At GA, Encouraging ‘Deep Dive’ To Confront Problems


Los Angeles — Speaking as a millennial Jew, Sean Rad, 31, the co-founder of Tinder, the world’s most popular dating app, told Jewish leaders here this week that “Judaism will fade away if it’s not re-purposed” for today’s generation.

In a world of endless options, “millennials won’t accept Jewish tradition that is passed down and imposed on them,” said the man who has given the word “swipe” new meaning. “How can you expect people to read thousands of pages of Jewish texts if they can’t finish reading ‘50 Shades of Grey’?” he asked. “They wait for the movie.”

Tinder has been criticized widely for enabling and promoting a hook-up culture. But Rad, in his address here to the delegates of the 86th annual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, spoke warmly of his upbringing in a traditional Persian Jewish family in Los Angeles and expressed his hope to marry someday and raise a Jewish family.

“Don’t change the content of Judaism’s wisdom,” but rather how it is experienced, he advised, suggesting that within a decade people will be able to enjoy virtual visits to Israel at home in their pajamas through artificial intelligence devices. “Have the courage to recognize you have a problem” in engaging with a younger generation of Jews and address it, he urged.

“Don’t change the content of Judaism’s wisdom, but rather how it is experienced…” – Sean Rad, Tinder co-founder

Rad’s blunt message at the three-day conference, which drew more than 2,000 lay and professional leaders of Jewish communal life, reflected a new willingness by JFNA to acknowledge and address serious problems within American Jewry, most notably the deep and growing divide between Israel and the diaspora on a range of Jerusalem’s policy and identity issues, and the distancing of many young people from Jewish life in general and federations in particular.

At a “Millennial Roundtable” highlighting the accomplishments of three innovative and socially conscious millennials — yes, the word was heard so often that one GA speaker called for a moratorium on its usage — Jason Leivenberg, who directs a Los Angeles federation project, NuRoots, to engage young Jews, asserted that his peers “want what the community is offering, but the packaging sucks. It’s clunky and doesn’t deliver.” What’s called for, he said, is “creative branding” that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the product, presumably Jewish teachings.

The roundtable participants also called on federations to broaden their definition of philanthropy. Jackie Rutman, who at the age of 14 founded a nonprofit to inspire and unite young people through dance, said that federations “are great at engaging young people from philanthropic families” but sometimes “alienate young professionals” like herself who can’t afford the steep entry fee required for participation in some activities. She said she was “brushed off” repeatedly when she sought to become involved in a federation project and could not afford the $1,000 donation required.

Such criticisms appeared in line with opening plenary remarks from Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA, the umbrella group of more than 100 federations in the U.S. and Canada. He called for those assembled to “take on the tough questions of the day and push the dialogue forward,” adding: “Our community can withstand a deep dive, especially when we dive together.”

One of the tough questions that came up repeatedly at the conference was how the relationship between American Jewry and Israel can be repaired after the low blow the community suffered in June. That was when the Jerusalem government reneged on a plan to give egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, or Kotel, more prominence, and was prepared to give the increasingly fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate full control of conversions.

At a session on “Distressed Donors and Discourse,” three executives of major federations admitted that their fundraising efforts have been impacted by dissatisfaction among some major donors over Israeli policies, particularly on religious freedom, pluralism and identity issues. They also spoke of their efforts to avoid being caught up in political disputes, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Kotel controversy.

“Our job is to educate, to have people understand the complexities of Israeli political life and to make the case” that a federation’s primary goal is “action, not statements” with an emphasis on social service, said Mark Medin, a vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. He and Naomi Adler, CEO and president of the Philadelphia federation, said they allow key donors upset at Israel to target their gifts for domestic projects. Steven Nasatir, longtime president of the Chicago federation, said his federation does not have such a policy.

Melissa Weintraub, a rabbi and expert mediator on Arab-Israel and intra-Jewish disputes, addressed efforts to heal the rifts in the community. She explained that in her work as founding co-executive director of Resetting The Table, the goal is to bring disputants together in dialogue to embrace rather than avoid differences. She called on federations to “lead the way” in convening programs of “sacred disagreement” that allow stakeholders to hear each other out on the path to arriving at delicate decisions.

