UJA-NNJ GA delegation members, from left, Stuart Himmelfarb, Richard and Allyn Michaelson, Paula Shaiman, David and Gale S. Bindelglass, David Goodman, Rochelle Shoretz, Alan and Karen Scharfstein, Carol and Alan Silberstein, David Gad-Harf, Joan Krieger, two Hillel students, and Leonard Cole, at a reception Sunday night. Courtesy Stuart Himmelfarb

Thousands of Jewish communal leaders from around the world gathered earlier this week in New Orleans for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the biggest pow-wow of Jewish leaders in the world.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey sent a 17-member delegation, led by co-chairs Gale S. and David Bindelglass of Franklin Lakes. The event was headlined by speeches from Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who both spoke of the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, but the conference centered on cultivating the next generation of Jewish leaders, and the local participants felt the push to get the younger leaders involved.

“The real focus of this year’s GA was on youth, the next generation,” said Alan Scharfstein, president of UJA-NNJ, who noted that more than 700 college students attended the conference through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. “It was the youngest GA that I can certainly remember.”

“It just gave a new amount of added energy to the GA,” said David Gad-Harf, UJA-NNJ’s associate executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Leonard Cole, a Ridgewood resident who is a past chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a local proponent of Birthright Israel, praised the GA’s efforts to reach out to the younger leaders.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a strong push toward engagement of this younger generation,” he said.

The new push can also be seen through the lens of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which recently completed a strategic plan to shift its focus from promoting aliyah to enhancing Jewish identity in the diaspora.

“Certainly aliyah is an important part of the Jewish Agency’s mission,” Cole said, “though they understand that the greater danger to the Jewish people is assimilation and easier opportunities for Jews to leave the fold. Now it’s going to be a focus of the Jewish Agency to strengthen and enhance the Jewish identity of Jews everywhere.”

Natan Sharansky, chair of JAFI and a former Soviet dissident who spent years in Soviet prison, addressed the UJA-NNJ contingent during a private meeting, for the second year in a row.

“All of us recognized the honor and sense of privilege to be sitting in a room with this transcendent figure,” Cole said.

“It was moving,” Gad-Harf said, “how Sharansky articulated a vision of the future of the Jewish Agency and the role it will be playing to create a deeper sense of Jewish identity for young Jews and how that is essential to the future of the Jewish people.”

During his plenary speech, Netanyahu spoke strongly about the need for a “credible military threat” against Iran in order for any negotiations about its nuclear ambitions to bear fruit.

“He was very focused and very outspoken on the dangers of Iran and trying to make sure that the world takes Iran as seriously as Israel does in terms of the threat it creates, not only for Israel but for stability in the region and beyond,” Scharfstein said.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had three goals, which Netanyahu touched upon, said Stuart Himmelfarb, chief marketing officer and director of its Berrie Fellows Leadership Program: To understand perils, to take advantage of all opportunities, and to forge unity within the Jewish people and the Jewish community.

“Netanyahu really addressed all three of those,” Himmelfarb said. “He spoke about the perils posed by Iran and the need for a coordinated response.”

When Netanyahu turned to the topic of the peace process with the Palestinians, he said that Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to a Palestinian state and the Palestinians need to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish state, Himmelfarb reported.

Several Israeli policies concerning conversions, the loyalty oath, and religious equality have ruffled feathers in the diaspora lately.

“He made it clear that every Jew is welcome in Israel,” Himmelfarb said, adding that he thought Netanyahu was alluding to the Rotem bill in the Knesset that would redefine how Israel accepts conversions to Judaism. “He was just signaling his continued support for avoiding these kinds of divisive issues.”

Netanyahu has been a polarizing figure in Israel and the diaspora, but even those who disagree with his political stance praised his speech.

“Whether you agree or disagree with his views, I don’t think there’s a head of state on the planet today who can command the podium the way he does,” Gale Bindelglass said.

Netanyahu’s speech was not without controversy, as five protesters stood up at different points during the speech, shouting that Israel’s own actions contribute to the country’s potential delegitimization.

“It’s unfortunate people put the emphasis on five hecklers in a room with thousands of people,” said Scharfstein. “He was truly eloquent in making Israel’s case, both for Iran and the other subject that was very heavily discussed at the GA: the attempt to delegitimize Israel.”

The protesters did not accomplish anything, Himmelfarb said.

“It was really just a disruption that had no purpose,” he said. “I don’t think it helped in any way get any new items on the agenda.”

Biden, who addressed the GA separately from Netanyahu, spoke about the strong bond between the United States and Israel and his own relationship with the Jewish state dating back to the 1970s.

“I really thought Biden went out of his way to say the right things with energy and emotion and reassure the audience that the Obama administration got it,” Himmelfarb said.

What Biden said was not as important as the message he sent just with his presence at the GA, Gad-Harf said.
“His presence and the word of support that he presented to us were very meaningful.”

What separated this year’s GA from others, according to Gad-Harf, were the 1,500 attendees doing community service around the city on Monday.

“It was one of the main reasons they brought the GA to New Orleans,” he said, “to both remember and celebrate the role that the Jewish community played in helping to restore New Orleans after Katrina, and to underscore the importance of community service as part of Jewish communal life.”

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at