federations, which together raise nearly $3 billion per year, has not changed in recent years. These clearinghouses of Jewish charity must figure out how to keep the community committed to a system of collective action in an era when American Jewry is increasingly fragmented, less institutionally affiliated and more restrictive than ever when it comes to philanthropic spending.

Most of the time, that’s a tough sell.

But then a crisis like Hurricane Sandy comes along, and the need for a system that can harness the collective power of the community suddenly becomes readily apparent. In the space of just a few hours on the Sunday after the storm hit, the executive board of the UJA-Federation of New York made $10 million immediately available to Jewish institutions and people affected by the largest storm in memory to strike the northeastern United States.

“Responding to people in suffering is what we do,” Jerry Levin, chairman of the board of UJA-Federation of New York, said at the GA. “This is the federation system.”

Absent a crisis, however, mustering collective action faces two major obstacles: decision-making and motivation. How can 156 federations, each with its own agenda and priorities, come to agreement on spending decisions? And how can they motivate donors to give in support of those decisions?

Federations hope the GPT is the answer.

“The Global Planning Table could be terrific if they decided what the things are that we can do to bend the future,” Barry Shrage, president of the Boston federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, told JTA. “The federations are still the richest, most powerful force in American Jewish life. We can change the world if we know what we want to do.”

So far, the discussion, research, consultation and committees connected to the GPT have resulted in the identification of four spending priorities: strengthening Israel; developing leadership and community; caring for vulnerable populations; and building Jewish identity and connections. The federations hope they’ll be able to launch one to two new initiatives next year that support those priorities.

“The potential still remains that the GPT will be able to gather enough momentum,” said Alan Hoffman, director-general of the Jewish Agency. “It’s all about the power of ideas to engage the hearts and minds of donors. This is about the future of the federation movement.”

While the GPT dominated insider buzz at last year’s GA held in Denver, this year’s assembly seemed to lack a comparable big issue. And while attendance at other major Jewish gatherings has continued to climb year after year — AIPAC’s annual conference now draws a crowd of more than 10,000, and 6,000 showed up to last year’s Reform biennial, which also featured President Obama — the GA seems stuck at about 3,000. It wasn’t even the largest Jewish gathering of the week in the United States. That distinction went to the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which drew more than 4,000 supporters and Chabad outreach emissaries to New York.

For many, the confab is not so much a pep rally as an opportunity for networking. Representatives of American Jewish and Israeli organizations hoping for federation support come to pitch their programs and meet federation leaders. Federation executives come to meet with their colleagues. More than 300 college students and 100 high schoolers were brought to this year’s conference.

Stephen Hoffman, a former president of the federation umbrella organization and now president of the Cleveland Jewish federation, said the GA is “not a place to convert the unwashed — people who aren’t involved in federation.” Rather, he said, “It’s a place to reinforce the values and motivation of people who are engaged in the leadership ranks.”

But Sanderson says GAs need to be attractive to more than just core professionals and lay leaders.

“We need a lot more home runs,” he said. “This is a walk at best.”

General Assembly: Three Jews in Baltimore

If you’ve ever been to one of those giant auto shows where hundreds of gleaming new car models are lavishly displayed in a convention hall the size of Montana, you’ve got an idea of what it felt like last Sunday morning when I entered the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (commonly known as the “GA”), which is being held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The scores of booths laid out in giant rows are what the organizers call The GA Marketplace, a modern-day shuk of Jewish causes where advocates seduce you with free chocolate or other goodies so that you’ll hear about some new village they’re building in Africa, or some new Web site that will “revolutionize” Jewish education, or some new movement that will attract the “new generation.”

Not all causes in the shuk are revolutionary. Many booths promote venerable institutions like the “Joint” (JDC) or Hillel, various marketing vendors or even book publishers (yes, they still have those). But regardless of the causes, the larger-than-life quality of the assembly gives the enterprise a certain grandeur and headiness.

You feel this headiness when you attend the GA’s many conferences, which are spread out over three days and attract top speakers from the Jewish world.

You can tell from their titles that the conferences deal only with the big stuff: “Words of Hate, Words of Hope: When External Events Shape Jewish Identity,” “Can the Jewish World Leverage Israeli Expertise in the Developing World,” “Legacy Versus Innovation: A False Dichotomy” and “Connecting the Dots in the Global Jewish Network,” among many others. 

While I certainly enjoyed the conferences, I have to say that what stuck with me the most — besides the fact that I collected a briefcase full of business cards and brochures — was my Sunday encounter in the shuk with three Jews.

These are not the kind of Jews I might bump into in my Pico-Robertson neighborhood. 

One was a Karaite Jew, the other a Humanistic Jew and the third a leader of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.

I had heard of Karaite Jews, but I had never met one. So, when I saw a Karaite banner over one of the booths, I didn’t need any chocolate to draw me in. The lady behind the booth seemed amused by all my questions. 

“We’re Jews, just like you,” she kept saying.

Well, yes and no. Karaite Jews are a lot more rebellious than I am.

As it says in one of their brochures, “Karaism accepts the Jewish Bible as the word of God and as the sole religious authority,” while rejecting “human additions to the Torah such as the Rabbinic Oral Law.”

In other words, Karaite Jews reject what is generally considered the most important interpretive text of Judaism: the Talmud. That’s one reason, for example, why they allow cheeseburgers and don’t light Shabbat candles.

They believe that theirs is “the original form of Judaism commanded by God” and that “every Jew has the obligation to study the Torah and decide for him/herself the correct interpretation of God’s commandments.” 

After my encounter with Jews who reject our talmudic Sages, I discovered Jews who reject God Himself: Humanistic Jews. (Seriously, how much can a tolerant Jew from Pico-Robertson take?)

Actually, Humanistic Jews do have a sort of deity: His name is Darwin. They don’t go for all that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” biblical stuff. They’re the Big Bang Jews, and their big bang is peoplehood.

Language is important to them. Humanistic Jews don’t “pray” in “synagogues.” They celebrate in their congregations. And what they celebrate is the story of the Jewish people and the continuation of that story and culture. They just leave God out of the picture.

By the time I met the leader of a Jewish LGBT rights group, I think I was relieved to meet a Jew who rejected neither God nor the Talmud.

Idit Klein is the executive director of Keshet, a group “working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.”

