October 24, 2018

How the GA Can Fix the Jewish World

Photo from Facebook.

Jewish professionals and volunteers will gather next week in Los Angeles for the GA, The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. They will convene under the somewhat vague headline “Venture Further.”

Further to where? This is probably a matter for debate, but the slogan conveys a clear sentiment: What we have now is a transitional phase. Our job is to carve a course that will move us forward “into the future of Jewish education, philanthropy and our community.”

The future of “our community.” Here is something to think about: Is “our community” the North American Jewish community or the whole of the Jewish world? Clearly, in talking about a specific community, as large as it might be, there is also a need to keep an eye on other communities, as no Jewish community is an island. The future of “our community” must consider the future of the community that it not “our community,” but someone else’s.

In this spirit, and before this special annual occasion of discussion — where I will be a speaker this year — I would like to briefly suggest a simple framework for understanding the state of the Jewish world, and, hence, the test we must pass as we attempt to venture further. I know, many of the things I am about to write are obvious. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious, as not to drown in a conversation about marginal or irrelevant matters.

So, here it is:

The Jewish world rests mainly on two pillars: North America and Israel. These two pillars have different characteristics that occasionally put them at odds, and this has been especially true over the past couple of months. Their main challenges are quite simple: For Israel, it is physical survival; for North America, it is cultural survival.

Israel is located in a problematic and dangerous area, it is small, it is surrounded by people who want to see it gone. All other problems — and of course it has other problems — pale in comparison. Keeping Jews alive, in a Jewish state, is the main concern of Israel. As for culture, most worries are exaggerated: A long process of communal design eventually will produce an Israeli-Jewishness.

Jews in North America are physically secure. Their country is the most powerful on earth (I know, North America also includes Canada, Mexico and other countries). The challenge they face is cultural. They need a Jewish culture that can be preserved in a modern world, and an open society, where they are a small minority. They need it to be intense and meaningful enough to survive the expected erosion of a minority culture in a majority society.

That’s it. That’s the challenge for “our community.”

Can Israel overcome the challenge? I hope it can. To succeed, it must be strong, realistic, sober, battle ready, tough. And since this is Israel’s main challenge, it would be nice if the Jews of North America would attempt to assist Israel in this arena — even as they attempt to advance the other causes they have in mind for Israel.

Can North American Jews overcome the challenge? I hope they can. To succeed, they must strengthen their communal institutions, invest in education and find a way to have a “community” that means more than a group of people who have Jewish ancestry. And because this is their main challenge, it would be nice if Israel would assist them — even it is not always convenient, politically or otherwise.

The first step in using this formula to venture further is not to deny its validity: There are many who argue that Israel has issues larger than security, that it is about to lose its Jewish soul. These people, although right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the right order. There are also many who argue that the Jews of North America have issues more important than reinvigorating their Jewish culture — fighting the alt-right, or correcting Israel’s course, or whatever. These people, while right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the proper order.

Simplicity is key: Israel needs to bolster its security — the rest will take care of itself. North American Jews need to bolster their culture — the rest will take care of itself.

As to how to achieve these two goals? That is what the GA is for.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

A homecoming for Olim

Elissa Einhorn first wanted to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) 30 years ago, but her late father, a Holocaust survivor who was convinced America was the best place in the world, didn’t support her dream. 

So, the 56-year-old writer from Sacramento stifled the urge to relocate to the Jewish homeland until last summer when, on a mission to Israel with Honest Reporting, a media watchdog that monitors coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, her desire to make aliyah was rekindled.

“I was surprised that all those emotions came back after 30 years, so I just decided to really think about whether I can really do this. I’m not a young person anymore, and, uh,” she said, beginning to cry as she spoke onboard an Aug. 17 chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, “it’s just unbelievable I’m on this plane.”

Founded in 2001, Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) facilitates aliyah for people from North America and the United Kingdom. The organization works with numerous agencies, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigration Absorption, and the Jewish National Fund-USA in making the aliyah process as smooth as possible. The organization crossed the threshold of bringing its 50,000th oleh (immigrant) on last week’s charter flight.

From left: San Fernando Valley residents Lidor Asulin, Natalie Rubinstein and Tamir Marom were among those onboard the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Photo by Ryan Torok 

The plane, which departed New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) on Aug. 16, carried 223 olim (people making aliyah) who, incuding Einhorn, have followed through with their wish of moving to Israel. The plane landed in Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport on the morning of Aug. 17. Those on board included 75 young adults who are making aliyah with the intention of joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with women outnumbering men, 41 to 34. 

There were 13 people from California on board, including three 18-year-olds from the San Fernando Valley who are from Israeli families and are joining the IDF.

“I don’t want to do an office job; I can do that here,” Natalie Rubinstein, 18, of West Hills, who wants to be an artillery instructor in the IDF, told the Journal in a restaurant at LAX before the departure of a red-eye flight to New York. “I want to do physical stuff.” 

She was joined by Tamir Marom, 18, and Lidor Asulin, 18, both from Woodland Hills. The three met through their membership in Tzofim, an organization offering programs that develop and maintain the connection between Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) in Israel and Jews in North America. After completing their preparation for the IDF through Tzofim’s Garin Tzabar program, the youth are enlisted into an IDF unit, becoming “lone soldiers” — members of the IDF who are living in Israel without the support of immediate family members. More than  6,300 lone soldiers are currently serving in the IDF, according to lonesoldiercenter.com, an organization that offers social and practical support to lone soldiers and their families.

“I don’t think we’re really alone, to be honest,” said Asulin, who is joining the IDF after deciding he wasn’t yet ready for college. “Eventually we all become family, one way or another.”

That’s the hope of NBN. Tani Kramer, the organization’s associate manager of public relations and communications, was among those staffing the flight. Originally from Sacramento, Kramer made aliyah to Israel with his family after he completed ninth grade. The family had been living in Israel for two years at the time, for what they believed would be a temporary stay. His father, a professor from the University of California, Davis, was ready to take the family back to California, but Kramer wasn’t interested. When he told his parents he’d found a family friend who would take him in, Kramer’s father decided the entire family would stay.

In an interview with the Journal on board the El Al airplane, Kramer spoke about what he called his “Nefesh moment,” which he had several years ago, after having joined the organization. Kramer interacted with a young adult who’d been contemplating aliyah but who had decided he wasn’t ready. Later, he ran into this man’s father. The man hugged Kramer, told him his son had made aliyah and that he was thankful to Kramer for facilitating the son’s decision.

Shortly before the plane landed in Tel Aviv, Kramer was wrapping tefillin with many of the observant olim. Meanwhile, the less observant were mingling. The excitement was palpable as the airplane neared its destination. Soon the flight attendants told everyone to be seated, and as the airplane descended into Israel, people on board broke out singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

The plane was filled with a variety of passengers, and families with small children constituted a considerable number of those on board. Among them were the Eisens, a family of six from Los Angeles with plans to settle in a home they’ve purchased in Beit Shemesh.

“We’re excited,” said Ethan Eisen, a father of four who with his family most recently lived in the Pico-Robertson area, “[though] it was a little tough saying goodbye to some friends.” 

The youngest person on the flight was 3 1/2 weeks old. The oldest was 85. 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and NBN co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart were among those who addressed the olim during a welcoming ceremony in an airplane hangar at Ben Gurion airport. 

“You are no longer Jews in exile,” Rivlin said, speaking to a crowd of hundreds, including current Israeli soldiers who came to greet the olim. “You are Israelis.”

Seven revealing facts about Jews at American colleges

Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, released its annual fall college guide earlier this month — complete with rankings of “The Top Schools Jews Choose.” The figures are estimated by campus Hillels. Here are seven takeaways.

1. University of Florida has the most Jewish students of any North American college 

University of Florida, with its 6,500 Jewish (out of 33,720 total) undergraduates, edged out other heavily Jewish public colleges, like University of Maryland and University of Michigan. Two of the top three and four of the top 20 public colleges are in Florida. The private college with the most Jews is New York University, with 6,000 (out of 24,985 total).

