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Focus on Issues: G.A. Delegates Grapple with Federations’ Relevance

The headlines may have focused on bomb threats, the Israeli prime minister and the politics of religious pluralism dividing the world Jewish family.

But there was another, albeit quieter, drama playing out here last week at the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, the umbrella body serving 200 federations in North America.

Delegates grappled at workshops and plenary sessions with what role federations can and must play as the new century dawns. How, they asked, can federations be relevant to American Jews, half of whom are not affiliated with or engaged by the Jewish organizational world?

They also sought to redefine the meaning of Jewish community and brainstorm about how to reinvigorate its institutions.

Underpinning all the discussion, of course, was the pressure of knowing that to keep these institutions alive, federations must compete hard for Jewish dollars solicited for other causes.

Arnold Eisen, religious studies professor at Stanford University, told delegates that the “task of imagining federations of the future begins by talking about communities.”

He called on them to “redeem the future,” saying that there will be few Jews left in North America “unless we reimagine and reconstruct our Jewish communities.”

Jews are hungry for meaning and connection and “often don’t find it in Jewish institutions.”

He said the central question is: “What are we going to make of the inheritance we received or chose?”

A central challenge in articulating a communal vision is embracing diversity and inclusiveness, he said. “We need the wisdom of all at the table at which Torah is studied.”

The G.A. drew close to 3,000 participants. It featured a speech via satellite by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as an appearance by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and by Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident-turned- Israeli minister of industry and trade.

Netanyahu told delegates that he would protect the legal status in Israel of non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad, but that he would not fight current legislative initiatives to reinforce exclusive Orthodox control over conversions performed in Israel.

The annual assembly also saw the torch of CJF presidential leadership pass from Maynard Wishner, who was not present due to illness, to Dr. Conrad Giles.

Giles’ first effort to deliver a keynote address was interrupted by a bomb scare, which forced the evacuation of the convention center where the meetings were held.

Drama and luminaries aside, G.A. organizers asked delegates to “begin a discussion which will continue in each community” that would address some core questions:

When 50 percent of American Jewish households move every six years and the Internet has defined conversation, is community local, national and/or virtual?

What concerns and visions will bind the Jewish community in the future?

What will Jews expect and need from Jewish federations?

What resources will be available?

Federations traditionally have been the central fund-raising body in local communities. They support the institutions, services and programs they decide are the highest priorities, including day school education, nursing homes and Jewish community centers. Half the money over the years typically went to the United Jewish Appeal for programs overseas, primarily Israel, though that portion has steadily been dropping in recent years.

The annual joint campaign by federations and UJA recently has raised roughly $725 million. CJF and UJA are now holding talks on how to forge a closer partnership.

But the G.A. program participants, both lay and professional, called on federations to join with other institutions, particularly synagogues, to enlarge their mission beyond fund raising and service delivery.

They are demanding that federations be the anchor of a community-building guided by Jewish values, learning and tradition.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, president of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, said Jewish renewal is “exploding” in the federation world. But he said it is a relatively well-kept secret.

“A lot of communities are starting to ask the right questions” about how to energize people about Jewish life and Jewish education, he said.

But the Jewish public at large still does not see federations as relevant.

“The demand is going through the roof” for programs on “how to combine Jewish values with engagement in the world,” he said, noting that his institute alone is working with 90 different communities.

On the other hand, he said, “federations are gasping for air. Most federations are happy if they’re not losing ground” in their campaigns.

Indeed, the marriage of money and meaning is a rocky one for federations, said Michele Rosen, president of the Federation of Greater Seattle, seated at a session called Jewish Identity and Continuity.

The challenge is “to translate values into a communal vision when money is the constant issue,” Rosen said.

“It’s what you wake up with and what you go to bed with and it shouldn’t be,” she said. “It should be about the enterprise.”

As an example, Rosen said Seattle is trying to capitalize on the enormous outpouring of energy at the G.A., where 800 locals served as volunteers, both from “the center and the margins” of Jewish life.

The community is planning a Chanukah event called “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” to expose people to other volunteer and learning opportunities.

Rabbi Devora Bartnoff, a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, said at the same workshop that one of the most important tasks for the community is to “bring in the unaffiliated.”

“A successful organized Jewish community would have enough entrance points” to accommodate everyone who wants to come inside, from folk-dancing to study to volunteering.

But Marshal Spector, a 36-year-old attorney from Portland, Ore., is seeking more.

“There is so much talk about outreach, but once people come in” to the system, there has to be something “substantive, with meaning and purpose, to have them stay,” said Spector.

Spector’s name tag read “UJA Young Leadership,” but he wears other hats in the Jewish world, including board member of his federation and of his local day school, to which he plans to send his three young children.

The problem has been that religious institutions “kept what [they] did for themselves, and the federation world raised money,” he said, adding, “The two have to come together.”

Indeed, forging closer relations between synagogues and federations by eliminating negative stereotyping and power struggles was an important theme at the G.A.

A new handbook on the subject was made available, titled “Planning for Jewish Continuity: Synagogue-Federation Collaboration” and produced by the Jewish Education Service of North America, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and CJF in collaboration with the religious movements.

Meanwhile, Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, agreed that in the Jewish community, there has been a “mechitzah” or separation “between kadosh (holy) and what’s operational.”

“Day-to-day acts have to be deeply infused with the Shechinah,” he said, referring to the divine presence. Federations, for instance, need to learn to be effective recruiters of volunteers for performing mitzvot, and need to teach the volunteers the prayers to say when performing those mitzvot, he added.

Pamela Gorelick, who appeared to be in her 20s, came to the G.A. from the Washington, D.C., area as a representative of UJA’s Young Leadership division. She said she witnesses a “big problem of retention” within the system among her peers.

“A lot of people my age get turned off because they think there’s so much emphasis on campaign” by the federation world.

Sometimes the system “loses sight of the fact that it also needs their involvement.”

“But the fact is,” she added, “it is money which drives a lot of the activities.”

She said her own involvement is driven by the fact that “a big part of my identity is my Jewishness” and by the belief that “UJA is the most efficient way to channel resources into our communities around the world.”

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