WASHINGTON, April 24 (JTA) – Eager to show they stand alongside Israel during the ongoing violence with the Palestinians, North America’s Jewish federations are mobilizing for two national solidarity rallies in June.
Simultaneous rallies – tentatively scheduled for Sunday, June 3 in New York and Los Angeles – will feature Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (live in New York and videoconferenced into L.A.) and a range of top Israeli officials.
Together, the events, which are expected to cost approximately $2 million, are intended to send a message to Israel – and the Arab world – that the Jewish state has strong backing.
Officials are not saying at this time how large a turnout they hope to get.
The rallies were announced here this week during meetings of the United Jewish Communities, as the federation system’s umbrella group is known. They come at a time when the organized Jewish community is eager to help Israel but is not entirely certain just how to do it.
The federations decided this week not to launch a “second-line” funding campaign for Israel, choosing instead to leave it up to local communities as to whether they want to increase funding for the Jewish state in light of the recent violence.
Underlying the struggle to react on behalf of Israel is a growing concern that large numbers of American Jews – including some in leadership positions – lack significant knowledge and emotional ties when it comes to the Jewish state.
Indeed, recent surveys have found not only that fewer than one-third of American Jews see Israel as a “very meaningful” aspect of their Jewish identity, but that many are unaware of key information about Israel, such as territorial concessions made in the now-moribund peace process with the Palestinians.
The June rallies are intended to be the first piece of a larger national effort called the Israel Solidarity Initiative. But that effort is still in the early planning stages – and the UJC, which acts only after lengthy discussions and meetings with its member federations – is by nature slow-moving.
“The rally stood out as what we could do now,” said Karen Shapira, chair of the UJC’s Israel and Overseas pillar, or committee, emphasizing the word “now.”
The Israel Solidarity Initiative, which Shapira described as a “call to action,” is expected to include programs for educating North American Jews of all ages about Israel, as well as fund-raising campaigns and public relations for Israel.
At a meeting on responding to the Israel situation, conversation turned quickly from perceived anti-Israel biases in the media to concern that young Jews – and even some Jewish lay leaders – lack the knowledge to be effective pro-Israel advocates.
“We need to reach out to our own young people and help them understand the complexities so we have advocates in the future,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Stephen Serbin, chair of the UJC’s group for small federations, told JTA it is not uncommon for lay leaders in small communities to be uninformed about Israel and international Jewish needs.
“We’ve had federation presidents who have never been to Israel,” said Serbin, the immediate past president of the Columbia, S.C., federation.
One person at the meeting on Israel requested briefing papers on Israeli history and Israeli concessions that she could share with lay leaders in her federation.
Judy Wortman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Delaware, said in the meeting that federations need information about Israel that is targeted toward the Jewish community’s leadership.
While fund raising is also a piece of the planned initiative, its focus remains to be decided: Initial proposals to launch a “second-line” campaign for Israel were dismissed by federations, in part because there was no single need that could be attributed to the recent outbreak of violence.
There wasn’t a “wall-to-wall mandate” on funding for Israel, said Victoria Agron, the UJC’s vice president of campaign and financial resource development.
Instead, she said, it may be more critical to focus domestically on “serious education about the realities of Israel today.”
Federations that want to step up funding for Israel as a result of the current situation will decide themselves how to do that, Agron said. Some federations are talking about stepping up their support for Partnership 2000, a program that matches North American Jewish communities with Israeli ones for people-to-people exchanges and economic projects in Israel.
Others are interested in focusing increased funding on projects for Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants, who risk becoming a permanent underclass.
The discussions came in a Washington gathering, the first large meeting where leaders of the newly formed UJC focused on long-term programs and goals rather than simply governance or bread-and-butter matters. The UJC was created in 1999 out of the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal.
While Israel dominated the discussions, leaders also discussed plans to identify three or four major issues that the UJC will focus on in the coming years.
Among the issues raised were adult Jewish education, outreach to Jews in their 20s and 30s, recruiting and training Jewish leaders, and advocacy for elderly Jews.
Under the new system, the UJC’s 189 member federations are “owners” and their buy-in is sought for all major decisions. But the newness of this structure is still apparent in the way leaders repeatedly remind the federations that they have the responsibility to participate and work together, rather than just grumble about decisions handed down from on high.
At the gathering’s open plenary, Carole Solomon, chair of the Campaign and Financial Resource Development pillar, told federation leaders, “The pillars are us. The pillars are the UJC. The pillars are indeed the federations.”
And at a plenary the next day Joel Tauber, the chair of the UJC’s executive committee said, “We are you. It’s us, all of us.”
Despite the overall focus on Israel and setting program priorities, the meeting also launched discussions of a long-unresolved issue in the merger: how to determine “fair share,” or an appropriate dues system for the federations.
Currently, the UJC is funded through a combination of the methods employed by its predecessors: a small percentage of the revenues comes from dues, determined by the size of the federation, and a larger portion comes off the top from overseas allocations the federations make.
That system is viewed as unfair because federations that give more money overseas contribute far more for the national system’s operating costs than do federations that keep more money for local needs. While nothing was decided, preliminary discussions indicated that most of the federations would like to move to a dues system based on a fixed percentage of the dollars each member federation raises each year. The federations collectively raised $826 million in 2000, and the UJC’s annual budget is $41.7 million.
Ironically, amid all the uncertainty at the meetings about whether American Jews will rally on Israel’s behalf, one beacon of hope was just a few blocks away. While the largely middle-aged federation machers debated inside a downtown Washington air-conditioned hotel Sunday afternoon, hundreds of T-shirt-clad Jewish teen-agers and college students – mostly from the Young Judaea youth movement – were holding a pro-Israel rally in 80-something-degree weather at a park across from the White House.
Joshua Scharff, a high school senior from Mount Laurel, N.J., and Young Judaea’s national youth president, was one of 60 Young Judaeans to go to Israel on a solidarity mission this spring. The group is planning a rally in Central Park this summer, he said, and – despite an overall drop in tourism to Israel – has not had problems recruiting youth group members for its year-long program in Israel.
On the solidarity mission, Scharff met with the family of Benny Avraham, one of the Israeli soldiers kidnaped by Hezbollah in October. The family told the visitors that American activism is “so important not just to them but to all of Am Yisrael,” Scharff said.
“Benny Avraham is a year older than me,” he said. “If I lived in Israel, I would be in the army next year – that could be me.”