2. Barnard is the most-Jewish college that it not officially Jewish

Barnard College in New York, a women’s liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia University, has a higher percentage of Jewish students than all but four colleges: Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, American Jewish University and Brandeis University — all of which have Jewish missions. The first three colleges are 100 percent Jewish; Brandeis is about half Jewish.

Thirty-three percent of Barnard’s undergrads are Jewish (800 out of 2,400 undergrads) — more than the 31 percent at runners-up Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania (750 out of 2,440 undergrads), and Goucher College in Townson, Maryland (450 out of 1,471 undergrads).

3. Yale is the most-Jewish Ivy, but Cornell has the most total Jews

Yale University’s undergrad student body is 27 percent Jewish (1,500 Jewish undergrads out of 5,477 total). Percentage-wise, it narrowly beats out its Ivy League rival Harvard University, which is 25 percent Jewish (1,675 out of 6,694 undergrads). But Cornell University and Columbia University both have more Jews in total — 3,000 and 1,800, respectively.

4. Jews love the Big Ten Conference

Six of the top 10 most-Jewish public colleges are part of the Big Ten Conference, the oldest athletic conference in the United States, with schools spanning the Midwest and East Coast. Those six colleges, in descending rank by number of Jewish students, are: Rutgers University (6,400), University of Maryland (5,800), University of Michigan (4,500), Indiana University (4,200), University of Wisconsin, Madison (4,200) and Pennsylvania State University (4,000). The other Big Ten schools among the top 50 are Michigan State University (3,500), the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (3,000) and Ohio State University (2,500).

5. McGill isn’t the top Canadian destination for Jews

That honor goes to McMaster University, a school in Ontario with the official motto “All things cohere in Christ.” McMaster boasts 3,500 Jewish undergrads; University of Western Ontario and York University each have 3,000. McGill University ranks fourth among Canadian schools, with 2,500 Jews.

6. Fifty-five of the 60 most-Jewish colleges are on the American coasts

The five inland outliers are: Tulane University in New Orleans (2,250 Jews or 27 percent of its total), Washington University in St. Louis (1,750 Jews or 24 percent of its total), Kenyon College in Ohio (275 Jews or 17 percent of its total), the University of Chicago (800 Jews or 14 percent of its total) and Earlham College in Indiana (130 Jews or 11 percent of its total). None of the colleges in the top 60 are public.

7. University of Michigan offers 120 Jewish courses — twice as many as Brandeis

University of Michigan offers the third-most Jewish college courses in the country, behind only Yeshiva University (138 courses) and Jewish Theological Seminary of America (150) — which both have 100 percent Jewish student bodies. McGill University and Ohio State University are tied for fourth, with 100 Jewish courses each.

Pew study: Muslims to overtake American Jews by 2050

In 20 years, there will be more Muslims in North America than Jews, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

The report, which was released Thursday, also found that more American Jews are leaving Judaism than non-Jews are joining the Jewish people.

According to “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” Muslims will overtake Christians in the last quarter of the 21st century as the globe’s largest religious group. In the United States, Muslims will comprise 2.1 percent of the population in 2050, up from 0.9 percent in 2010. Jews, meanwhile, will fall to 1.4 percent of the U.S. population from 1.8 percent in 2010.

The Pew study also offered a detailed look at the sizes of national Jewish communities around the world, how fast the communities are expected to shrink or grow, and Jewish fertility rates.

There were nearly 14 million Jews around the globe in 2010, with expected growth to 16 million by 2050, according to the study – a lower growth rate than the general world population. Overall, Jews comprise roughly 0.2 percent of the world’s population, with about 44 percent of Jews in North America; 41 percent in Israel, the Middle East and North Africa; 10 percent in Europe; and 3 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

By 2050, 51 percent of Jews are expected to live in the Middle East — almost all in Israel — and 37 percent in North America. The number of Jews in Europe is expected to decline more precipitously and outpace general European population shrinkage, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the study showed that globally there were 1.6 billion Muslims in 2010 and a predicted growth to nearly 2.8 billion in 2050 — from 23 percent of the population to 30 percent. In 2050, nearly three of every 10 people will be Muslims.

Today, the United States and Israel have about the same number of Jews, though there is some debate among Jewish demographers over which country is ahead. The Pew study counted 5.7 million Jews in the U.S. and 5.6 million in Israel, but other studies have shown more than 6 million Jews in each country, and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said Israel had 6.2 million Jews in 2014. In any case, Israel is expected to pull unambiguously ahead in the coming years.

The study counted as Jews those who self-identify as Jewish when asked their religion. It does not include so-called Jews of no religion — those who have Jewish ancestry or consider themselves partially Jewish but say they are not Jewish by religion.

Nearly 95 percent of all Jews live in just 10 countries, according to the study. Except for Israel, none of those countries is more than 2 percent Jewish. The 10 countries with the most Jews are, in descending order, according to Pew, the United States, Israel, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, Argentina, Australia and Brazil.

Jewish fertility rates are highest in Israel (2.8 children per woman), whereas Jewish fertility rates in North America (2.0) and Europe (1.8) are below replacement level (2.3). In the United States, the Jewish fertility rate is 1.9 children per woman.

In every region examined by Pew, the Jewish median age was older than that of the general population. In the world overall, the median age was 28, compared with the Jewish median age of 37. In North America the median age is 37, with the Jews at 41.

While the study showed that the spread of secularism is expected to continue and the number of atheists projected to rise, religious people are expected to grow as a proportion of the global population because they tend to have more children.

In Europe, Muslims are expected to grow to 10 percent of the population in 2050, from 6 percent in 2010.

In the United States, Americans of no religion are expected to grow from 16 percent in 2010 to 25 percent by 2050, and Christians are expected to shrink from 78 percent in five years to 66 percent by 2050.

Some Jewish questions for rabbis Jacobs and Rosove

Asking questions is a central aspect of Jewish tradition – indeed, formulating good questions is more important than trying to provide answers. Questions reflect the complexity of the human condition, as well as humility in acknowledging the inability to give ready answers in the face of this complexity

Unfortunately, in their attempts to respond to my article on misleading and immoral campaigns related to the complex issue of Israel’s Negev Bedouin citizens, Rabbis Jill Jacobs and John Rosove were quick to provide snarky “answers,” instead of posing good questions.

Before any exploration of this complexity, or acknowledging any possible errors by political advocacy groups such as T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights, North America), Jacobs launches into a harsh attack, claiming that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort “to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.” Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language. Surely, public debate and criticism in the Jewish tradition cannot be reduced to defamation.

In the Jewish prophetic tradition, moral values do not exist in an imagined ideal, entirely detached from the complexities of the real world, and designed to tell others how they should act. In contrast, Jacob’s response skips over the complexities (yes, that word again) in the Bedouin’s transition from nomadic to modern conditions, the rampant crime and social problems (including oppression of women) resulting from polygamy, carefully argued rulings of  the Israeli High Court, the false and politicized claim to be “indigenous” in the Negev , and other crucial facts. 

In many ways, Jacobs’ “response” is actually a non-response.  She skips over most of the substance that I provided in my article, and omits any mention of “Jewish Voices for Peace,” a million dollar organization funded anonymously whose main objective is “driving a wedge” in the Jewish community over Israel. The involvement of a group that is at best agnostic on a “two-state” framework, and that cannot be said to “love Israel,” should worry Jacobs.

The one question in Jacobs’ attack is rhetorical, followed immediately by a demeaning and snarky pseudo-answer: “Does [Steinberg] really believe that 800 rabbis …. oppose ‘Jewish self-determination and sovereignty’? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.” This is hardly consistent with “healthy debate” and “the best of our Jewish values.” I do, however, believe that 800 rabbis have been misled by a simplistic and detached narrative promoted by Truah and other political advocacy NGOs.   

In his post, Rabbi Rosove’s continues the abusive and insulting assault.  His recollection of a presentation I was asked to make before his synagogue group in Jerusalem could be politely termed “idiosyncratic.” He was “shocked and disappointed” that I spoke, as I do before dozens of groups every year, on the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.) Had he remembered, Rosove might have admitted that our group had an intense and high-level discussion, reflecting the complexities involved, with many good questions on all sides of these very important issues.