She didn’t flinch when I told her I wasn’t raised to be very accepting of things like a man becoming a woman, or vice versa, but she did say, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

We spent a good hour in one of the more honest and difficult conversations I’ve had in a while. This is a very delicate area, especially for a Jew raised in the Orthodox tradition, but her sensitivity and decency in the way she expressed herself (“full acceptance strengthens the core of a community”) is what moved me.

The truth is, it’s only when I meet Jews who are very different than I am — whether religiously, politically or culturally — that my love of “Big Tent Judaism” is really tested.

To pass this test, I have to be at my best — my most curious, my most open and my most honest. How ironic that encountering sharply different Jews can bring out the best in me.

Maybe it’s because it puts me in touch with one of the deepest things we can have in common: simple human decency.

It’s not the Talmud, it’s not God, and it’s not the big stuff you hear in conferences about the Jewish future, but it’s something.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Attracting the younger generation at General Assembly

A dozen officials from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles flew to Baltimore this week to attend the annual conference of the national body representing 155 federations, where they discussed many of the urgent challenges confronting American and Canadian Jewry.

But Gary and Ellen Bialis, who reside in Santa Barbara, came privately and with a more personal agenda: to shep nachas from their daughter.

That is because their daughter, Laura Bialis, took center stage before 3,000 people Monday afternoon to moderate a plenary session in which Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky and Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel reflected on the landmark Washington rally for Soviet Jewry, held 25 years ago.

A documentary filmmaker who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Bialis was tapped by Sharansky to chair the session because she had made a 2007 documentary, “Refusenik,” about the struggle he and many other Soviet Jews endured in pressing for religious freedom at home and for the right to immigrate to Israel.

The session was an important one for the conference to host, because the 1987 rally “needs to be remembered,” Bialis, who was raised in Los Angeles and attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, told the Jewish Journal. 

Many attendees at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), she said, don’t know or have forgotten about the Soviet Jewry movement. “This was yesterday’s news,” Bialis remarked.

Her comments echoed a common refrain about a more contemporary challenge expressed during the three-day conference: how federations and other organizations can draw young Jews into active participation in communal life. (For a related story about the conference’s focus on seeking new directions in funding, see page 26.)

The matter is a key item on the agenda. Esther Kustanowitz, who runs the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Los Angeles  Federation, spoke at five sessions dealing with issues ranging from the role of Jewish media in shaping community to NextGen engagement strategies. One of the recurring themes was the use of social media to amplify today's organizational messages and more meaningfully engage young Jews who otherwise might remain outside communal and organizational life.

The stakes are high both for local federations and for JFNA in meeting the needs of Jews in the 21st century. Federations annually raise approximately $1 billion, which are disbursed to such communal institutions as synagogues, day schools, hospitals, Jewish community centers and senior citizen residences; and for such services as vocational training, counseling, food banks and Jewish programming on college campuses.

Left unstated, at least explicitly, was that failure to “engage” — the favored verb for this context — the young generation in Jewish affairs means to risk the future viability of the entire philanthropy mechanism and the charitable works and Jewish life that it has enabled over several generations.

“With all the distractions, inputs and noise in modern society, we are today all Jews by choice,” William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy, said in an interview. “It is incumbent upon the organized Jewish community to provide as many on-ramps as possible for Jewish engagement. Jewish federations are focused on involving and empowering our next generation of young leaders as a key to ensuring a vibrant Jewish future.”

Richard Sandler, chair of the L.A. Federation, said that he is “always interested in how the federation is trying to engage the younger generation. I regard this as being as important as anything we do to help young people find their entrance into American Jewish life.”

Sandler, who attended one of Kustanowitz’s presentations Monday, believes social media might be a valuable tool in the effort to reverse the alarming slippage in population and affiliation among North American Jewry.

To a casual observer of this week’s proceedings, a demographic-generational gap was evident between the federations’ volunteer leaders and professionals, and the 300 college and high school students in attendance. But the divide may be narrowing, based on the plethora of conference sessions dealing with applying social media to reach young Jews precisely where they are most comfortable.

In a session held Monday morning, for example, the approximately 100 participants were divided into several groups, each of whose members discussed the methods they were employing to capitalize on social media.

In the group Kustanowitz led, members — who work primarily in the media-outreach departments of local federations and other Jewish organizations — shared best practices for recruiting young people in fundraising campaigns. Other groups dealt with such campaigns as publishing a Jewish cookbook completely through online discussions and encouraging people to buy Israeli products.

The session, titled “Social Explosion: An Interactive Lab Experiment,” had “never been done before” at a General Assembly, said Shana Sisk, JFNA’s online marketing specialist.

As the group discussions began, Sisk lowered expectations, stating that she did not expect earthshaking conclusions to emerge from a 90-minute session.

At that, a male voice called out, “In 90 minutes, you can change the world!” Sisk, smiling, said she concurred.

Not all young participants had social media on their minds, though. Two L.A. residents in their mid-20s, Rachel Barton and Becca Ross, came for the more traditional draws of conferences: listening to speakers and networking in the corridors. Both women attend Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

To Barton, who went to last year’s assembly in Denver, attending the many sessions here on Israel and international Jewry helped to crystallize issues that sometimes appear amorphous.

In Los Angeles, “we participate in campaigns for overseas giving, but to know what the impact is is a great opportunity,” she explained. “It’s one of my greatest interests. I skimmed through the program, looking for [sessions] related to Israel.”

Ross said that she was motivated to enter Jewish communal work, in part, from her job several years ago at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, where she witnessed the manner in which its executive director and board members returned to Oregon re-energized from the General Assemblies.

“I can only learn so much in textbooks,” said Ross, who was attending her first General Assembly. “But to meet people who run programs and hear how they get their ideas is very exciting.”

As to the federation establishment’s seeming quandary over how to navigate the generational divide, Barton said a misperception exists.

The assumption “is that when you see a young person texting or on Facebook, that [means] they’re disconnecting from the world,” she said. Instead, she continued, “they are connected. There is a search for community. It’s just happening in a different sphere than it used to.”

While acknowledging the reality of Generation Y’s “not being as connected to their Jewish heritage,” Barton said, “the argument that social media has created a generation that is not interested in connecting to the world is false.”

Jewish organizations, she said, deserve credit for understanding the power of social media and for harnessing it to reach young people.

“But it’s a learning curve, and it will take a while for the pieces to come together,” she said. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Wasserman-Schultz to JFNA: defend Obama’s record

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the Democratic Party leader, urged Jewish leaders to push back against what she said were distortions of President Obama’s Israel record.

Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, defended Obama to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place this year in Denver, calling attacks on his Israel record “deliberate distortions.”

She urged those attending to “spread the word” about his increases in defense assistance to the Jewish state, and noted the recent coordination with Israel countering the Palestinian push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

“Israel should never be used as a political football,” she said.

Republican and conservative critics of Obama have emphasized diplomatic tensions between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu cancels GA appearance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled plans to address the Jewish federations’ annual General Assembly.

“The Prime Minister hoped to go to the GA, but unfortunately he will have to be in Israel during that week,” the Jewish Federations of North America said in a statement Monday, less than to weeks before this year’s GA launches in Denver.  “The Prime Minister and his staff made considerable efforts to adjust his scheduling to allow for a visit to the GA, but in the end, this turned out to be impossible.”

Sources said Netanyahu pulled out because the GA conflicted with planned commemorations of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Obama, Netanyahu to meet at U.N. in New York

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive Wednesday in New York for the General Assembly meeting. He told his Cabinet Sunday that he will meet with Obama, as well as other world leaders, upon his arrival.

White House National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes confirmed the scheduled meeting to reporters over the weekend. Obama is not scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to the White House.

Netanyahu and Abbas are both scheduled to address the General Assembly on Sept. 23, after which Abbas said he will submit a bid for full membership for the state of Palestine in the U.N. Security Council.

“The U.N. is not a place where Israel wins praise, but I think that it is important that I go there in order to represent both the State of Israel and the truth—and the truth is that Israel wants peace and the truth is that the Palestinians are doing everything to torpedo direct peace negotiations,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

Netanyahu reiterated that the only way for Israel and the Palestinians to achieve a peace agreement is through direct negotiations. He said that Abbas a year ago had declared a year ago that the Palestinians’ goal was to be accepted as a U.N. member and its attempt “will fail.”

“It will fail because it must go through the U.N. Security Council. Decisions that are binding on U.N. members pass through the Security Council,” the Israeli leader said. “I am convinced that the activity of the U.S., which is deeply cooperating with us, as well as the activity of other governments with which we are also cooperating will result in the failure of this attempt.”

Netanyahu at GA: Iran must face ‘credible military threat’

Iran must face a “credible military threat” because sanctions have not deterred its nuclear weapons program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu, speaking Monday in New Orleans at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, said Israel “appreciated” President Obama’s leadership in enhancing sanctions over the summer. However, he said, “we have yet to see any sign that the tyrants of Iran” have rolled back a suspected effort to obtain a nuclear device.

The Israeli leader said containment against Iran would not work.

“It will not work with a brazen and erratic regime that accuses the United States of bombing its own cities, that calls for the annihilation of Israel,” he said, referring to recent statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggesting that the United States faked the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to bolster support for Israel. “When faced with such a regime, the only responsible policy is to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons in the first place.”

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States preferred for now to maintain diplomatic and economic pressures on Iran.

“We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran,” Gates told media on Monday in Australia, where he is on an official visit.

Netanyahu also called attacks against the legitimacy of Israel one of the greatest threats to the Jewish people, pointing as an example to protesters from the Jewish Voice for Peace inside the auditorium who interrupted him several times during his speech. Audience members cheered as the protesters were forced from the room.

The prime minister said the authors of the Goldstone report on the Gaza war owed Israel an apology for condemning the army, saying that it caused a high percentage of civilian deaths, in the wake of Hamas admitting that 700 of its militants died in the conflict—meaning that more than half of the Palestinian war casualties were enemy combatants.

Federation’s GA offering big name but reaching out to young

The Jewish federation system is set to kick off its annual General Assembly in New Orleans with an eye toward figuring out how to reach those not typically associated with Jewish federations.

As always, the annual gathering for the network of 157 Jewish federations and 400 affiliated fund-raising outposts, which raises about $3 billion per year, will feature dozens of sessions dedicated to helping federations better tell their stories and raise money. This year’s lineup includes a heavy dose of workshops focused on dealing with the recession, balancing domestic and international needs, and new modalities of partnerships and fund-raising vehicles.

The conference also will feature such headline-grabbing speakers as Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel’s largest opposition party, Kadima.

But the Jewish Federations of North America, which organizes the GA, also is pitching this year’s conference as one dedicated to outreach to younger generations.

Approximately 600 college students affiliated with Hillel from 96 campuses have received subsidies to attend the conference, and much of GA programming is designed to resonate with the younger attendees, including sessions on social media and volunteerism, a Jewish Federations spokesman said.

The organizations also worked with the Jewish blog Jewlicious.com to invite a number of bloggers to cover the GA in a project it is calling Bloggers Alley.

“The outreach to younger people is part of a broader look to the future and where do we go from here,” Jewish Federations spokesman Joe Berkofsky said.

The federation network raises just under $1 billion per year for global and domestic Jewish needs through its annual campaign and another $2 billion for endowments and special campaigns.

More than 3,000 federation officials and volunteers are expected in New Orleans for the Nov. 7-9 meeting, which kicks off Friday with a charity golf tournament. Netanyahu’s speech is expected to be among the GA highlights.

“The entire Jewish Federation movement is thrilled to have Prime Minister Netanyahu joining us,” said Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “The prime minister will be joining an array of inspiring world leaders who will help make this a powerful and memorable GA.”

The GA was scheduled to be held in Orlando, Fla., but Jewish Federations officials abruptly switched to New Orleans earlier this year after realizing, they said, that Orlando did not have sufficient space for the gathering.

One major benefit of the change in venue is that it will allow federations to showcase the work of their network with the $28 million it raised for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In addition, organizers have structured the conference around a day of community service in New Orleans, marking the first time a GA has included a mass volunteer project.

The project represents something of uncharted territory for the federations in that they are working with several non-federation organizations, including Repair the World, Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, American Jewish World Service and Jewish Funds for Justice, to provide service opportunities for up to 1,500 GA attendees.

“It is part of a broader initiative to focus on Jewish service and to engage younger Jews and more people in ‘tikkun olam’ [repair of the world] and Jewish philanthropy,” Berkofsky told JTA. “It lets them get involved in a form of Jewish philanthropy, a pathway and experience into Jewish life. For some people, Jewish service is their means of Jewish expression.”

