Gathered together

Gathered together

Our report from the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations

So very many Jews.

So very many words.

So very little time.

This year, about 3,000 Jews — mainly the lay leaders whose energy and philanthropy fuel North America’s well-networked federation system and the high-level staffers who support them, as well as a large cohort of college students whose subsidized presence at the three-day combined conference/festival give it energy — came to Washington D.C. for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly.

The crowd included about 25 representatives of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, headed by its president, Jayne Petak, its immediate past president, Dr. Tzvi Marans, its executive director, Jason Shames, its managing director for financial resource development, Jodi Heimler, and its managing director for community planning and impact, Lisa Harris Glass.

Natan Sharansky addresses the General Assembly. (Photos courtesy Jewish Federations of North America)

There were far too many plenaries and breakout sessions and informal meetings over coffee or flavored water or Scotch to detail — and no reader would have the stamina to read all of them, even if any writer would have the internal fortitude to write them — so here instead, and perhaps in a spirit more reflective of the event, are some scattered impressions.

The first plenary, on Sunday afternoon, was held in the vast ballroom of the hotel that housed both the representatives and the conference. Its stage, like all the conference’s promotional materials, was decorated in bright pastels, all soft-edged, with lots of thought-bubble shapes, meant to signify youth and energy. “Think forward,” the GA’s catchphrase urged us.

Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish woman to sit on Canada’s Supreme Court, eloquent and moving, was the first speaker. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who lost everything, including their first child, but who determined never to let that stop them, and taught their children both perseverance and the possibility of joy. As she stood dwarfed on the huge bare stage but in close-up on the two screens that flanked her, she cried as she remembered her parents and their lessons. Her parents had been leaders wherever they were, including in the DP camp where she was born. Somehow, they flourished. “There was no anger, no bitterness, no fear,” she said. “Only hope.”

Next, the news-anchor-turned memoirist David Gregory took the stage. He’s tall, lanky, and used to being told that he doesn’t look Jewish. He’s a charming and funny speaker. He talked about his Jewish journey (a phrase that occurred more frequently than perhaps it should have, because it does tend to lose potency with repetition, but maybe that’s just an editor speaking); neither his mother nor his wife are Jewish but both he and his son are. He talked about faith — he was brought up without it, discovered it recently, and now is open about his heartfelt and ongoing search for God, a search he undertakes as a Jew.

David Gregory
David Gregory

He also was perhaps more personal and unguarded a speaker than most of us would have anticipated. His father, who loomed massively in his life, had died just two days ago, he said. He had canceled most of his engagements, and planned to fly to California for the funeral once this one was over, but he felt his connection to the Jewish community, and his obligation to it, was far too strong for him to back out of this one.

Mr. Gregory talked about his father with raw feeling. He cried. (It was striking that he was the second of the first two speakers, in a room fluffed with candy-colored clouds, at a conference about “Thinking Forward,” to cry about his parents. There is a truth there, although its nature eludes me.)

Jewish law is wise in dictating that we bury our dead immediately, and mourn for them in company for a week. Mr. Gregory, I thought (and it is necessary to speak in the first person here, because Mr. Gregory’s presentation was so intensely personal), would have been far better served had he been able to talk about his father when he was surrounded by family and friends, who could comfort him and share stories of his father, rather than being alone on a huge stage, dwarfed by it, sending his grief out to 3,000 strangers.

Next, the actress Debra Messing, in a beautiful red dress, looking a bit like Judy Garland, talked about how lonely it was to grow up in Rhode Island, where there were almost no Jews and she learned how to pretend not to care. She found her first freedom as a Jew at Brandeis, she said, but Hollywood is a hard place for religious observance. Unless you’re at the very top, sure, you can take off for the holidays — but you’ll have no job to return to. It’s a very 1 percent problem, to be sure — very few of us have to worry about our jobs on a hit television show — but she was moving as she discussed its adverse affects on her.