Rabbi Rosove is right that “it is contrary to Jewish tradition to withhold legitimate criticism.” The same should hold true for voicing criticism of powerful NGOs that exploit the language of human rights and of campaigns that contribute to abuse, not love, of Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Israeliness’ may be the answer for secular American Jews

The recent Pew survey of American Jews caused a flutter in the organized Jewish community.

The survey raises a number of questions about the efficacy of Jewish institutions, leaving professionals and donors alike in a position of uncertainty regarding their investments in the Jewish future. But while traditional American Jewish organizations regroup, a growing movement in the community remains largely overlooked.

In major metro areas across the United States such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Boston, Israeli-American organizations are popping up and growing in popularity. Programs centered on Israeli culture and Jewish identity for families, young adults and children have swelling appeal.

Participation in these Israeli-American organizations is increasing rapidly, and not only among Israeli expats and their children. American Jews join Israeli programs related to Hebrew language, Jewish education, and creating connectedness to Israel through the arts, music, literature, and tradition.

The American way of practicing Judaism is largely based on attending synagogues and affiliating with religious congregations across the denominations. What it does not offer are substantial alternatives for Jewish involvement in a secular way. The phenomenon of growing Israeli communal life in the United States offers a new model for American secular Jews to express their Judaism without needing to belong to a synagogue or religious institution.

In Los Angeles, the Israeli American Council (IAC) reached more than 50,000 members of the Israeli-American community last year with its Israeli-tailored programming. The organization’s flagship event, the Celebrate Israel festival — now the largest Jewish festival in North America — turned out about 15,000 people, half Israeli-Americans and half American Jews.

Other Israeli-style holiday festivals with a focus on family activities, Israeli performances, and Israeli or Jewish customs attract thousands and reflect a similar demographic split.

The trend continues through the young professional program BINA, targeting the age group of American Jews who are least connected to Judaism according to the Pew report. The IAC’s success, in fact, led to its recent expansion across the United States.

American Jews in New York have also recently been showing a growing interest in Israeli educational programs, such as “Israeliness” at the 92nd Street Y, among others.

Upon a closer look, perhaps these developing programs, which are almost entirely secular in nature, are the new avenue for secular American Jews to connect to their Jewish identity.

The Pew results revealed that 70 percent of American Jews feel very attached or somewhat attached to Israel, and more than 60 percent believe Judaism is about culture, ancestry and identity. What better environment to cultivate those feelings and transform them into strong connectedness to one’s Jewish roots than among secular Israelis?

Although Israelis living in the United States may have left the Jewish nation state, many maintain their deep love of Israel. And they do everything they can to ensure their children will inherit that love through Hebrew culture, Jewish knowledge and political awareness. As Israeli expats strive to instill a secular Israeli identity in the next generation, many American Jews find themselves relating. Perhaps it is the “Israeliness” rather than the Jewishness of this community that attracts them, making organized cultural Judaism accessible in a new and relevant way.

American Jewish leaders have responded to the Pew survey with a number of calls, including alternative venues for Jewish identity.

Well, look no further. The Israeli-American community may just be the answer.

Miri Belsky is the chief operating officer of the Israeli American Council (israeliamerican.org). Copyright Religion News Service. Reprinted with permission. 

Slingshot announces annual list of 50 most innovative organizations

Eighteen organizations made their debut on the annual Slingshot Guide of the 50 most innovative Jewish groups.

The guide, which was launched in 2005 by a group of donors in their 20s and 30s,  evaluates North American Jewish organizations on “their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector, and their effectiveness at achieving results.”

The group published two supplements — on “Disabilities & Inclusion” and on “Women & Girls” — as a means to broaden the Slingshot community and attract public interest and donor support toward these areas, it said.

The guide also features 17 “standard bearers,” organizations such as Moishe House and Mechon Hadar that are included consistently as “models of innovation.”

Newcomers to the list include City Harvest’s Kosher Initiative, a hunger-relief project in New York; NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change in Los Angeles; the Ramah Tikvah Network, a training program for professionals serving special-needs populations; and The Kitchen, an alternative congregation in San Francisco.

Of the 50 Slingshot groups, the average founding year is 2005 and the average annual budget is $717,320. Women lead 52 percent of the groups.

“Slingshot is a resource highlighting the breadth and depth of the Jewish community at this moment, and it is relied upon by doers and donors alike,” said Will Schneider, Slingshot’s executive director.

The book is available in hard copy and as a free download.

This year’s 50, in alphabetical order (newcomers marked with an asterisk):

A Wider Bridge
Ask Big Questions
AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps
*BBYO Stand UP
*City Harvest’s Kosher Initiative
Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations
*The David Project
Eden Village Camp
Havurah at Camp Tel Yehudah
Hidden Sparks
Innovation: Africa
*J-Teen Leadership
Jewish Farm School
*Jewish Learning Venture
*Jewish New Teacher Project
The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation
*Jewish Without Walls (JWOW)
Jews for Racial & Economic Justice
*Jews United for Justice
*JOIN for Justice
The Kavana Cooperative
*Kavod v’Nichum
*The Kitchen
*Luria Academy of Brooklyn
*Mishkan Chicago
MyJewishLearning, Inc.
*NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change
The Pearlstone Center
Rabbis Without Borders
Ramah Service Corps
*Ramah Tikvah Network
Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council
*Shoresh at Bela Farm
The Tribe
Urban Adamah
Wilderness Torah
Wise Aging
*Yeshivat Maharat
Yiddish Book Center

Moving and Shaking: Stuart Leviton named MRJ president and TEBH holds gala

Stuart Leviton, a member of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami, was recently installed as president of Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ), the umbrella organization for brotherhoods and men’s clubs throughout Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) congregations in North America.

His election marks the first time in the organization’s 90-year history that an openly gay man was named its president. As president, Leviton’s goals will include finding lay leadership for the organization, determining and fulfilling the needs of its members and more.

“What we are trying to do is better engage and connect the men of Reform Judaism, organizationally and programmatically, so that we can be more effective in creating ultimately a more cohesive movement,” Leviton said.

The MRJ executive council elected Leviton, who previously served as the organization’s first vice president, as its new leader during the MRJ Biennual convention last June. The vote was unanimous, Leviton said.

The founder of law firm Leviton Law Group, Leviton is a frequent lecturer in business law and business ethics at American Jewish University. He also is a former co-president of Kol Ami and sits on the board at the URJ.

MRJ is responsible for overseeing affiliates that organize events that blend socializing and worship and that provide community service opportunities for Reform men, among other duties.

From left: Temple Emanuel’s Cantor Yonah Kliger, Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Jonathan Aaron.

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH) held a festive gala on Oct. 8 in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

More than 200 attendees turned out for a night of music, dancing and drinks at the synagogue’s Greer Social Hall. Longtime members of the synagogue shared brief vignettes of their memories, and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom presented a resolution of congratulations to the congregation.

Founded in 1938 and led by Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and Cantor Yonah Kliger, TEBH is one of the largest Reform communities in Southern California, with approximately 800 member-families. Recently, the synagogue completed an expansive renovation of its campus — including its auditorium and classrooms — following a full remodeling of the Corwin Family Sanctuary and the debut of the Greer Social Hall in 2011.

Event co-chair Toni Corwin and her husband, Bruce. Photos by Aaron Epstein

Chairing the gala were Toni Corwin, Lisa Bochner and Lisa Kay Schwartz, who also is also serving as the synagogue’s 75th anniversary chair. The event, which unveiled a temporary exhibition of memorabilia of objects and icons dating back to Temple Emanuel’s founding, kicked off a yearlong celebration.

From left: Attorney Roger Sullivan; honoree Monsignor Royale Vadakin; Curtis Sandberg, son of honoree Neil Sandberg and former Journal publisher Richard Volpert. Photo by Steven Douglas.

American Jewish Committee of Los Angeles (AJC) and Loyola Marymount University (LMU) recently named community leaders Neil Sandberg and Monsignor Royale Vadakin as the recipients of the Martin Gang Visionary Award, in recognition of their build-bridging efforts among different faith and ethnic groups. A ceremony honoring the pair took place on Oct. 10 at the LMU campus. 