Lion of Judah, the division of the federation system dedicated to encouraging women to make gifts of $5,000 or more in their own names, will hold its conference Nov. 8-10 in conjunction with the GA. Some 1,100 women are expected. That conference also will feature a community-service project, as organizers raised $20,000 before the conference to buy 5,000 books that they will distribute to 1,000 poor children in New Orleans.

Unlike the GA, the biennial Lion of Judah conference is a fund-raising event. When the International Lion of Judah Conference took place in Jerusalem in 2008, the recession was just starting and the women raised $18 million. This year they hope to beat that number, Jewish Federations officials said.

Conventional Wisdom

Whenever I find myself among large groups of Jews, I have to ask myself this question: How much of the Kool-Aid should I drink?

Thousands of people gathereddowntown earlier this week for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, and I spent much time taking in the speeches, flitting from panel to panel, doing my share to contribute to the clamor of buzz in the Los Angeles Convention Center’s cavernous hallways.

I had sworn off GAs a few years back. After the umpteenth presentation on Inspiring the Next Generation or Strengthening the Israel-Diaspora Bond, I got the idea. Same crisis, different year. At least in “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray kept waking up to Andie MacDowell.

But this year really was different. This GA was held in Los Angeles for the first time since 1982. That meant I didn’t have to leave my city — home to the world’s fourth-largest population of Jews at the pinnacle of cultural, economic and political success — to hear about how desperate the Jewish condition is.

Also, a cabinet full of Israeli ministers and politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, joined the agenda. Never before in L.A. history, and perhaps never in the Israel’s history, have so many senior government officials gathered outside Israel.

The ostensible reason was to reaffirm the bond that had helped sustain Israel through last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The war brought Israel and the Diaspora closer. Support and money poured in to the Jewish state; differences and politics were put aside. This GA, with the vast majority of programming related to Israel, built on that energy.

“It was like going back to the good old days — last summer,” one attendee remarked very dryly.

Beginning with Livni’s speech at Sunday’s opening plenary, each Israeli representative offered a heartfelt “thank you” for American Jewry’s efforts in Israel’s hour of need.

At the same time, they each laid out a fairly dire and uniform picture of the predicament Israel finds itself in. The Israeli government was on message: The mullahs of Iran pose a mortal threat to the State of Israel — and Israel, America and the world must act now to stop them.

In a Monday evening address, far from presenting an opposing view, opposition leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu hammered the message home: “It is 1938; Iran is Germany, and it’s about to get nuclear weapons.”

The words resounded through the massive hall, Netanyahu’s face appearing two stories high on four staggered movie screens. It was as powerful a piece of oratory as you’re likely to experience, and it was hard not to be swept up in it. It was hard to think.

“Bibi just invited us all to dinner,” one activist whispered in my ear after the applause died down. “And he’s serving red meat.”

That’s the problem I have at these events. The closer and more successfully they adhere to a message, the more completely they squeeze out competing ideas.I don’t fault the GA organizers. Their prime audience is the army of fundraisers who must go out and ask for money on behalf of Israel and Jewish causes. So the GA is part pep rally and part Amway convention — getting the troops pumped up, giving them the tools they need to solicit. But it is also part seminar, providing expert education on the issues of the Jewish people. And when so many politicians attend, it is also, well, political. Out of this often-awkward hybrid, dissenting views, ideas outside the bubble, can get short shrift.There’s a reason they call it “conventional wisdom.”

And there is, given our perilous times, as much a need for questions as consensus. For instance: Are the current Israeli leaders even capable of leading their country through these crises?

This is a government that has lost the confidence of the Israeli people, is rife with scandal and hampered by a record of incompetence and irresponsibility in Lebanon. The prime minister’s approval rating is around 12 percent. Hezbollah, by some estimates, will have more and better rockets in a matter of several months. The Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the conflict are still in enemy hands, though their release was part of the terms of the cease-fire.

Just before the GA, I asked Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevy why so many high-ranking officials were coming to the GA.

“They want to hear the applause in Los Angeles,” he said, “that they can’t hear at home.”

As for Iran, before the inevitable and necessary showdown, have we absorbed the lessons of the now clearly noninevitable showdown with Iraq? If the Israeli military failed in large part to destroy Hezbollah within its bunkers, will it have more success with Iranian targets?

We’d all be wise to take a breath after Bibi’s stem-winder and read this month’s Commentary magazine, which at least presents two sides of the debate on the best course of action against the ayatollahs.

To the GA organizers’ credit, one plenary reached outside the usual suspects and brought in the French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy and Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria. Theirs was a tour de force of a different sort: a thoughtful discussion of the threat of Islamic radicalism from two different, if not necessarily clashing, perspectives.

Both agreed that Iran and worldwide Islamic fundamentalism posed grave challenges to Western democracies. But, said Zakaria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about wiping out Israel should not be seen as much more than talk.

“Nothing Iran has done,” said Zakaria, “suggests that he would risk annihilation.” Nuclear weapons for Iran are, Zakaria said, a kind of insurance policy. “It is not an irrational trend motivated by an end of days Mahdi theology.”

Levy came to a different and darker conclusion. He said Iran would indeed use nuclear weapons to attack Israel or Western targets.

“We are in front of a strange character whom I’m not sure we can judge,” he said. For him, as for Netanyahu, the parallel to Nazi Germany was instructive.”You can be at the summit of civilization and have completely irrational attachments,” he said.

This dialogue was thorough and open-minded, a model of what future GAs should aspire to.

It was, in short, anything but conventional.

GA taps into passion, will, power of the people

Perhaps it was the civilian, Karnit Goldwasser, who said it most clearly: “There are so many powerful and important people gathered together here. Together, we must raise up our voices.”

Goldwasser’s specific intent was to urge the thousands of Jewish leaders and a cadre of Israeli ministers present at the United Jewish Communities 75th annual General Assembly to keep up the pressure to rescue her husband, Ehud, who was kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists in July along with two other Israeli soldiers.

But in a larger sense, tapping into the power of the collective passion, will and resources of the Jewish establishment was at the heart of this year’s GA, which had as its highlight an address Tuesday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The event concluded on Wednesday after four days at the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center.

The GA brings together federation leaders and representatives of just about every Jewish organization in North America and Israel for a combination trade show, policy conference and marathon pep rally. Officials said the event attracted 5,000 participants and volunteers — protected by a hypervigilant private security battalion and a phalanx of LAPD officers — making this the largest GA since the 2003 gathering in Jerusalem.