Next, a panel moderated by David Horovitz, the founder and editor of the Times of Israel, the website with which we are partnered and whose blog platform we share, took on the problem of the Middle East — or at least as much of the problem as could be crammed into the time it had. It was a distinguished group — American diplomat Dennis Ross, Canadian former minister of justice and attorney general Irwin Cotler, and former Washington Post Jerusalem correspondent Janine Zacharia. They’re all Jewish, all smart, all committed to Israel. They were all clear-eyed, their disagreements with each other were apparent but muted. Mr. Cotler, who is a political liberal and a member of Canada’s Liberal party and always has been a vocal Zionist, got the strongest response, when he said that BDS is dangerous. When people support it, he said, “They are giving real human rights violators a free pass.” By focusing on Israel, shifting attention away from countries that countenance or impose horrors on their citizens, “we provide exculpatory immunity” to those countries. “State-sponsored terrorism, state-sanctioned toxicity, generates hate. It ends up as state-sponsored hate.”

Ms. Zacharia, who now teaches at Stanford, added that “the effect of BDS is not having more than a symbolic impact on Israel’s economy, but it has a big impact on Jewish students on campus. They are really struggling.”

The GA delegation from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey
The GA delegation from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey

That evening, the GA went to the National Gallery of Art for drinks, dessert, and the chance to wander around the museum.

It was spectacular. It was built in the classical style, all elegant and inviting open spaces. We walked through the entry and into an enclosed courtyard with lights in little clusters way up in the wavy white ceiling — it’s hard to explain in words but it works. Then we roamed the halls, focusing on the presidents’ gallery, where we had a chance to study the portraits of each of our presidents, from many versions of George Washington, including the iconic ones by Gilbert Stuart, to the huge, fascinating-to-look-at-and-symbolically-accurate Chuck Close rendering of Bill Clinton.

There’s something magical about being in a museum at night. We felt it.

The next morning brought more breakout sessions — including one, introduced by Ms. Petak and structured like speed-dating, with participants moving from one of five tables to the next and leaders giving each presentation five times — that featured Ms. Glass. She talked about how our federation restructured afternoon religious schools; she also gave an object lesson in how to handle people who want to wrench the discussion from, say, how to restructure afternoon religious schools to how Israel treats Palestinians on the west bank. (You say, in a kind but firm tone, that you are there to discuss how to restructure afternoon religious schools; you allow both your words and your own charisma to sink in. It works — or, at least, I can testify that it worked.)

I met many college students at that session; all of them were enthusiastic about the chance to continue their involvement in Jewish life. They would never have considered going had they not been subsidized, but it seems likely that once they are out in the work world, they will think seriously about being involved with their local federations.

Next, a long pre-lunch plenum showed the pitfalls of too many speakers in too little time. A series of very good speakers with very good ideas — including Natan Sharansky, Leslie Wexner, Jeremy Heimans, Dan Pallotta, and Rabbi Michael Uram — ended up almost canceling each other out, as listeners, packed around cutleried-but-foodless lunch tables, started to wilt.

Mr. Heimans, a young philanthropic Australian entrepreneur, still managed to stand out. He played a video of himself as a preternaturally grown-up 11-year-old being interviewed by a wide-eyed reporter; he must have been insufferable but he was also both adorable and amazingly impressive. He also showed a video of an Arabic-speaking young Syrian man who rescues Syrians from bombings. The video included scenes of the rescue of a two-week-old baby from rubble produced by a Syrian bomb. Maybe there were people in the room who were not crying, but I couldn’t see them. My own eyes were far too wet.

The American Jewish Press Association’s annual meeting was folded into the GA. One of the AJPA’s events, on Monday afternoon, featured Atlantic writer Peter Beinart, whose writing on Israel has been controversial, in conversation with Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev. He talked about Israel, but he also said that the real divide is between Jews who are part of the established Jewish community and Jews who are not.

“Compare a day-school kid in Teaneck to a child of a mixed marriage in Denver,” he said. In order to include those Jews who are outside our tent right now, we have to enlarge it in ways that might seem “subversive,” he said. We have to listen to many ideas “that might seem dangerous.”

