North Americans, Israelis Set to Meet in Jewish Parliament

After forging a partnership this summer with the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations, North American Jewry’s main coordinating and service organization, is making similar overtures to the people of Israel.

The CJF’s constituents from more than 200 autonomous local federations will converge on Jerusalem later this month for its 67th General Assembly, titled “Many People, Many Roads, One Heart.”

The four-day conference, the largest annual gathering of leadership in North American Jewish communal life, kicks off Nov. 16 with an address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is the first G.A., as the annual gathering is popularly known, to be held outside of North America.

Orchestrated to celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary, the G.A. will focus on the intersection of Israeli and North American Jewish life.

Presided over by “mega-donor” and federation activist Charles Bronfman, this is also the first convention of federations to take place under the partnership’s new banner, UJA Federations of North America.

But discussions of the merger and informational sessions on fund raising, professional development or government regulations — a mainstay of past G.A. programming — will take a backseat this year to an examination of Israel- Diaspora affairs.

“In terms of issues,” said UJA President Richard Wexler, the G.A. “deals with much broader issues, the real relationship for the 21st century for North American Jewry and the Jews of Israel.”

That relationship “is the key note of the entire federation system,” said CJF Executive Vice President Jay Yoskowitz, just days before his departure for Israel.

“As the relationship changes, it becomes something very different, very positive. We’ll be strengthening that relationship and making it more of a partnership,” Yoskowitz said.

The union will be codified at the final event of the intercontinental gathering when Knesset members and North American Jewish leaders will meet to discuss issues that have strained American Jewish-Israeli relations over the last few years.

At the conclusion of this “Parliament of the Jewish People,” each of the 3,400 participants from North America and Israel expected at the G.A. will sign a covenant stating the communities’ intention to fortify and maintain Jewish unity worldwide. Jews around the world will be able to sign the document via the Internet at www.ga98.org

But the centerpiece of the convention will be Nov. 18, as every G.A. participant embarks on one of 38 “routes” or “seminar on wheels,” field trips throughout Israel designed to provide first-hand experience of the critical issues defining the American Jewish-Israeli relationship today.

Topping that list, according to Wexler, are the need for Jewish education in America and a deeper understanding of tolerance and democracy in Israel; the effects of the global economy on Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and the subsequent potential for mass aliyah; and the hope for Israel to achieve peace with its neighbors.

The subject of Ethiopian Jews’ aliyah and absorption into Israeli society and the status of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia may also prove to be a flashpoint at this year’s meeting, as local federations and other North American groups plan to initiate discussions at the G.A. and with Israeli officials.

A mass demonstration is also planned by advocates for the Falash Mura community, who consider themselves Jewish and want to make aliyah, but are not accepted as Jews by the Israeli government.

Some of the daylong excursions and the cross-cultural dialogues to be held at Jerusalem’s International Conference Center will touch on these issues, as well as other emerging concerns, such as the changing Jewish family, ecology and environment, civil rights and philanthropy in Israel.

Other seminars and events will exhibit the results of North American philanthropy in Israel, such as partnerships between U.S. and Israeli cities.

Only a handful of scheduled events deal specifically with subjects that once made the G.A. a forum for exchanging insights and expertise on organizational and fund-raising techniques.

During the Jerusalem meetings, top partnership brass and local federation leaders, together with the heads of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, are expected to meet behind closed doors for nuts-and-bolts discussions of the new entity’s mission and leadership.

But plans for the systematic overhaul are ongoing, including a major restructuring of the new entity’s governing bodies that will give local federations a majority voice in deciding how the money collected in UJA campaigns is allocated overseas.

Recent trends have pointed to a growing desire on the part of North American Jews to give funds directly to causes and private organizations, a trend that has put additional stress on local federations.

In addition, Israel has become more self-sufficient and more socially complex, and a philosophical distance has grown between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.

One underlying purpose of this year’s G.A., therefore, is to generate enthusiasm for the work of the partnership and its connection to Israel.

Wexler said he hoped the conference “will create a new sensitivity in the relationship” between American Jews and Israelis.

“Hopefully we will all come back prepared to take a new look at the mission statement of our new entity,” he said.

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