Sandberg previously served as a longtime AJC regional director and is a former adjunct professor of sociology at LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. His accomplishments include founding AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute and co-founding the Martin Gang Institute, a partnership between AJC and LMU Extension that promotes understanding between religious and ethnic communities in California. 

Vadakin, a priest and vicar general emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has devoted more than 45 years to ecumenical and interreligious service in Los Angeles. Working with late Rabbi Alfred Wolf, a pioneer of the interfaith movement on the West Coast, he helped establish the Interreligious Council of Southern California in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots.

Richard Volpert, founding publisher of the Jewish Journal and past AJC honoree, and Roger Sullivan, an attorney and alumnus of Loyola Law School, served as the evening’s presenters. Sandberg’s son, Curtis Sandberg, accepted the award on his father’s behalf. 

The approximately 100 attendees included Hollywood lawyer and former AJC national president Bruce Ramer; AJC national governor Marcia Burnam; Robert Hurteau, director of LMU Center for Religion and Spirituality; LMU provost and executive vice president Joseph Hellige ;and several officials from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Among the evening’s speakers were Clifford Goldstein, AJC Los Angeles regional president; Rabbi Mark Diamond, director of the local AJC; and Archdiocese of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar.  

Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the local Jewish community, including people who start new jobs, leave jobs, win awards and more, as well as local events that featured leaders from the Jewish and Israeli communities. Got a tip? E-mail it to ryant@jewishjournal.com.

The Birthright Israel flip side: Fewer high school students traveling to Israel

With the summer travel season fast approaching, providers of Israel programs for teenagers are bracing themselves for what several say could be a season of historically low travel in a year unaffected by major security concerns.

Over the past decade, Israel travel among those aged 13 to 18 has seen a dramatic falloff. Though exact figures are difficult to come by, leaders of several leading North American teen programs say they have seen drops of 30 percent to 50 percent in participation in their Israel trips since 2000. Two recent studies point to a roughly 40 percent drop in the number of North American 13- to 18 year-olds going to Israel.

“I think every year [the overall number of high schoolers going to Israel] is getting smaller and smaller,” said Avi Green, the executive director of BBYO Passport, a provider of travel programs for teens. “And there's no reason to believe this year won't be the smallest.”

Though leaders of teen programs acknowledge the role of Middle East violence during the second intifada and the 2007 financial crisis in depressing participation, they unanimously point to one central cause of the decline: Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program created to provide free Israel trips for Jews aged 18 to 26.

Founded in 2000 to counter the decline in Israel attachment and Jewish identity among North American Jews, the program has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish young adults to Israel on the 10-day trips, including a projected 20,500 North Americans this summer alone. Yet the promise of a free Israel trip seems to have had a flip side: thousands of parents of Jewish high schoolers deferring Israel travel until their children are eligible for Birthright.

According to an internal survey conducted in 2008 by BBYO Passport, 30 percent of parents whose children were BBYO members said they preferred sending their kids on Birthright. Another 28 percent said they preferred high school trips, while 40 percent were undecided.

“Birthright is an extraordinary experience,” said Paul Reichenbach, the director of Union for Reform Judaism's Camping and Israel Programs. “We're a big supporter of it. Yet at the same time it's made it difficult for sponsors of high school trips to get traction.”

According to a 2010 report, the overall number of 13- to 18 year-olds traveling to Israel from around the world dropped from a record 20,000 in 2000, the year of Birthright's founding, to 12,000 in 2009. Elan Ezrachi, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the study's author, said approximately half of those participants are North Americans.

Ramie Arian, who conducted a separate 2011 study focusing specifically on teen travel from North America, came to a similar conclusion: the number of high schoolers going to Israel has dropped 40 percent since 2000, though the numbers have since stabilized. Meanwhile, Birthright participation has surged, with the program struggling to keep up with demand.

Len Saxe, a Brandeis University professor who has done extensive research on Birthright, acknowledged that some programs have taken a hit, but claimed the overall numbers of teens traveling to Israel may have risen — particularly if one includes the Poland-Israel March of the Living trip, which the two studies did not.

“Based on the available data, I believe what's happened is that there has been a shift,” Saxe said. “The shift is toward shorter programs that engage younger people — middle school trips, in particular, have grown and there are other short-term programs, including March of the Living. Instead of the normative programs [being] six weeks during the summer late in high school, there are more two-week trips.”

With no central body tracking data, it's hard to evaluate such claims. But several academics said the move away from longer term high-school travel is both clear and detrimental. Experiencing Israel as an adolescent rather than as a young adult, Ezrachi said, is more impactful. And teenagers have more follow-up opportunities through synagogue youth groups or Jewish day schools than those who return to college campuses, a drawback Birthright has belatedly sought to address.

“Its not enough for the Birthright people to say this is not my problem,” said Jack Wertheimer, a history professor and former provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The question is whether they are willing to invest their resources to maintain these teen trips. The summer teen trips are much longer, much more impactful, and may end up bringing teens to Israel to study and work there. Something ought to be done.”

Proponents of teen travel have offered a number of ways to level the playing field, including distributing philanthropic dollars more equally between trips for adolescents and young adults, or creating an Israel voucher that could be used for any number of travel options.

Gideon Shavit, the head of Lapid, a coalition representing 30 providers of teen programs to Israel, said the Israeli government should be supporting teen travel as it supports Birthright — to the tune of $40 million in 2013. But sending kids on a costly multi-week Israel summer trip in high school is a tough sell when there's a free trip in the offing a year or two down the road.

“Given the choice of spending $7,000 or $8,000 on a two-week trip or nothing on a 10-day trip,” Reichenbach said, “it's a no-brainer.”

Birthright Israel declined to comment.

Joshua Venture Group names 8 fellows to receive $100,000 each

The Joshua Venture Group named eight fellows for its 2012-14 Dual Investment Program.

The North American social entrepreneurs announced Sept. 10 each will receive $80,000 in unrestricted funding for their Jewish ventures and more than $20,000 in personalized coaching, training and networking.

The new cohort includes Sarah Heitler Bamberger of Berkeley for the grass-roots Jewish learning program Kevah; Matt Bar, the Philadelphia-based founder of hip-hop Torah educational initiative Bible Raps; Sarah Bassin, who directs NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish relations partnership in Los Angeles; Risa Alyson Cooper, for her work with Bela Farm at Shoresh in Toronto; and Steve Eisenbach-Budner for the Portland-based Jewish social justice program Tivnu.

Two fellows will be co-supported by the Avi Chai Foundation as part of the Joshua Venture Group’s first Jewish Day School Fellowship. Hyim Brandes of Los Angeles will further his Online Jewish Academy and Sarah Blattner of Portland, Ore., will work on Tamritz, a national online learning network for Jewish day school educators.

The Ruderman Foundation will co-support Joshua fellow Elana Naftalin-Kelman of Berkeley for Rosh Pina, which supports Jewish institutions to become special-needs certified through a one-year program. The first cohort of Joshua Venture Group fellows was in 2001.

Israel denies pro-Palestinian activists entry to West Bank

Pro-Palestinian activists were denied entry into the West Bank from Jordan by Israeli authorities.

Approximately 100 members of the Welcome to Palestine movement attempted to cross into the West Bank on Sunday via the Allenby Bridge.

The activists said they were carrying one ton of school supplies to give to Palestinian children in Bethlehem-area refugee camps, The Associated Press reported.

They traveled in two buses: One crossed from Jordan to the Israeli side of the crossing, where it was denied entry. The second was not permitted to leave Jordan, according to reports.

In April, Welcome to Palestine campaign activists arrived from several European countries and North America at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, where they declared their intention to travel to the West Bank in order to highlight that there is no way to visit what they call Palestine without traveling through Israel. Dozens were detained at the Israeli airport, and dozens more were prevented from leaving from their point of origin.

Last July, some 300 activists flew to Israel for a protest fly-in. About 120 were detained.

Importing Israeli creativity

Don’t buy Israeli products just to support the Jewish state. Buy them because they’re well-made, cutting-edge, even avant-garde in quality, look and feel, says Nili Shalev, Israel’s economic minister to North America.

“It’s not just important to buy Israeli. It’s a pleasure,” Shalev said.