GA officials would not say how much the event cost, but The Los Angeles Federation estimated it expended about $200,000 in staff time and hard costs, money that leaders have been saving since they began planning the L.A. GA 13 years ago.

The mood was dark at many of the plenaries, which focused on the threats to Israel, the international fear of Islamic fundamentalism and the specter of a nuclear Iran.

Speakers from the prime minister on down, at numerous sessions and speeches, hammered home the point that Israel’s first and foremost security threat was a nuclear-armed Iran ruled by a president who has declared his intention to “wipe Israel off the map.”

“We in the intelligence community are willing to pay billions of dollars to learn what our enemies are thinking,” Israel’s Intelligence Minister Avi Dikter told an audience at a Tuesday panel with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. “The president of Iran is putting it on the table free of charge.”

The GA’s theme, “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” emphasized Israel’s security, politics and relationship with the Diaspora. Yet in addition to the spotlight on Israel, more than 150 organizational exhibitors and 60 sessions cut a wide swath through Jewish life, highlighting issues such as reaching out to family caregivers, raising young philanthropists and innovations in Jewish education.

Speaking at the opening plenary, Goldwasser’s anguished but unfathomably poised plea to Israel and the international community to keep attention on the abducted soldiers brought choked-up delegates in the enormous exhibition hall to their feet. It was a moment of emotion that speaks to why a GA is important: Being in a room with so many people who are so moved by the same thing ignites a passion and energy that reminds people that Jews belong to each other.

“It’s a remarkable ingathering of all of these people, where we have an opportunity to share ideas and talk and teach each other,” said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure there are too many moments of this magnitude where you can get a sense of Jewish peoplehood the way you do here.”

This year brought an unprecedented six Israeli Knesset members and six Cabinet ministers — including Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — and dignitaries 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 Mare Winningham, Jeff Goldblum and Jon Voight and Jewish musical favorites Debbie Friedman and Mike Burstyn. But what the conference was for was pumping 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 Monday night show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a Yiddish theater revue and selections from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

Before the war with Hezbollah this summer, the theme of the GA was “Be With the Stars,” a Hollywood-esque way of highlighting the community’s major players and programs, as well as looking to the future stars — the next generation of leaders.

But the upbeat star theme gave way to the more earnest “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” focusing on Israel and international Jewry’s responsibility for and relationship with Israel.

“The program really touched on topics and issues that were on people’s minds. We focused on what people are thinking about, and we had overflow crowds,” said Glenn Rosenkrantz, director of media affairs at UJC.

The organization, which last year raised $3 billion among all the federations, has raised $350 million for Israel since the war this summer (which probably explains the presence of the 12 Israeli politicians).

Many participants interviewed said they were glad to have the chance to more deeply understand what feels like an existential crisis.

John Fishel, president of The Los Angeles Federation, said he understood and supported the decision to focus on Israel but regretted some of the compromises that had to be made.

“I guess I would have preferred more of a balance in terms of some of the domestic issues,” said Fishel, the conference’s host and go-to guy for all sorts of situations. “The Federation’s mandate is not only Israel or overseas projects, it is about local and domestic issues, whether that be public policy, service delivery or discussions about Jewish identity and innovations in Jewish education,” he said.

It also meant that sessions that had been scheduled to feature local Jewish organizations ended up being pushed aside.

Teens, college students make their presence known

“Welcome to Los Angeles.”

“Welcome to the GA.”

Erika Levy and Alie Kussin-Shoptaw, seniors at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, easily spotted in their bright orange volunteer vests, stood by the escalators at the Los Angeles Convention Center, greeting arriving United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA) attendees and directing them to meeting rooms, halls and hospitality suites.

“We have to be like Abraham and reach out and greet everyone, even if it’s a little uncomfortable for us,” said Kussin-Shoptaw.

The girls, both 17, were part of a cadre of teen volunteers brought together by Sulam, the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). The group included 15 students from New Community Jewish High School, 20 from Shalhevet High School, 11 from the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and 20 from United Synagogue Youth.

The students, already committed to the Jewish community, learned about the mitzvah of greeting, instructed by Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate executive director, and Dan Gold, director of Sulam, before being dispatched for a three-hour volunteer shift. Afterward, they were free to attend sessions, visit the marketplace or hang out in the teen volunteer lounge.

“These kids think it’s so cool to be part of this,” Gold said.

For those students from the JSU, an organization that provides ways for Jewish teens in public high schools to become more Jewishly involved, the GA was an extension of a leadership weekend held on Friday and Saturday.

“This is a great opportunity to learn for ourselves, as well as help others,” said Mike Ghalchi, 17, a senior at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and president of the school’s JSU chapter. He added it was particularly valuable, because “going to public school, we’re not exposed to religion every day.”

For 20 members of United Synagogue Youth (USY) from Los Angeles-area chapters, the GA was also the culmination of a long regional leadership weekend at Camp Ramah.

These young people, many of whom had stayed up till 4 a.m., traveled from Ojai on Sunday morning in time for the opening plenary session, where, among other speakers, they heard speeches by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as well as Karnit Goldwasser, wife of captured soldier Ehud Goldwasser.

“This supports everything they’re doing in USY,” said Merrill Alpert, director of youth activities for USY’s Pacific Southwest Region. “These kids are our future Jewish leaders.”

While Sulam targeted those who will ideally work in the Jewish community, Do the Write Thing hosted a group of 30 college students and recent graduates who will possibly be reporting on the Jewish community.

“We introduce them to the concept that Jewish journalism is a profession,” said Leni Reiss, former managing editor of the Phoenix Jewish News and American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) liaison for 16 of the program’s 17 years. “Here they get a sense of the living, breathing, organized Jewish world.”

Through this program, which is cosponsored by The Jewish Agency, the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization and AJPA, students attended workshops, including one on “Covering Israel in the American Jewish Press.”

Additionally this year, for first time, they were given assignments, asked to fan out into different sessions each day and bring back quotations for the GA Daily, distributed to attendees. They are also expected to write an article about the GA for their school or community paper.

For Ayli Meyer, 21, a University of Judaism student from Houston, the GA is an opportunity to gain some real-life experience. She serves as editor of the school newspaper, the Casiano Chronicle, but, she said, “there are not enough journalism classes at school.”

Another participant, Erin Kelley, 23, a Reno resident who attends Truckee Meadows Community College, is hoping to make aliyah in a year.

