2017-12-06 / Voice at the Shore

JFNA assembly calls for religious pluralism in Israel, lauds successes of Jewish unity

Voice shore editor

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said GA attendees had a “real, positive and effective impact on the Israeli system and society.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said GA attendees had a “real, positive and effective impact on the Israeli system and society.” The Jewish people are strongest when we work together, return to Jewish values, and unite in service to those values while respecting each other’s differences. That was the overriding message of this year’s General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, held November 12-14 in Los Angeles.

The assembly brought together roughly 3,000 professionals and supporters from 113 Federations worldwide— including the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties—to hear a star-studded lineup of speakers. These included Israeli leaders such as president Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Hollywood heavyweights like GA co-chair Marc Platt, producer of the movie “La La Land”; and famous Jewish voices like Natan Sharansky and Rabbi David Wolpe.

“The most important thing about the GA, for me, was that it recognized the kinship of all Jewish people, regardless of belief and levels of religious participation— regardless of how we are raised and how we practice,” said local Jewish Federation President David Lieberman, who attended the GA for the first time. He noted that on the local level, accepting diversity is crucial to making people feel comfortable enough to get Jewishly involved.

The JNFA’s commitment to pluralism and the acceptance of all Jews, regardless of belief or practice, rang out loud and clear after a Monday morning GA meeting of Federation leaders.

There, JFNA passed a resolution calling upon the Israeli government to enforce an agreement on egalitarian prayer at the Kotel (which has been suspended since

June) and to withdraw support for a bill giving Orthodox authorities control over conversions to Judaism.

The JFNA resolution was designed to put pressure on Israel to “deliver on the promise that Israel is the home for all Jews,” said JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman.

Speaking just hours after passage of the resolution, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said “it causes such pain that the symbol of unity, the Wall of our tears and joy, has become a symbol of division and disagreement.” He implored GA attendees to “respect Israel’s democratic … decision-making process,” and assured them: “You have a real, positive and effective impact on the Israeli system and society, believe me.”

“I know we have arguments, but let’s put them aside and work together for the good of the State of Israel, the Jewish people and America,” said Rivlin, who outlined a shared agenda that included fighting anti-Semitism, securing the State of Israel (especially from the Iranian nuclear threat), and passing on a sense of Jewish identity to the next generation.

Rivlin also commented on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying: “The lives of Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews are bound together… We share the same land, the same holy places, the same water and the same sky. There will be no peace until we all understand we are not doomed to live together, [but] it is our destiny to live together.”

Netanyahu also spoke to the GA via satellite. Like Rivlin, he also expressed regret over the American-Israeli rift over egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. Netanyahu assured GA attendees that he personally felt very strongly “that all Jews feel at home in Israel,” although he also pointed out that religious issues were usually resolved by “evolution not resolution.”

JFNA’s successes in rallying Jewish communities to action— most recently to help hurricane-ravaged Houston, and previously to help Soviet Jewry—were held up throughout the three-day conference as examples of the importance and power of JFNA’s ability to organize and mobilize the Jewish Community.

According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, nearly three-quarters of the city’s Jewish population live in areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Two thousand of the city’s 26,000 Jewish families were impacted, as well as many Jewish-owned businesses and organizations. In response to this disaster, JFNA set up a relief fund and Federation representatives from all over traveled to Houston to offer aid.

“One community could not have dealt with this problem alone,” said Becky Sobelman- Stern, executive vice president for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who assisted the Greater Houston Federation’s efforts to set up a command center.

Perhaps the freshest and most interesting voices at the GA were those of younger attendees. About 800 of the approximately 3,000 conference attendees were aged 45 or under, said GA co-chair Julie Platt. Speakers from this age group—a demographic often perceived by their elders as apathetic— delivered powerful messages about the importance of Jewish involvement for a generation hungry to find a sense of purpose and meaningful connection.

“Millennials [young adults born between 1982-2002] crave meaning,” stressed speaker Sean Rad, a Millennial entrepreneur from a Persian-Jewish immigrant family who created the dating app Tinder.

“People think that Millennials have lost their connection with Judaism,” explained Rad. However, the truth is that they are just more serious about their search for meaning. “Millennials won’t accept a belief system just because it was handed down to them,” he noted.

Rad acknowledged that many older Jewish people did not understand or respect Millennials’ preferred approach to Jewish engagement. “A lot of people want to go back” to old ways of doing things, he said, “but you can’t; you’ve got to go forward.”

Famed rabbi and author David Wolpe encouraged attendees to wrestle with the issues and lessons they had encountered at the GA, so that they could ultimately take meaningful action. “The hardest part of the GA is next month,” he said. “Will you carry the inspiration forward? Will your children see you visibly act on Jewish values?”

Lieberman said that attending the GA definitely inspired him and gave him new ideas for how to engage people locally. He also said the conference renewed his personal commitment to Jewish philanthropy by showing him the incredible difference federations can make. 

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