NEW YORK (Oct. 28)
Seattle is gearing up for one of the biggest annual Jewish conversations in North America.
A few thousand lay leaders and professionals from organized Jewish life will converge Nov. 13-16 on the Pacific Northwest for the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.
The gathering serves both as an opportunity for reunions and networking, and as a time for serious dialogue about the future of the Jewish community and how its institutions can best nurture and serve it.
The program will feature such luminaries as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
But the core of the conference will be the role of federations in the next century as Jewish communal identity and responsibility continues to be transformed.
CJF is the coordinating and service organization for more than 200 autonomous local federations in North America, many of which are reporting energized fund- raising campaigns after several years of flat or flagging giving.
Some local leaders look to the assembly, popularly known as the G.A., as a place to become energized about shared values and passions.
Cindy Chazan, for one, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, said she draws inspiration at the G.A. “from people who care about the future of the Jewish community as I do.”
“For a few brief days, you feel like you’re part of a kehillah,” she said, using the Hebrew word for community.
She said it is a place to brainstorm about how to make federations “relevant” to people who now are indifferent or disaffected so that there will be people “to care and give in the future.”
Chazan said her city’s campaign now is “on the road back” from what she claims is the largest percentage drop in the country, from an all-time high of $8.1 million in 1989 to an all-time low of $4.5 million in 1995.
For Lawrence Fine, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, N.Y., the assembly is especially important for volunteers. For them, it is “very reinforcing to find out there are 3,000 people who share their passion” about Jewish issues, he said.
Federation professionals across the country said the meeting comes as they are continuing to grapple with three central challenges: how to strengthen and preserve Jewish identity, how to meet stepped-up local program needs at a time when government cuts are straining budgets and how to ensure a meaningful connection between North American Jewry and Israel.
“We will have to deal with enormous agendas,” said Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.
No matter who wins the U.S. elections Nov. 5, he said, the federation world will face a public-private partnership that “will be changed forever.”
There will be instances of deep cutbacks, such as in the case of long-term care for the elderly, where “there will be no way philanthropy can make up the shortfall,” he said.
At the same time, said Feinstein, the community is looking inward, intent on forging a Jewish identity that reflects a “harmony” between “tradition and the demands of modern life.”
And when it comes to Israel-Diaspora relations, he said, “we are entering a very important new, post-philanthropic phase in our relationship with Israel.”
Making its official debut at the G.A. will be a new, widely touted program aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and the Israel connection through youth trips.
The “Israel Experience” program aims to double or triple the relatively paltry numbers of North American youths visiting the Jewish state each year.
It is sponsored by a consortium of CJF, the United Jewish Appeal, the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Said Carl Sheingold, CJF assistant executive vice president and a key architect of the G.A.: “We are living through a time of dramatic change,” both institutionally and in “visions of who we are as a people and as individual Jews.”
“I always see the G.A. as the one opportunity we have every year for the people who care about these issues to take stock together of where we are as a whole community” and of where the community is going, he added.
The G.A. will take place amid continuing efforts to forge a partnership between CJF and UJA after the demise in the spring of a plan for a full merger of the two organizations.
UJA and local federations jointly run the central Jewish annual philanthropic campaign for domestic and overseas programs.
CJF leadership sent a memo earlier this month to federation presidents and executives that acknowledged “the frustration and disappointment in the time it has taken to move forward” with restructuring the system to make it more efficient and effective.
The memo also outlined the continuing process of consultation with local federation leaders, stressing that there is general consensus that a full merger with UJA should be the ultimate goal.
But the two organizations have been trying to iron out differences that surfaced after a draft concept was proposed in July for an equal partnership between UJA and federations.
For Fine of Rochester, the restructuring discussion is important because it is about “creating a set of institutions which represents how we think of ourselves as a Jewish community and who we want to be.”
The CJF memo also noted that there have been $400,000 in recent budget cuts at CJF. They “have seriously impacted CJF at a time when more is being demanded of us,” the leadership wrote.
CJF is strapped by a commitment it made to federations in the context of the merger discussions that it would not raise dues for the next three years.