“Israel produces high-quality products mainly targeted for export, since Israel itself is such a small market. Whether it’s fashion, jewelry or gourmet foods, they’re packaged beautifully to give the buyer a real feeling of uniqueness and innovation,” she said. “There is no better way to support the Israeli economy than to get engaged with Israeli companies that are active in the United States.”

Speaking from the two-day KosherFest exhibition in Secaucus, N.J., Shalev zeroed in on the many Israeli edibles that are marketed to (not just Jewish) consumers in all niches, from gluten-free to gourmet. “The advantage is that they are kosher but also tasty and healthful,” she said.

As for gadgets, Israeli brands such as Epilady are epic, but for the most part Israeli technology is on the inside. “Israeli innovation is embedded in practically every high-tech device on the market,” Shalev said.

There are other ways to wear Israel on the outside, however.

Lilly Berelovich, president of New York-based trend forecasting company Fashion Snoops, lived in Israel for four years and is now looking to promote hot Israeli designers such as Sharon Brunsher, Yosef Peretz, Anya Fleet and Aluma. She’s expecting to meet and greet these and many other established and up-and-coming designers at Tel Aviv Fashion Week, Nov. 21-23, and is working with the Israeli Embassy on ways to introduce them to American buyers.

“I want to elevate awareness of the creativity that Israel has to offer in all realms, to get the focus off the constant talk of conflict,” Berelovich said. “There are other things to talk about.”

She calls Israeli designers “daring, innovative and different. I think their creative angle is unlike anything I’ve tasted here in the U.S. It does not surprise me that a lot of high-tech ideas are born in Israel because of that creativity and daring. Israeli designers are not held back by commercialized concepts, and it shows in their use of fabric, detail and composition, even how silhouettes are cut.”

Berelovich is also a fan of home décor designers, such as Elemental, which don’t have much recognition outside of the Jewish state. “Our goal is to curate an event to highlight that,” she says. “People are still asking if there are a lot of camels in Israel, and they’re missing out on a lot of creative talent.”

There’s another category of creative talent that British-born Nikki Jason is working to publicize. She’s formed Co’motion (comotiongrp.com), a “super agency” composed of 14 Israeli providers offering a full range of sales, marketing, promotional and branding services to overseas companies, including some Fortune 500 A-listers.

“This is a wonderful example of how you can get creative, top-notch business services at lower cost from Israel,” Shalev said.

Jason explains that while living in Israel, she established a branding agency to help Israeli companies develop export strategies for marketing and branding. Now she’s expanding the concept.

“Israel is very isolated and restricted in terms of growth because it’s such a small market, so I turned to our collaborators and put together services for every field in business. We are helping HP launch new technologies and products, and we recently helped Apple launch its flat screens in Europe,” Jason said.

“We realized the capabilities of Israeli creativity are not limited to technology. We have package designers, print production experts, Web developers, social media and e-commerce specialists, top photographers and more. If you bought the same level of services in Manhattan, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars, but you can buy them in Israel for a fraction of the price.”

The Israeli government is supporting this effort, which represents some 150 employees working in Israel. “My mission for Co’motion is to make sure we can sell creative services the same way technology is selling Israeli innovation,” she says. “I feel that the way to support Israel is not [just] through philanthropy but through the work we do so well, sometimes in surprising areas.”

Federation plan a blow to Jewish Agency for Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Talk Israel’ tents coming to college campuses

The Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel are erecting white tents on 20 campuses throughout North America to serve as forums to discuss Israel and the Middle East.

The “Talk Israel” program will take place Sept. 20 and 21 at universities including the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, George Washington and the University of Maryland.

The tents will serve as campus venues for students to engage in respectful dialogue and raise questions and issues relating to the peace process and the Palestinian Authority’s statehood initiative at the United Nations.

“This is our answer to the war against Israel’s legitimacy that is being waged around the world; to bring Jewish students to Israel and to foster in them a sense of belonging, identity and pride,” Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement.

Rabbis pray for humane work conditions for tomato farmers

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America took part in a prayer event in a Florida Publix supermarket to help ensure the safety of tomatoes pickers.

Fifteen rabbis and two rabbinical students took part in the prayer circle Thursday in Naples urging Publix to sign the Fair Food Agreement, a contract that guarantees that tomato pickers are working in an environment with a zero-tolerance policy for trafficking and slavery, sexual assault and child labor. It also would raise their wages by a penny per pound of tomatoes.

Publix has refused repeatedly to sign the agreement or meet with workers.

The rabbis’ group has partnered with the Committee of Immokalee, a coalition of 4,000 tomato pickers, and they plan to stage another demonstration over Sukkot urging all major tomato retailers to sign the pledge. They also used social media to help push their message. 

Nine major retailers of tomatoes, including McDonalds, Whole Foods and Subway, have signed the pledge. 

“As rabbis, we are called upon to be moral leaders,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, the director of North American programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. “We cannot stand idly by as the workers who pick our tomatoes suffer some of the worst human rights abuses in America.”

North American immigrants lead in Israel’s nonprofit sector

When David Portowicz was a new immigrant to Israel from Brooklyn in the 1970s, he began research on poverty in Jaffa that would lead to his life’s work: the creation of a nonprofit organization that now serves thousands of disadvantaged children and their families.

A doctoral student in social work at the time, the small NGO he co-founded in 1982, the Jaffa Institute, today is a veritable force of nature with 35 programs and an annual operating budget of $6 million. The institute runs afterschool activity centers to help keep kids off the streets, offers university scholarships for 170 graduates of Jaffa programs, has shelters for runaways and even provides music lessons.

“It’s a mission of love,” Portowicz says. “You work hard.”

Portowicz is one of many immigrants from North America who along with other English-speaking immigrants to Israel have played an outsized role in Israel’s growing nonprofit sector. For many, the same idealistic instincts that prompted them to leave comfortable lives in North America, Britain and elsewhere for Israel led them to top roles in the Israeli nonprofit sector, and they have brought with them a mixture of can-do enthusiasm, background in grass-roots activism and fundraising skills that have helped make their projects successful.

“We are talking about the kind of people who are immigrants by choice,” said Alon Tal, an immigrant from the United States who founded one of the most influential environmental groups in Israel, Adam Teva V’din, Israel Union Environmental Defense.

“Many of us grew up in youth movements where you are raised on the idea that you are supposed to change the world,” Tal said. “It’s a certain kind of person willing to take a chance and who could have been very successful” in their home country. “For some of us, the thought was that if you are coming here, you might as well have an adventure.”

Over the last decade, the number of nongovernmental organizations in Israel has multiplied as Israel’s traditionally socialist-leaning welfare system has significantly downsized. Some 12,000 NGOs are now active in Israel. English-speaking immigrants have found their niche not only in reaching out to the socio-economically disadvantaged, but also in civil society areas like the environment, human rights, religious pluralism and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“It’s likely because Anglos come with a much more developed idea of civic society than other ethnic groups in the country, and so they get involved,” said Sydney Engelberg, a faculty member at Hebrew University’s program in nonprofit management.

“Part of my Zionist feeling was that if I can help anyone, I want to help children in Israel,” Portowicz said. “I think I made a bigger difference here than I thought I would make.”

When Tal came to Israel in 1990 at the age of 29, he vacillated between joining the just-established Environmental Ministry or establishing an environmental advocacy organization. He went with the latter.

“A large percentage of many Israeli nonprofits come from international Jewish philanthropy, so there is a home-court advantage for American immigrants in terms of English skills and cultural affiliation,” Tal told JTA.

Miriam Garmaise, an immigrant to Israel from Canada, also became a prominent environmentalist. She is the executive director of Shomera for a Better Environment, a nonprofit established in 1998 by Tamar Gindis, a fellow Canadian immigrant, that focuses on national, cross-sector projects. Their current flagship project is promoting a gray-water recycling initiative intended to jump-start the practice of recycling shower and laundry water as a way to save up to tens of millions of cubic meters of water a year.

Garmaise traces her interest in activism to growing up in Canada, where her parents were active in the Jewish community and projects to help Israel.

“The fact that people like me moved to Israel is because we consider Israel a very important place to be and to contribute to once we are here,” she said.