“I want to combine my knowledge of Israel and my writing skills,” she said.
Elon Shore, the Hagshama Mid-Atlantic regional director, believes that having Israel as a central theme helps these young people connect with the Jewish community. He referred to studies demonstrating that an Israel experience is effective at connecting young adults to Judaism.

Students also respond very well to social concerns, according to Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president for communications, citing a Hillel report.

This year, new to the GA, Hillel sponsored Just for a Day, a day of social action where 300 Jewish students from universities across the United States and Canada, who had come for entire GA conference, joined together on Sunday with another 700 college students, mostly from Southern California.

Just for a Day encompassed projects sponsored by six different organizations. These ranged from Project Angel Food, where students delivered hot meals to home-bound patients with AIDS, to Jewish World Watch, where, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, students learned about advocating for Darfur. At all locations, students were joined by local celebrities, including “West Wing” actor Josh Malina and comedian David Brenner.

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, located downtown, more than 100 students helped unpack cartons of donated canned and packaged foods and sorted them for Thanksgiving distribution.

“I think a lot of people look at college students as lazy,” said Nicole Landa, a USC junior. “As you can see here, students really do care.”

From the University of Arizona in Tucson, 60 students piled into vans after the school’s homecoming Saturday night and drove nine hours to participate in Just for a Day, according to U of A student Michelle Miller.

Half the group worked at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, distributing hygiene packs that they had preassembled, and on Skid Row. The other half worked at the Downtown Women’s Center.

Then, after attending a concert that evening at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, where Guster, an alternative rock band, and The LeeVees, a Jewish holiday music band, entertained Hillel participants, they climbed back into their vans for the nine-hour return trip.

According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, volunteer days such as this are effective ways to unite Jewish students across the denominational spectrum to work together under the banner of tikkun olam (healing the world).

“We feel that everywhere we go we should leave our mark,” he said.

Text of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s speech at the 2006 UJC General Assembly

Thank you for this opportunity; it is such a pleasure to be here with youall.

Thank you Bobby for your kind words. I have followed your career throughoutthe years, including during this last period at UJC. I have always beenimpressed by your thoughtfulness, and the practical manner in which youaddress the vital issues confronting the Jewish people, especially as UJCchairman. I am sure you will continue to promote other important issues forthe sake of the Jewish people.

In that spirit, I welcome the new chairman of UJC, Joe Kanfer. Yourresponsibility ahead in guiding the United Jewish Communities is formidable,and I am sure you will represent us all with honor.

I wish to thank a dear friend of mine, who spent the past 4 and a half yearshere in the United States, serving honorably on behalf of the State ofIsrael. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Mr. Danny Ayalon. I wishto thank Danny, on behalf of the State of Israel, for his outstandingservice and personal commitment through a very hectic and challenging termin the United States.

I also wish to acknowledge another special friend who is here with us today,Israel’s new Ambassador to the United States, Salai Meridor. Salai, yourposting here comes at a pivotal time. And as I look around this room, I seeyou will have many friends to help you fulfill your important mission.

Distinguished delegates of the Jewish community, ladies and gentlemen, mydear friends,

I wish to share with you just one part of one letter I received from afather mourning the loss of his son during the fighting in Lebanon:

“My name is Ami Shrier, I am 61 years old, born in Haifa, married to Yafafrom the house of Rubin, may they rest in peace, survivors of the Holocaust,survivors of Auschwitz.

My parents made Aliyah in 1936 from Vilna to Israel, which allowed for theirsurvival; the rest of our family perished in the Holocaust.”

“Today I joined the bereaved families; it is difficult; it is difficult andI am only at the beginning of the way. I miss my son Iftach so very much -the salt of the earth, son of the country. Graduate of Herzl School, aleader in the Tidhar group of the scouts of Haifa. Twin brother of Jordan,born on the 11th of September, 1984.

Iftach enlisted into the paratroopers, finished his arduous training andfinished both his commanders and officers course with high honors…”

“I am sorry for taking up your valuable time Mr. Prime Minister, but Igrieve the loss of my child and want to strengthen you.”

Ami Shrier’s letter is just one of many letters I received from bereavedfamiliesduring the fighting. Some letters were supportive and others critical, butall epitomized the heart and soul of the kindred Jewish spirit.

The visionary Theodor Herzl stated, “It is true that we aspire to ourancient land. But what we want in that ancient land is a new blossoming ofthe Jewish spirit.”

This conference is a tribute to fulfilling Herzl’s dream, the JewishNation’s dream: re-discovering Jewish values, raising awareness to Jewishtradition, promoting Jewish unity, exploring Jewish identity and all whilestrengthening ties between the Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel;these responsibilities are very important to you, but they are vital to theState of Israel.

UJC translates Jewish values into social action, in America, Israel andaround the world. Your prompt action and exceptional generosity, which knowsno boundaries, assisted Israel’s reconstruction of the north with incrediblevigor. UJC immediately donated 50 million dollars for emergency welfareprojects during the recent fighting. Since then, over 350 million dollarswere raised with the sole purpose of supporting reconstruction projectsaimed at developing and strengthening the very areas adversely effected.

You also supported Israel this summer in numerous solidarity missions. Toall of you who made a pilgrimage to Israel in the midst of the fighting Isay: your presence reassured me and the entire population of Israel, thatIsraelis and the Jewish Diaspora share unbreakable bonds of allegiance.

We are one people! We have one heritage! We share one future, a future whichwe create together!

Together, we must also remain dedicated in our fight against those whopersecute us on account of our religion. Together, we will raise awarenessof the world-wide phenomenon of anti-Semitism.

We must have patience with those who challenge us. We must remain calm withthose who provoke us. We must strive to inform those who have been misledabout our religion. And we must never be complacent about those who seek tohurt us.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The recent fighting in Lebanon tested Israel’s resilience, and despite allthat has been said and written, we stood up to the challenge.

This summer the brave soldiers of the IDF, including soldiers from reserveunits who volunteered in unprecedented numbers, fought with resilience andheroism. They fought without fear, hesitance or self-consideration.

They fought in a war of wanton aggression started by Hezbollah and fueled byzealotry and hate.

This was Hezbollah’s war. This was Iran’s war. Not Lebanon’s war. And notIsrael’s war.

Hezbollah was dealt a blow they did not calculate and were not prepared for.Israel’s response proved we would not tolerate continued threats against us.It is enough merely to quote Hezbollah’s leader who said he would not haveinitiated the abductions had he known Israel would react with even onepercent of the force we did.

