NEW YORK, Oct. 22 (JTA) — Just as tourism and the national economy have taken a hit following the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, the Jewish federation system’s annual gathering is expected to be smaller than in recent years.
But organizers of the General Assembly — slated for Nov. 9-13 in Washington — and several federation leaders hope the Jewish community’s desire to come together in a time of crisis and confusion will outweigh the fear factor.
Federation leaders are urging people to come this year to stand up to terrorism. They say the gathering, which will feature an address by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, provides a much-needed opportunity for Jewish leaders to regroup, strategize and forge a consensus on how federations should respond to new political realities.
With registration currently at about 60 percent of normal levels, the United Jewish Communities is considering consolidating the G.A., as the convention is known, from two hotels into one.
“People don’t want to fly, and people are worried about being in a large room with Jews,” said Bruce Arbit, an officer at large of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors.
“I don’t think there’s a reason for anyone to be concerned about going to such an event,” said Arbit, who will attend the G.A. and was in Jerusalem this week for a Jewish Agency meeting. “I don’t think it’s a sound fear. But I am hearing it.”
G.A. Director David Frank said he had heard similar comments along with concerns that Washington may be a terrorist target. He said the event will have stringent security that will match or exceed measures taken last year when the assembly was in Chicago.
Those measures, instituted because of tensions stemming from the Palestinian conflict, were considerably higher than in previous years.
UJC officials consulted with local police, the FBI and Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, Frank said.
All vehicles were checked extensively as they approached the hotel, and participants frequently were asked to show identification as they walked the hallways.
But unlike this year, last year’s G.A. attracted the first sellout crowd in recent memory, with more than 4,500 people. The turnout was widely attributed to concerns about Israel, which had just seen its peace process with the Palestinians go up in the smoke of the intifada.
After Sept. 11, leaders say this year’s G.A. is especially critical.
“The G.A. this year is probably more important than ever because of the wide sense of isolation today in America,” said Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
“It’s important for us to come together and talk with each other about what our communities are doing, what our futures look like, how we’re dealing with the crisis, and how we’re going to be dealing with Israel relative to Israel’s current needs and in reaction to this global terror war,” said Aronson, who is trying to bring a larger delegation than normal from Detroit.
Despite the skittishness, Frank said, “we’re hearing from all over the country a strong desire for family to get together.”
Other than attendance, it still is not clear what impact the new international situation will have on the G.A. — or longer term, on the organized Jewish community.
The G.A.’s schedule has been modified in response to the new situation.
G.A. sessions on terrorism in the Middle East have been expanded to include terrorism in the United States, and several new sessions will explore what traditional Jewish texts say about violence and terror. Sessions also have been added on how federations and Jewish agencies can augment security.
No sessions have yet been cut, but some professionals say privately they expect that to happen if enrollment trends continue.
Frank emphasized that the G.A. won’t deal only with terrorism and security.
“We know that despite everything that’s going on, people come to a G.A. in order to learn about a whole range of issues that affect federated life,” Frank said.
Those issues are addressed in sessions such as “Jewish Identity and Intermarriage,” “Five Steps to Capturing Major Endowment Gifts” and “Strengthening Synagogues: Examples From the Front Lines.”
Beyond the G.A., it is not clear how the war on terrorism will affect the federation system’s agenda.
It already appears to have altered, at least temporarily, the UJC’s Israel Now solidarity initiative. While many federations are raising extra money for Israel — $66 million has been donated so far to a special campaign — the UJC canceled a massive Israel solidarity rally planned for Sept. 23 in New York and has removed the solidarity issue from the home page of the group’s Web site.
At the same time, the group is undergoing a significant leadership transition in its top professional and lay positions.
It remains to be seen how the agenda-setting will play out, and some see the G.A. as a venue for making some of those decisions.
But Stephen Hoffman, who is chief executive officer of the UJC and will add the title of president in November, said he does not think the Sept. 11 attacks should dramatically alter the federation system’s focus.
“Our No. 1 priority is acting normal,” he said. “I believe that our environment has changed, but our mission hasn’t.
“Our fundamental mission is to help people in need, and people are in need in St. Petersburg, Russia and in St. Petersburg, Fla. The greatest gift we can give to terrorists is to allow our system of services around the world to be disrupted.”
However, Hoffman said, the UJC needs to “redefine the role” of its Israel solidarity advocacy, “because the kind of case we were trying to make for Israel kind of got made.
“There’s tremendous support for Israel in the United States currently,” he said, but “we have to make sure the specious linkages between Israel and the terrorist attacks are exposed, that the real background of why America faces this evil is known.”