As for the bureaucratic and other stumbling blocks they face here, Garmaise is upbeat.

“I have come to respect the need for time and patience to make things happen,” she said.

Portowicz adds, “You persist. You don’t take no for an answer.”

Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who immigrated from the United States and founded ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, knows all about persistence. He fights what he says often seems like an interminably uphill battle to help Israeli and Diaspora Jews navigate the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which holds a monopoly on issues of religion like conversion and marriage.

Farber believes his American background has been helpful in his work, specifically his knowledge of how other Jewish religious leadership models work.

“In Israel people don’t feel as responsible for their Jewish life, so it can sometimes have less meaning,” Farber said. “What I can bring to the table is a middle ground, an opportunity for people to have their say.

“Americans put a lot of belief into the third sector to have power and make a difference,” he adds. “Because I’m a Zionist and this is the center of the Jewish people now, this is where I want to make my impact.”

Another American-run Israeli NGO involved in efforts to reduce tensions between religion and state is Tzohar, founded by a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in 1996, soon after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

The organization’s current executive vice president is Nahum Rosenberg, an American immigrant.

“It’s important to be not only bilingual but bicultural and live in both worlds,” Rosenberg said.

He says Americans bring advantages when it comes to fundraising and the culture of management.

“We may be nonprofits, but that does not mean we are not performance organizations. So you need to have that side,” he said, referring to professional Western standards for NGOs. “And you need to have that Israeli flair for ingenuity and perseverance with the ability to stretch every shekel as far as it can go.

“If you can seize on both traits, you can use them to your advantage.”

It’s official: Jewish camp strengthens Jewish identity

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish camp alumni—and their parents—have long known that those halcyon weeks spent at Jewish summer camp don’t just cement lifelong friendships, they strengthen Jewish identity.

Now they have it in writing.

A new study on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp concludes that those who have attended camp are more Jewishly engaged as adults, according to 13 key variables, than those who did not go to camp.

“We finally have a tool that proves Jewish camp works, that it helps create a more vibrant Jewish future,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advocates for more than 155 Jewish nonprofit camps in North America and sponsored the study.

“Camp Works: The long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp” used data from 26 national studies of adult Jewish engagement, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, to produce the first statistical look at the effect of Jewish camping on individual as well as communal Jewish identity.

The report shows the most pronounced increase in Jewish engagement in four areas not typically associated with non-Orthodox Jewish behavior. Three of them have to do with Jewish communal identity: Camp alumni are 55 percent more likely than Jewish adults who did not attend camp to say they are “very emotionally attached to Israel”; they are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month; and 30 percent more of them donate to Jewish federations.

This is significant, says lead researcher Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, because those three behaviors indicate a certain level of Jewish communal commitment, and it is precisely that communal identification that many Jewish experts fear is most at risk.

“Where camp has had its strongest effect has to do with its creation of an intense, temporary Jewish community,” said Cohen.

That communal experience imprints on the individual, he surmised, leading to a greater propensity to view one’s self within a larger Jewish social network in adulthood.

The other 10 areas of investigation also revealed increased Jewish engagement among camp alumni, from a 37 percent increase in those who “always/usually” light Shabbat candles to a 5 percent increase in the number of those who “always/usually” light Chanukah candles. These 10 areas are related to an individual sense of Jewish identity.

Camp’s impact is more pronounced among non-Orthodox Jews under 49 than their elders, the report notes. That’s probably not because more young Jews have gone to camp, Cohen speculates, but because more options are open to Jews today than in previous generations, and fewer of today’s American Jews live in a primarily Jewish environment.

“If you’re a younger person, you need the intentionality of Jewish camp, or day schools or youth groups, to compensate for the loss of the organic Jewish socialization experience that characterized our parents and grandparents,” he said. “It’s as if to be Jewish today, you have to be Jewishly educated.”

Jewish day schools and youth groups also have a strong impact on Jewish identity, Cohen notes. But similar data studies have not been performed for these two institutions, so the evidence is mainly anecdotal, as it was for camping until now.

“The answer to the question of how do we keep our kids Jewish is not so mysterious,” he concluded. “Strong Jewish homes, supplemented by intensive Jewish educational and socializing experiences.”

Not surprisingly, Fingerman hopes the report will encourage foundations and philanthropists to open their wallets and increase their financial support for Jewish overnight camps.

“It should also be compelling to local federations looking for the best use of their dollars,” said Fingerman, who spent eight summers at Wisconsin’s Camp Ramah in the 1970s and now sends his own children to Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. “Camps are proven programs in building community, not just Jewish identity.”

More than 70,000 children and teens attended Jewish overnight camp in 2010.

North American rabbis protest conversion policy

Dozens of North American Orthodox rabbis protested to Israel’s Interior Ministry following reports that converts under Orthodox auspices are being denied the right to immigrate.

“We are concerned that conversions performed under our auspices are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility,” said a letter delivered to the ministry on Tuesday. “We find this unacceptable, and turn to you in an effort to insure that those individuals whom we convert will automatically be eligible for aliyah as they have been in the past.”

On Wednesday, a meeting was held in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. Participants included representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh, ITIM—The Jewish Life Information Center, the Jewish Federations of North America, Israel’s Interior Ministry and the chief rabbinate, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, ITIM’s director. Farber, a central figure in organizing the letter, told JTA that the Interior Ministry, led by the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, did not agree during Wednesday’s meeting to retract its policy of consulting with the chief rabbinate on issues of Orthodox conversions, but did agree to consider each aliyah request by Orthodox converts on a case-by-case basis and to continue the discussion.

The Chief Rabbinate has become the defacto central body in determining the validity of Orthodox conversions, and it only recognizes about 20 religious courts in North America, mostly affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. Conservative and Reform converts are certified as Jewish by the central bodies of their respective movements.

In response to the letter, the plenary of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors adopted a resolution brought by the Unity of the Jewish People Committee calling on the Israeli government to confirm the Jewish Agency’s role in determining the eligibility of new immigrants.

The resolution passed Tuesday on the last day of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem and was initiated by Chairman Natan Sharansky, who told the board that Israel’s chief rabbinate should not be involved in determining who can be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

“I want to separate the argument about conversion from the recognition of Judaism for the sake of citizenship-eligibility under the Law of Return,” Sharansky told Haaretz. “It’s so important that a person who undergoes conversion according to the tradition of his community and who the community accepts as a Jew be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return.”

Birthright gets record number of applicants

Birthright Israel received a record-breaking number of North American applicants for its free, ten-day trip to Israel.

The organization, which provides all-expense-paid trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews aged 18 to 26, received 40,108 applicants during the seven-day registration period ending Tuesday.

Israel’s Minister For Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, called it ““the most successful project in the Jewish world.”

Currently, demand for the free trips far oustrips the resources available to pay for them. Birthright says it can send 15,000 of the applicants on trips between May and August, part of a larger total 33,000 young adults it will bring to Israel from all over the world in 2011.

The Israeli government announced in January it would be upping its contribution to the program to $100 million between 2011 and 2013. The money will only come through, however, if American philanthropists can raise $222 million over the same period.

Birthright hopes to bring 51,000 Jews to Israel in 2013.

Spectator – Family Doc Unlocks Doors

Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y, Eileen Douglas lived for the moments she could climb into her grandfather’s lap and find the pennies he brought — special for her. He faithfully visited his grandchildren every day after leaving his work as a butcher. Yet he never really spoke about his upbringing in Kovno, Lithuania.

“I thought we weren’t allowed to talk about it, that if you did, you would hurt the family,” Douglas recalled. “My grandfather died suddenly when I was 12 and I never got to say goodbye.”

Some 25 years after her grandfather died, Douglas paid a visit to her childhood home and stumbled upon a series of forgotten family photographs.

“These were people I’d never seen before,” Douglas recalled. “I was shocked … they shattered my identity. How could it be that I did not know my own story?”

A broadcast journalist who spent her life telling the stories of other people, Douglas decided to apply years of professional expertise to her own personal history. The resulting 2004 documentary, “My Grandfather’s House,” records a poignant family saga that many Jews will find familiar.

