It felt like a summer camp reunion as a thousand Jews, crowded into an overflowing hotel ballroom, swayed arm-in-arm while musician Debbie Friedman led them in singing a prayer asking God for healing and strength.
The setting, however, was a reunion of a different kind – the annual gathering of Jewish communal leaders at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.
The experience of joining together with other Jews and singing and praying together “was like being cleansed inside,” said Marci Erlebacher, her eyes wet with tears.
“We need to get in touch with our Judaism,” said Erlebacher, who volunteers as vice president for community relations at the Syracuse, N.Y., Jewish federation.
This year’s general assembly marked the first time that lay leaders and staff members of Jewish communal organizations across North America focused on experiencing – and not just talking about – the stuff that inspires Jewish continuity.
The shift in focus came just as the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity issued its final report, urging stronger communal attention to Jewish-identity building programs.
The convention, held here at the Hynes Convention Center Nov. 15-17, was like an enormous Jewish continuity idea fair as communal leaders debated their priorities: funding Jewish education, strengthening Jewish culture, creating more programs to attract young adults and intermarried families, or providing human services.
Many communities are grappling with painful decisions about what to take funding away from in order to support new initiatives intended to connect more Jews with the life of the community.
The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that more than half of adult Jews do not belong to or regularly participate in synagogues, Jewish community centers or Jewish Federations.
The attempt to counter this trend comes as communities face a shrinking pool of dollars and increasing social service needs.
“The overriding issue for [local] federations is how do we make sure there are resources for all” these plans, said Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, known as JESNA, which works closely with federations on continuity-related issues.
Jewish federations are the local fund-raising umbrella groups that run – and fund – many of the Jewish communities’ social service, educational and cultural programs.
As priorities change, the power and influence of those who have long enjoyed running the Jewish community is also at stake, said speakers at several sessions at the assembly.
“Being in partnership [with other organizations] means giving up power,” warned Miriam Yenkin, chairwoman of the Jewish Education and Identity Committee in Columbus, Ohio.
“Change is dislocating, unnerving. We had better be ready to lose positions, portfolios and power,” agreed Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal.
“People my age should get out of the seats and give people under 40 the control,” exhorted Cardin, the white-haired, longtime leader of Jewish organizations.
But amid the mood of trepidation, there was something else overarching the debate and feeding a sense of unity of purpose: connection with Jewish spirituality, which was a major focus of the most popular working sessions at the gathering.
Four institutes, each containing several workshops and panel discussions, were offered to the 4,000 general assembly delegates: financial resource development; public social policy and human services; Israel-Diaspora relations; and Jewish identity and continuity.
G.A. organizers expected about 600 participants in the Jewish identity and continuity track, but were inundated by requests from hundreds more who wanted to join. Although enrollment was closed at 850, at least 1,000 crowded into overflowing ballrooms to sing, to dance and to pray together.
Although continuity has been high on the agenda of the CJF gathering for several years, this year’s program emphasized hands-on connection with “doing Jewish.”
“So often our only connection to the Jewish community is through politics,” said Erlebacher. “For a long time I said that politics is my spirituality. I felt turned off by synagogues. Now I’ve learned that there is a place for me spiritually in Judaism and that I just have to seek it.”
According to Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, “The most important part of this journey must take place when we return home,” when Jewish organizational leaders can implement “do Jewish” in their own programs.
Additional sessions themed around “Jewish Hope, Jewish Joy, Jewish Culture: Invigorating the Jewish Community” were crowded. A lecture on the Torah portion of the week, given by internationally renowned teacher Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, was packed.
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub expressed shock that two sessions devoted to Jewish spiritual healing were included in the hectic G.A. schedule – a first for the convention – and that the sessions which he and others led were overflowing with eager participants.
“Jewish continuity is coming of age,” said Weintraub, rabbinic coordinator at the National Center for Jewish Healing. “This buzzword has reached a content level that is at once deeply personal and deeply communal.”
Delegates from the host federation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, wore buttons at the G.A. espousing “Torah and Tzedek,” or justice.
Anything so religiously rooted “wouldn’t have been on a federation button a decade ago,” said Carolyn Keller, director of the Boston federation’s commission on Jewish continuity, speaking at a session devoted to synagogue- federation partnerships.
Many of the continuity themes discussed in the G.A. sessions are dealt with in the report of the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity, which was released at the convention.
The 88-member commission consisted of rabbis, academics, educators and lay leaders from across the religious spectrum, who came together six times in the last two years to formulate a plan for the Jewish community as a whole.
The report, titled “Lechadesh v’lekadesh,” or “To Renew and To Sanctify: A Call to Action,” endorses principles that are already being adopted in many local communities and being planned in many others.
They include building communitywide partnerships and investing in intensive Jewish education, youth programs and young families.
“This was not a commission that discovered new ideas that no one had thought of before,” said JESNA’s Woocher, who staffed the commission. “The most remarkable thing, given the breadth of the group, is that there is a lot we actually agree on.”
One of the major points of agreement is the necessity to fund and make available to all Jews an intensive Jewish education.
“It’s very hard to talk about prayer in synagogues when there isn’t Jewish literacy,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Boston federation, at a session titled “From Vision to Action.”
“You have to have the tools in order to be spiritual,” agreed Deborah Lipstadt, an associate professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Many sessions included time devoted to studying parts of Torah. Such sessions served as a way of realizing in an immediate and powerful way the big-picture goal of many communities.
The assembly’s focus on youth and Jewish continuity was in strong contrast to one night’s evening entertainment, which consisted of an intermarried pair of well-known theatrical personalities – Ali Wallach and Anne Jackson – introducing other gray-haired stars who reminisced about the glory days of yesteryear by telling stories threaded with Yiddish jokes.
It reminded many in the audience of nothing less than the entertainment at the “borscht-belt” hotels in the Catskill Mountains.
Perhaps next year, said John Ruskay, executive director of education and community services at UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, “if we keep moving ahead, an evening plenary will be devoted to text study.”