The security situation in Lebanon has been forever altered – we will neverreturn to the former status quo. The Lebanese military, and not Hezbollah,is deployed in the south. The Lebanese government is asserting itssovereignty over the entire state. Now, the main task that lies ahead is thefull implementation of UN Resolution 1701.

There are many lessons that must be drawn from this war. We will learn themand we will correct whatever is needed. We already started this process.

But there is only one, ever so precious goal that Israel did not yetachieve. We have not returned home the abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser andEldad Regev.

I asked Ehud’s wife, Karnit Goldwasser, to join us here today. Karnit, Ipromise you that Israel will do, that I will do the utmost to bring back ourdear sons and bring Udi back to your arms.

Collegians ‘Do the Write Thing’

College students are not only attending the General Assembly, they are covering it as well.

This will be the 17th year that a select group of Jewish collegians, as members of the Do the Write Thing team, will have its own prestigious place in the General Assembly.

For this 40-member cadre, most of whom staff their campus Jewish and/or secular newspapers, the GA will be more than a place to learn about and participate in organized Jewish life. They will also have the opportunity to sharpen their journalistic skills while deepening their understanding of what the community does — and how it does it.

Do the Write Thing is sponsored by The Jewish Agency and the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization, with some sessions coordinated by the American Jewish Press Association.

Hagshama translates to ‘fulfillment,’ explains New York-based Hagshama emissary Ofer Gutman. “We believe that one way to achieve ‘fulfillment’ and find a personal connection and engagement with the Jewish state is through programs such as this,” he says. “It also helps these students to be better equipped to make Israel’s case on campuses.”

The GA, he adds, “is a great place for these students to meet Jewish leaders, and to establish friendships with each other.”

In addition to being at major GA plenaries and sessions, DTWT participants will attend press conferences with visiting dignitaries and hear, in sessions exclusively for them, from such eminent people as Gary Rosenblatt, publisher and editor of The Jewish Week (New York), and Rob Eshman, editor of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, about “Covering Israel in the American Jewish Press.”

Meetings with Israeli journalists and workshops with members of the American Jewish Press Association also are on the agenda.
For many DTWT alumni, participation proved to be a step toward a professional career. Gil Hoffman and Miriam Saviv are on the staff of the Jerusalem Post. Dan Schifrin is director of literacy programs at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and Marita Gringaus was press officer at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Rustin Silverstein, who served as press secretary for Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, was also a producer at “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”

“Do the Write Thing,” Silverstein says, “helped me understand the craft of writing from a Jewish perspective.”

As a result of a visit during last year’s DTWT program at the Toronto GA by Laura Kam, director of the Washington-based Media Fellows Program of The Israel Project, participants learned about the project’s fellowship program.

“Several students applied, and two were chosen, ” Kam reports. “They proved to be excellent media fellows,” she says. “They were sincere students who were intent upon pursuing Israel advocacy.”

“I hope to make more connections this year through Do the Write Thing,” Kam says.

Keren Douek, assistant editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light, says DTWT confirmed for her that writing for and about the smaller, more specific and personally relevant Jewish world, was an intriguing concept. “There is nothing like it,” she says.

Noteworthy sessions and events at the G.A.

10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Tour of the Skirball Cultural Center
Note: Tour leaves from Westin Bonaventure and returns to the L.A. Convention Center.

2:30 p.m.
Opening Plenary: “One People, One Destiny, One Great Day in November”
Greetings: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Keynote Speaker: Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel”
Speakers: Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc., and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; Randy Neal, California regional director, Christians United for Israel; and Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the L.A. Archdiocese

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Jewish Learning: Activism and Social Justice”
Speaker: Rabbi Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism

8:30 a.m.-9:45 a.m.
Plenary: “The Jewish Future: Where We Are as a People”
Moderator: Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president of policy development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los AngelesSpeakers: Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University in New York

10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Plenary: “Emerging Global Realities and the Challenge of Radical Islam”
Speakers: Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” and “American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Media Lessons Learned From the War”

Speakers: Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media and public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker staff writer and author, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide;” and Irit Atsmon, former Deputy IDF spokesman

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”
Moderator: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Speakers: Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project; Aviva Raz-Shechter, director, Department of Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Issues, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Charles Small, director, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University

3:45 p.m.-5 p.m.
Plenary: “Challenges of the Jewish People at the Beginning of the 21st Century”
Speaker: Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP

8:15 p.m.- 10 p.m.
Event: “A Once in a Lifetime Evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall”

Background: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will co-host a concert of Jewish music at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program will include selections by Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill. Performers include Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, an 85-member chorus and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Gerard Schwarz.

8:30 a.m.-10 a.m.
Plenary: “Challenges and Opportunities: Israel 2006”
Moderator: Judge Ellen M. Heller, president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Speakers: Israel Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Israel Education Minister Yuli Tamir
Special Guest: Moshe Oofnik, Sesame Street Workshop

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Understanding Islam: Current Trends”
Speakers: Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute; Norman Stillman, professor and chair of Judaic history, University of Oklahoma; Irshad Manji, author, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith”

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Working to Save Darfur”
Speakers: John Fishel, president, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; and Ruth Messinger, president/executive director, American Jewish World Service

4:15 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Plenary: “The New Frontlines: Facing the Future Together”
Keynote Speaker: Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

8:30 a.m.-Noon
Meeting: “Translating the GA Into Action: Open Board of Trustees & Delegate Assembly Forum”
Goal: Coming up with an action plan based on issues addressed at GA.

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.

Mel Gibson’s address to the General Assembly

Ladies, Gentlemen, and Jews:

Welcome to beautiful Los Angeles! I write to you from the set of my new Ismar Schorsch biopic starring Danny Glover as Mordecai Kaplan and Jim Caviezel as Ismar Schorsch himself!

Anyway, I would like to begin my address by once again sincerely apologizing for the vitriolic and hateful words I uttered a few months back during my drunken tirade in Malibu. There is no excuse for the things I said.

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.

Jewish Time Machine: The 1982 General Assembly in Los Angeles

When it comes to issues making up the agenda during General Assemblies in Los Angeles, perhaps Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) was right when he wrote: “What has been will be, what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Los Angeles had surpassed Chicago as the country’s second largest Jewish population center by the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until 1966 that what was then called the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF), now United Jewish Communities, held its first GA here.One-thousand attended that GA, the CJF’s 35th, at the Ambassador Hotel, where, seven months later, Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.