Written and narrated by Douglas, the film, which screens Monday at the Skirball Center, unfolds like a personal diary as it chronicles the events that lead to the filmmaker’s trip to Kovno. Accompanied by her adult daughter, Douglas searches for the home where her grandfather lived. Finally, as a woman in her 50s, she learns how her grandfather escaped conscription into the czar’s army by fleeing to America. She also discovers how other relatives got herded into the Kovno Ghetto.

Douglas Steinman, who co-produced “My Grandfather House,” views his partner’s quest as “reversing the breaking of the glass, of restoring a family to one piece.”

The detective work involved in making the film put Douglas in touch with more than 30 family members in North America, Russia and Israel that she either never met or had not heard from in years.

“I’ve got my family back,” she said, “both living and dead.”

“My Grandfather’s House” screens Sept. 19, 7 p.m, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. $5 (general). For information, call (818) 771-5554 or visit www.jewishgen.org/jgsla.


Light and Thanks

I spent most of this past week at the United JewishCommunities (UJC) General Assembly (GA), the annual gathering which, this year,brought nearly 4,000 Jewish communal representatives (and journalists) fromNorth America, Israel and elsewhere overseas.

The GA is part sales seminar, part pep rally, partcontinuing education, and major schmoozefest. This year, it was also somethingelse: befuddling.

Spend a half-hour in the hallways between sessions and youget a sense of the intensity and vigor of contemporary Jewish life. Acharged-up communal leader from Knoxville, Tenn., told me the Jewish communitythere is strong and active. The rabbi from Austin, Texas boasted of abeautiful, multimillion dollar new Jewish Community Center campus. The layleader from Tulsa, Okla., said Jews there were active and involved, andactivists from Boston, Chicago and New York talked a mile a minute about newprojects, new organizations, new ventures.

As I write this it’s past midnight on the third day of theconvention, the hotel lobby is still noisy with animated conversation, and agiant electronic scroll board over Center City reads, “WELCOME UNITED JEWISHCOMMUNITIES WELCOME UNITED JEWISH COMMUNITIES WELCOME UNITED JEWISHCOMMUNITIES.”

Then there are the actual, big lectures, the plenarysessions that are meant to rally and inspire the troops. They are lugubrious:anti-Semitism in Europe, on campus, in Canada. Terror here and abroad. Crisisin Israel, in Argentina, in the economy. Outside the meeting rooms, strengthand vigor; inside, doom and gloom. Outside, “Candide”; inside, Cassandra. 

As one speaker went on (and on) about the tragediesconfronting the Jews, I ducked into the hallway, where I bumped into MortKlein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. “What is this guytalking about?” said Klein. “On and on and on, all these tales of woe.” Hewasn’t being callous — he’s as aware of the tragedies as we all are — he justwanted to hear a call to action. Ease up on the hysteria and give it a littleinspiration — and a little reality check.

The very people listening to the tales of woe are the verysame lay and staff leaders whose fundraising efforts place UJC as thehighest-ranking Jewish philanthropic organization in the United States,according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They have access to the worlds ofmedia, government and business unprecedented in the history of the Jewishpeople. They are, by almost any measure, stronger and more vibrant than at anyother time in their history.

Events are terrible, as the brutal Jerusalem bus bombing onThursday morning showed. Israelis suffer daily under the fear and the realityof terror.

But even that reality doesn’t begin to describe theremarkable fact of Israel, its resilience and the daily achievements of itspeople. To cement Israelis in the American Jewish mind as nothing butvictims-in-waiting is to demean the country and its people. My sense is thatmost of the participants gathered information in the meeting rooms, but a senseof perspective in the hallways.

I gained some perspective dipping into a book I had broughtalong. “Emma’s War” by Deborah Scroggins documents the life and death of anEnglish relief worker in Sudan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The horrorsdescribed in the book, the famines, massacres and slave raids that destroyedmillions of lives while we in the West did little to help, stayed with me as Iheard the Jewish people’s current woes enumerated.

It demeans no one’s suffering — and there has been too muchthis past year — to also count our blessings. Happy Thanksgiving and HappyChanukah.

Why Not L.A.?

When the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA) of North America convened its April 21-24 Biennial 2002 convention in Los Angeles, delegates from all over the continent assembled to discuss the challenges facing the JCC system: security issues, the direction of early childhood education and camp components, a lack of financial resources and the breakdown of the nuclear family.

Oddly enough, what was largely missing from the discussion during the four-day convention was the recent meltdown of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA).

The irony of Los Angeles playing host to the JCCA convention was not lost on its delegates. The gathering was held within weeks after seismic shifts at JCCGLA’s central office that have created rifts between JCCGLA and its chief subsidizer, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The changes have led to the termination of programs and the closure of three local JCC centers — Silver Lake-Los Feliz, Bay Cities and North Valley — with more possible cutbacks to come.

"There’s some irony involved," said Howard Wasserman, representing the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, commenting on Los Angeles as Biennial 2002’s city of choice. "I’m sure there’s been conversation about the L.A. centers, but I haven’t been privy to it."

Neither had a cross-section of the 800 delegates arriving from all across the United States and Canada.

"They haven’t gone into details, but it’s been mentioned," said Wendy Bernstein, a lay person representing Houston’s sole JCC.

"A lot of JCCs have gone through what we have gone through, and they have rebuilt and that’s what we’re going to do," said Randy Myer, Biennial 2002 co-chair and JCCGLA board vice president.

Philip Shiekman, a JCC of Philadelphia board member who received an for distinguished contributions to the Jewish Community Center field, offered a different perspective. "I’ve been involved with JCC Association for 30 years, and I don’t know of any city like L.A. going through a situation like this. I’ve seen individual centers have problems. A number of JCC Association centers disassociated themselves from the JCC Association because they couldn’t pay dues, but nothing like this."

According to Shiekman, Alan Mann, president of JCC of North America, and Alan Finkelstein, JCC executive director, did explain the JCCGLA situation at a closed board meeting.

"They were here in Los Angeles to help," he said. "We all support that."

The decision to hold Biennial 2002 at the Century Park Plaza in Century City was made two years ago before the current Los Angeles crisis, during Biennial 2000 in Boston. Despite JCCGLA’s problems, about 800 people attended the Los Angeles biennial — a small drop from Boston 2000’s tally of just over 1,000.

As for the JCCGLA-Federation rift, leaders on both sides say they are closer to choosing mutually agreed upon mediators who can help address their points of conflict.

If there was a lack of representation at Biennial 2002, it was with local JCCGLA lay leaders. The majority of attendees came from every major city except Los Angeles.

"The Jewish community here hasn’t focused on the biennial. They have other things to focus on," Ballin said. Ballin and Brown noted that biennials attract more numbers when held on the East Coast, which makes a convention more economical and accessible by car. This year’s convention entailed booking flights at a time when post-Sept. 11 queasiness still lingers.

Century Park’s Santa Monica Room was the heart of Biennial 2002 — a small convention floor where institutions such as the Shalom Institute and the Anti-Defamation League set up booths. The Jewish Book Council booth sold books by authors such as Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University who spoke at the biennial. And for the first time, an arts-and-crafts corner allowed guests to make mezuzot with Nancy Katz of Eye of the Needle and paint a "Jewish values" banner.

The JCCGLA crisis aside, Biennial 2002 covered a variety of topics and activities for JCC personnel. Speakers included Dr. Daniel Gordis, director of Mandel Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel School in Jerusalem, and professor Steven Cohen, director of the Florence G. Heller-JCC Association Research Center in Jerusalem.

Seminars focused on such topics as "Hosting the JCC Maccabi Games" (the games’ 20th anniversary was honored at Biennial 2002’s opening dinner) and "Terrorist Nightmares vs. American Dreams." Plenaries touched on community issues and what the JCC membership can do to support Israel. Activities included a party at Sony’s Culver City lot.

While Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, JCC Association scholar-in-residence, mentioned 1999’s North Valley JCC shooting in passing, Sept. 11 was the catalyst for discussions on security issues. Another area of exploration was the dissolution of family and societal ties.

"There isn’t community now as there was in the past," Ballin said. "Families no longer go bowling, play bridge, have picnics."

