The thousands of American and Canadian Jews who gathered here last week for the annual convention of federation Jewry found neither a defining crisis nor a clear theme.
Instead, the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations quietly advanced the issue that has been on the front burner for the past couple of years: promoting American Jewish continuity and identity in an era of assimilation and intermarriage.
Marcy Kolodny, who is campaign chairman for the women’s division of Baltimore’s Jewish federation, came to the G.A. for reasons true for thousands of others: “to get re-energized, to share and to learn, and to meet old friends.”
By bringing together so many community lay activists and professionals for federations, the United Jewish Appeal and other organizations, the G.A. has in the past served as a catalyst for the burning issue of the moment.
Recent assemblies have been riveted by debates over Israel’s definition of “who is a Jew” (1988) and how best to fund the massive emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union (1990).
And longtime delegates here recalled that when the G.A. was last held in Montreal, in 1979, there were protests from Sephardic activists complaining that their community was not getting a fair shake.
This year, though, “I know of zero controversy, and that might be the first year that it’s true,” said Jacob Kirschner of South River, N.J.
Kirschner is a member of the CJF Board of Delegates, the broadest governing body for CJF, which represents nearly 200 Jewish community federations in North America.
Still, the consistent attention paid to Jewish continuity and Jewish identity — concerns that dominated last year’s assembly in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study — indicate that a revolution in attitudes has occurred.
“Ten years ago you would not have had 700 people in a room talking about those issues,” said Lawrence Fine, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, N.Y.
Similarly, Peter Geffen, who directs programs of the CRB Foundation aimed at increasing the number of Jewish youth traveling to Israel, told a packed workshop on the topic that “this gathering is the first time we’ve had more than 30 people at a session about this.”
THE COSMIC AND THE PRACTICAL
The 150-page schedule for the G.A. presented a mind-numbing array of lectures, workshops and meetings. They began Nov. 15 with a seminar for new federation professionals and concluded Sunday with a program for student journalists.
In between, meetings ranged from the cosmic (Carl Sagan and Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch on Judaism and the environment) to the practical (how best to manage the billions of dollars in federation endowment funds).
A group of more than a dozen sessions devoted to continuity effectively picked up where last year’s G.A. left off.
While the 1992 G.A. addressed broad questions of vision and attempted to rally the troops behind the cause, the focus this year was much more on the nuts and bolts of promoting Jewish identity.
While the Middle East peace process did not dominate the proceedings as some might have expected, it gave impetus to a series of discussions on the future relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
A couple of dozen participants, North Americans and Israelis, met together throughout the G.A. for small-scale discussions of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
And on Saturday, a number of Shabbat study sessions and workshops were devoted to Israel-Diaspora relations.
The Israelis present included representatives of the Israeli government, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and other organizations funded by North American Jewry.
In addition, the G.A. was an occasion for national Jewish organizations to gather their boards and quietly conduct the business of American Jewish life in corridors and hotel suites.
The formal business of the CJF, including the election of incoming President Maynard Wishner, frequently took second billing.
In fact, this year even the name General Assembly was somewhat of a misnomer, following revisions in the CJF bylaws last year that made the Board of Delegates, rather than a General Assembly, the organization’s governing body.