The main discussions focused on changing conditions in the Israeli immigration picture and Israel’s economy, as well as issues facing overseas Jewish communities.

The GA returned to Los Angeles in 1982. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since, but the challenges confronting the Jewish world then are strikingly similar to those in 2006:A war in Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Syria, the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry, cutbacks in federal and state funding of social services, grave concerns about American Jewish identity and low levels of affiliation and giving to Jewish causes.

(Although not everything’s the same- registration in 1982 cost $110 for out of town delegates and $50 for Los Angeles residents; this year it’s $525 and $275, respectively.)

At the same time, it was the CJF’s celebratory Golden Anniversary GA, or “GALA” as it was called, and it occurred during the period some consider to be a golden age of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, then led by president Osias Goren and executive vice president Ted Kanner.

A volunteer hospitality team of 700 Jewish Angelenos welcomed the 3,000 delegates, who were greeted on arrival by mariachis and a recreation of Farmers Market.

More than 500 marched from the Bonaventure to City Hall to call attention to imperiled Jewish communities around the world and to protest anti-Semitism in Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, the Soviet Union, Syria, Western Europe and elsewhere. Mayor Tom Bradley and law professor Irwin Cotler, who at the time was working to secure the freedom of imprisoned refusenik Anatoly Scharansky, spoke to the crowd. A conference session on the plight and rescue of Ethiopian Jews was found to be particularly moving.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino was scholar-in-residence, and spoke at two plenary sessions on the convention’s theme, “Federation’s Role and Responsibility in Ensuring the Commitment of the Next Generation.”

Schulweis said the “megastructure” of Jewish organizations and institutions is remote and alienating to the individual Jew struggling to maintain a rich Jewish spiritual identity. He maintained that the “post-Holocaust” generation is “less secular, less moved by the public agenda and institutions and more concerned with the spiritual, personal and internal dimensions of their lives.”

Prime Minister Menachem Begin was scheduled to address the Saturday night Golden Anniversary banquet. It was to be his first major speech to a U.S. audience since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in “Operation Peace for Galilee” in June 1982. After the GA, he would fly to Washington to meet with President Ronald Reagan. Debate over the Lebanon War caused a great rift in Israel. This political turmoil, the loss of Israeli lives and the massacre greatly troubled Begin. The prime minister hesitated to leave Aliza, his wife of 36 years, who had been hospitalized for much of the previous year with respiratory problems. When her condition improved slightly, she convinced him to go. The main ballroom of the Bonaventure was packed with delegates, guests and officials such as Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Tom Bradley.

Outside, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Secret Service and LAPD had their hands full with demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. LAPD had issued a permit to the Committee to Oppose the Begin Visit, a coalition of several pro-Palestinian groups and others. The New Jewish Agenda and the Jewish Defense Organization were also among the picketers.

But sadly, Begin’s appearance at the GA was not to be. Shortly before he was to speak, his beloved wife Aliza died in Jerusalem. He immediately flew back to Israel for her funeral.

Moshe Arens, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, stood in for Begin at the GA. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, he recounted some of “the scars we in Israel bear from the terrorists coming out of Lebanon,” and said that Israel’s operation had smashed the PLO infrastructure, thereby striking a blow for peace in the region. Nevertheless, he observed, Israel was “criticized, vilified, calumnied and judged” by the nations of the world and “we were subjected to snap judgments” by the media and its audiences.

Arens was critical of “those who counsel us to make concessions,” declaring that “the wages of weakness in the Middle East is destruction.” The ambassador also recounted other achievements of the war in Lebanon and each achievement was greeted with roars of applause: He noted that Lebanon was then rising from seven years of warfare and occupation and that a new page was turning “in the tragic history of that country. Hopefully, Lebanon will join the world democratic community and also be at peace with Israel.”

Perhaps what Kohelet is saying is that the significant, unresolved issues of one generation are left as a legacy to the next, to be reconsidered, reclaimed and reconciled.


Collegians do the ‘Write Thing’ at GA

College students are not only attending the General Assembly, they are
covering it as well.

This will be the 17th year that a select group of Jewish collegians, as
members of the Do the Write Thing team, will have its own prestigious place
in the General Assembly.

For this 40-member cadre, most of whom staff their campus Jewish and/or
secular newspapers, the GA will be more than a place to learn about and
participate in organized Jewish life. They will also have the opportunity to
sharpen their journalistic skills while deepening their understanding of
what the community does — and how it does it.

Do the Write Thing is sponsored by The Jewish Agency and the Hagshama
department of the World Zionist Organization, with some sessions coordinated
by the American Jewish Press Association.

Hagshama translates to “fulfillment,” explains New York-based fulfillment’
and find a personal connection and engagement with the Jewish state is
through programs such as this,” he says. “It also helps these students to
be better equipped to make Israel’s case on campuses.”

The GA, he adds, “is a great place for these students to meet Jewish
leaders, and to establish friendships with each other.”

In addition to being at major GA plenaries and sessions, DTWT participants
will attend press conferences with visiting dignitaries and hear, in
sessions exclusively for them, from such eminent people as Gary Rosenblatt,
publisher and editor of The Jewish Week (New York), and Rob Eshman, editor
of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, about “Covering Israel in
the American Jewish Press.” Meetings with Israeli journalists and workshops
with members of the American Jewish Press Association also are on the

For many DTWT alumni, participation proved to be a step toward a
professional career. Gil Hoffman and Miriam Saviv are on the staff of the
Jerusalem Post. Dan Schifrin is director of literacy programs at the
National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and Marita Gringaus was press
officer at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Rustin Silverstein,
who served as press secretary for Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, was also a
producer at “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”

“Do the Write Thing,” Silverstein says, “helped me understand the craft of
writing from a Jewish perspective.”

As a result of a visit during last year’s DTWT program at the Toronto GA by
Laura Kam, director of the Washington-based Media Fellows Program of The
Israel Project, participants learned about the project’s fellowship program.

“Several students applied, and two were chosen, ” Kam reports. “They proved
to be excellent media fellows,” she says. “They were sincere students who
were intent upon pursuing Israel advocacy.”

“I hope to make more connections this year through Do the Write Thing,” Kam

Keren Douek, assistant editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light, says DTWT
confirmed for her that writing for and about the smaller, more specific and
personally relevant Jewish world, was an intriguing concept. “There is
nothing like it,” she says.