Despite these challenges, JCC representatives did not believe that the JCC system is obsolete. If anything, Shiekman said, they are needed now more than ever.

"Very often, the center is the only Jewish organization that nonaffiliated Jews belong to," he said. "It’s the one place where they are not threatened. They would rather join a Jewish gym than a YMCA."

However, Shiekman did not lose sight of what was essential to keeping the system relevant.

"Quality is the key if you’re going to compete very well with non-Jewish services," he said.

Cyrisse Haddad of Sephardic Community Center of Brooklyn, who came to biennial with her colleague Marty Maskowitz, received a JCC leadership award and collected several other awards on behalf of the center, which has a membership of 1,400, made up mostly of Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian Jews. With a membership that is only 20 percent Ashkenazi, the JCC affiliate reflects the 50,000 Sephardic Jews of Brooklyn’s Midwood area.

"We’re always looking to improve our board and services," Haddad said.

Wasserman saw Biennial 2002 as "an opportunity to meet with people in similar work. We’re in a very unique position. We have 50,000 Russian-speaking refugees in our community," he said of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn.

Expanding financial resources was an issue for both Brooklyn centers.

Locally, JCCGLA executives said they were satisfied with what Biennial 2002 had to offer.

"It has helped us clarify who we are, what we’re doing and what we can be one day," Myer said.

Out-of-towners such as Shiekman ultimately found any focus on the JCCGLA situation to be beside the point. After all, as Nina Lieberman Giladi told The Journal, JCCGLA will soon present a JCC renewal plan, accompanied by a citywide fundraising campaign, to Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

"It’s irrelevant," Shiekman said. "The answer is that we know they are trying to rectify the situation. We know it’s not the end because they’re working to resolve it."

Nervous But United

In a speech that was the centerpiece of the North American Jewish federation system’s gathering in Chicago this week, Israel’s prime minister recalled being a small child when he heard of the United Nations’ 1947 vote to partition Palestine.

That period – when the Jews’ willingness to split the land was rebuffed by Arabs, precipitating Israel’s difficult but triumphant War of Independence – parallels the situation of the Jewish state today, said Ehud Barak.

Again, he told more than 4,000 flag-waving Jews on Monday at a rally intended to show solidarity for the embattled state, Israel feels its efforts at compromise have been rebuffed and that it may face another war.It was against this backdrop – and perhaps because of it – that this year’s General Assembly drew 4,500 participants, the first sell-out in recent memory, organizers said.

With Monday’s large solidarity rally, unprecedented security measures, about 100 Arabs demonstrating outside and a bevy of Israel-related programming, this week’s gathering of Jewish leaders from around North America was not a typical G.A., as the gathering is commonly known.

Security was unusually strict at the sprawling downtown hotel where the assembly took place. Police stopped approaching vehicles, searching under them as well as inside the hoods and trunks. Inside, guests were frequently asked to show their nametags.

Amid intense fighting between Israel and the Palestinians – shooting attacks by Palestinians this week killed two Israeli soldiers and two civilians – the heightened security was clearly intended as a precaution against any terrorist action against Israel’s top leaders and a major Jewish gathering.

But despite the threat of war facing Israel, Barak’s message to North American Jewry was one of peace and solidarity.

Israel must be “liberated from the crushing burden of never-ending war,” said Barak, whose speech was preceded by a multiracial Israeli youth choir that sang folk songs about peace.

“We derive great strength from knowing that we in Israel are not alone,” he said.

Despite his repeated message that there is no alternative to peace, Barak also squarely blamed the Palestinians for the violence and outlined several conditions – including a “Jerusalem broader than it has ever been in history” – for a peace agreement.

A speech early Tuesday morning by opposition leader Ariel Sharon had a somewhat different tone.He outlined his own plan for peace, but without mentioning Barak’s name, criticized the prime minister for asking President Clinton during their meeting on Sunday to help bring about a reduction in, rather than a cessation of, the violence.

After years in which the G.A. had been dominated by debates about religious pluralism and hammering out details of the newly formed United Jewish Communities (UJC), issues of Jewish solidarity and Israel ruled the day.

The UJC, formed by a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, is the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social service system.

But despite Israel’s starring role, it did not – as some had initially feared – crowd out all other issues.For the first time, the Jewish Outreach Institute sponsored sessions, many well-attended, on outreach to interfaith families. There were sessions on Jewish education. And the top professional of the UJC delivered a speech that focused more on the institutional changes federations need to make than it did on Israel.”Our infrastructure needs to be majorly overhauled if we’re going to continue to be relevant,” said Stephen Solender, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, citing the need for more designated giving opportunities for donors, upgraded technology and collective responsibility for maintaining and enhancing a central fund-raising and funding system for local, national and overseas needs.

Cantors Sing a New Song

If Jewish Los Angeles seemed a more melodious place in late June, you can thank 250 of the Reform movement’s sweet singers of Israel, who gathered in Beverly Hills to celebrate Jewish music and share their knowledge, skills, and repertoire.

The 47th annual convention of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and the Guild of Temple Musicians (GTM), the first to be held in greater Los Angeles since 1982, met June 25-29 at the Beverly Hilton. Participants included Reform cantors and cantorial soloists from across North America, plus a smattering of synagogue music directors and organists.

The programming covered the full range of musical styles now being offered in – or proposed for – Reform synagogues, with an emphasis on West Coast composers. “We wanted to let people know that this is where it’s happening,” said Cantor Sam Radwine of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, a member of the convention’s local planning committee.

Much of the week’s activities reflected the trend toward synagogue music that’s easily singable by congregants and that incorporates contemporary sounds, including Craig Taubman’s popular “Friday Night Live” music and Cantor Steve Puzarne’s Tish Tones, a instrumentally and stylistically eclectic ensemble that has proved popular at Puzarne’s synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica.

Almost as strong a current throughout the convention as the musical character of Reform worship was attention to the role of the cantor, which has expanded, especially in how it’s perceived by rabbis and congregants, since many of the ACC members began their careers.

While many cantors have long worked with religious school children, helped prepare adolescents for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and made hospital visits, it’s only recently that congregations have come to view cantors as educators and counselors as well as singers. “When I started out… I felt like a jukebox, where every time we needed a song, a quarter would be put in, and ka-ching, it was time to sing,” said Cantor Judith Rowland of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a past president of the ACC.

“I think in today’s modern congregation, the cantor is more and more perceived as a partner in the clergy role of educating, moving, touching each and every member with his or her own individual expertise,” Rowland added.

The cantor plays a crucial role in Jewish lifecycle events and in healing rituals, said Anne Brener, a psychotherapist who has written extensively on caregiving and bereavement and who lectures at Hebrew Union College. “Cantors work with people at the most profound moments in their lives,” she said.In a workshop titled “The Cantor as Counselor,” Brener told participants of the need to create a “healing space” between themselves and the people to whom they’re listening. “More than just about anybody, I think cantors have the tool to create this space, which is your music,” she said.

Similarly, Arlene Chernow, Reform’s regional outreach director for the Southwest, led a workshop on the cantor’s role in welcoming mixed families and converts to Judaism. “Music is one of the places where the connection is made,” she told participants, adding that cantors are often seen by non-Jews in a congregation as more approachable than rabbis and therefore should have their radar up for people who need a supportive temple leader.

“I think the congregation sees their cantor now… as a person who they can come to for counseling, a person who they can come to for solace, who they can depend on in time of need and joy, someone who carries their prayer with [his] own,” said Cantor Scott Colbert of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta.The 2000 ACC/GTM convention provided glorious music and collegial interaction, plus new tunes and ideas to share with congregations. As Cantor Linda Ecker of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, another member of the convention’s local planning committee, said, it was meant to send participants home “refreshed, revitalized and ready to roll.”

No one expressed the role of the cantor better than Samuel Kelemer, cantor emeritus of Temple Beth Am and a founder of the ACC, who became a chazzan before he became a bar mitzvah and was honored at the convention’s Wednesday night banquet for more than 70 years in the cantorate. “I’m happy to say that I helped thousands of people feel closer to God,” Kelemer said. “It’s more than a calling – it’s a privilege.”