‘Divisive And Damaging’

In an unusually pointed resolution for a group that seeks consensus with Israel, the JFNA urged Jerusalem to reverse its “divisive and damaging” moves regarding the Kotel and conversion. The statement, issued Monday morning, asserted that lack of progress on these issues, which are seen as dismissive of the religious practices of the great majority of American Jews, could “undermine the Zionist vision and the State of Israel’s sacred role as a national home for the entire Jewish people.”

Later in the day, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in his first major speech outside Israel to the North American Jewish community, sought to reassure diaspora Jews that Israel cares deeply about them. “You are true stakeholders in this wonder called Israel,” he said, praising North American Jewry for standing with Israel “at times of crisis and joy. I am here today to say that this cannot be taken for granted.”

He acknowledged that the Kotel issue “has become a symbol of division and disagreement,” and called for the two communities to “get to know each other better” and for diaspora Jews to “respect Israel’s democratic process,” while indicating that he does not always agree with decisions made by the government.

The address by Rivlin, the only major leader of either the Israeli or American government to speak at the assembly in person, was greeted warmly. Though known as a hardliner during his years in the Knesset — he still opposes a two-state solution — he has displayed a skill in speaking out for pluralism and tolerance during his tenure as president. And though his ceremonial role is apolitical, he has been critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Two weeks ago, Rivlin, a member of the prime minister’s Likud party, publicly warned that “statesmanship has come to an end” and said Israel was witnessing “the winds of a second revolution or coup.”

At the GA, Rivlin thanked North American Jewry for its “unconditional love,” a description of an emotion that has seemed more aspirational than real for increasing numbers of American Jews disenchanted with the government in Jerusalem.

The Jewish community was once “the Blue and White model of solidarity” with Israel, said Bethamie Horowitz, a psychologist and research professor at NYU and a panelist at a plenary on Israel-diaspora relations. But she described “the more bruising” relationship now as “the Black and Blue model,” with many American Jews upset over various Jerusalem policies.

Gidi Grinstein, the founder of Reut, an Israeli think-tank, said that Zionism’s purpose is to sustain the Jewish people and that “at its core, the relationship is about Israel serving world Jewry” rather than the other way around. “We need to be brutally honest” in recognizing that “decades of arrogance and ignorance toward the diaspora,” based on the negation of the diaspora by Israel’s founding leaders, is “dismissive and borderline abusive.” He said authentic dialogue is needed to discuss the relationship now, a message many speakers offered during the GA.

The third panelist, Ambassador Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, insisted that Israel’s leaders “care deeply” about the diaspora. But he said “the relationship cannot be quid pro quo,” and that it would be “a mistake of immeasurable magnitude if we each care only about ourselves.” He called on diaspora Jews to be directly involved in Israeli society to make their case. “You need boots on the ground in Israel to advance the causes you believe in … You have every right to come and educate and lobby. Do it.”

Dayan said both communities should be obligated “to put aside our differences and promise never to neglect the other,” asserting that “our marriage [between Israel and the diaspora] is Catholic — no divorce.”

Appearing live by satellite for a Q-and-A session at the closing plenary, Prime Minister Netanyahu was not confronted with a direct question about his government’s backtracking on the plan regarding prayer arrangements at the Kotel. Instead he was asked by JFNA chair Richard Sandler for an update on the status of the deal. The prime minister said that only the “ideological” components of the Kotel plan were frozen and that construction is moving forward at the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall where egalitarian services continue to be held. (The compromise had called for equal prayer access for all at the main area of the Kotel.)

“I strongly believe all Jews should feel at home in Israel,” Netanyahu said to polite applause. He added that he believes in the longstanding government principle, established by founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, that issues of religious status quo be “resolved through evolution, not revolution.”

For now, though, the evolution of the Israel-diaspora relationship for increasing numbers of young American Jews is away from current policies in Jerusalem — from Blue and White towards Black and Blue. What’s needed is the kind of educational and “sacred disagreement” efforts that can help us live with our differences.