Next, there was a special field trip for AJPA members. We went to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a meeting with Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, as well as two other administration representatives.

The process of getting into the building is eye-opening. We all had filled out forms that included our social security numbers last week; our IDs were checked against that information at the gate and then we were allowed, one at a time, through a door and up to another security kiosk. There everything was checked again, we were given passes, the guards did some legerdemain, and we passed, one at a time, into a little room where a guard and a dog stood behind a short wall. Then more security, and then, finally, we were inside the building — where we were given no directions and basically headed off toward the sound of voices.

The room in which we eventually found ourselves is gorgeous. Spectacular. It’s formal, with a huge brass chandelier hanging over a long polished wooden table. The colors were muted reds and golds. It’s the diplomatic reception room, next to the suite of offices where the congressman and secretary of state Cordell Hull once worked and that now carry his name.

In contrast to the splendor, the speakers carried nameplates that might have been thin plastic but looked like cardboard, which they plopped on the table in front of them.

Mr. Shapiro said nothing that we had not heard before, but he said it both carefully and well. Yes, the administration is very much in favor of a two-state solution, and it is concerned that the lack of progress toward that solution, and the feelings of disillusionment that accompany it, make it harder to attain, but it is still the goal. And yes, the Iran deal is the best answer to the problem of Iran not only for the United States but for Israel as well. And yes, President Obama is deeply committed to Israel.

Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, United States ambassador to the State of Israel, right, being interviewed by Jacob Kamaras of, left.
Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, United States ambassador to the State of Israel, right, being interviewed by Jacob Kamaras of, left.

The other two speakers — Roy Austin, who is on the domestic policy council, and Matt Nosanchuk, of the office of public engagement — were off the record, they said. They both spoke with passion and commitment; neither said anything that would have shocked anyone had we been able to write about it. Mr. Austin described some of the president’s domestic goals in his last 400-some-odd days in office, and Mr. Nosanchuk talked about his path to the job he now holds, and his deep belief in the soundness and wisdom of the Iran deal.

On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the GA’s final plenary. We were told to leave our bags behind, to ease the crunch at security, so most of us showed up toting fewer belongings than usual — many of us felt nearly naked as a result.

The security line opened at 9:30; the talk was scheduled for 11:30 and happened on time. The presence of many security guards — whose numbers were augmented soon before Bibi and his wife, Sarah, arrived — added to the sense of occasion, and the long wait led to many long, good personal conversations.

By the time the Netanyahus arrived, they got a standing ovation. When he spoke, though, the prime minister seemed subdued, his charisma not particularly apparent. His talk seemed aimed at telling people what they wanted to hear — a paean to Israel as the world’s prime start-up nation, an attack on anti-Semitism, a request that we all support Israel as much and as vocally as possible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed Israel’s commitment to liberal values.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed Israel’s commitment to liberal values.

Mr. Netanyahu stressed Israel’s position as a bastion of liberal values, the only such fortress in the Middle East. He talked about the country as a haven for Christians and the LGBT community. He also said that he is sitting at a round table with representatives of all religious streams, including the liberal ones, and that he is making progress on an agreement that will settle some of the issues at the Kotel, where struggles over women’s ability to pray publicly often have boiled over. He did not, however, offer any details.

He did not say much about the Iran deal, but he did say that it is important to work with the United States to ensure that Iran lives up to its commitments, and to be vigilant against terror coming from the Islamic Republic. He also stressed the depth and importance of the relationship between the United States and Israel, and President Obama’s commitment to keeping Israel safe.

The GA is an enormous undertaking. Some of it works really well, some of it fizzles. It offers a chance to hear from influential people, some of them real heroes and role models. Like all such huge meetings, it also gives participants the chance to meet old friends, form new relationships, both for business and for genuine friendship, and feel a part of something much bigger. All this is cliché — but clichés are born of deep truths.

So, think forward. Think forward, each of us, individually and locally, and think forward as one huge sprawling brawling ultimately accepting bound-together community.

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