As I walk into the conference center for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the first thing I notice is that I’m younger than the average conference-goer by around 40 years (nb: just a wild guess). When I stroll through security with the rest of my group, fellow Masa delegates on a gap year program called Big Idea, we easily quadruple the number of people there under 20 years old.
The second thing I notice is the choice of decor: not only is the color scheme surprisingly snazzy, but there are positivity-infused slogans on every surface: “There are no bad ideas,” “Here, silence is not golden,” and of course, this year’s GA theme, “We need to talk.”
Now, I fell in love with the theme as soon as I heard it. I love us, I love needs, and above all I love talking. Sure, this dialogue was specifically meant to be the one between Israel and the diaspora, but it works in the general case, too.
I notice all of this as I walk to the first round of speeches, typing out notes furiously on my phone. (I should mention that I’m a nearly compulsive note-taker. In fact, most of this article stems from the constant, barely coherent stream of consciousness I was putting down over the course of the conference. As time went on, though, I started getting more and more abstract, and I’m still trying to decrypt some of my notes — what am I supposed to make of phrases like “I even want the banner for itself, that seems to me to be the building block, my dream job, utopia, what are we doing all this for, for doing all this? must be.” And this isn’t rhetorical, by the way. If you understand what I was going for, please get in touch.)
Where was I? Oh, the opening speeches.
I’m not going to lie, a lot of them went in one ear and out the other. We got the same old narratives: some speakers say we should be more worried, some say we should be less worried, everybody agrees that we’re so happy to be here. That said, I won’t pretend I heard nothing interesting: Diaspora-Jews-as-Shareholders-in-Israel, dispelling the myth of Israel-as-Problem-Child, etc. But I’ll leave unpacking those concepts to people who’re both more qualified and who care more.
What did get me, though, was a little contradiction I noted between two types of speakers. (Of course the contradictions draw me in — blame my talmudic upbringing!)
One narrative, which I found strange and intriguing, was about stability. The time has come to do away with our constant worrying and our “dynamic of crisis.” (That’s a direct quote from Professor Gil Troy, or so my notes lead me to believe.) Instead, let’s focus on the nitty-gritty, the hard and unsensational work of nation-building.
The second narrative, the one that I’ve heard far too many times and yet still gives me a jolt, says that now is the time of crisis. That Israel is an incredible success (for your sake and mine, I’m leaving out pages of flowery descriptions of Israel’s success, of quoting the Declaration of Independence, and of what I call “drip-feed-irrigation” speeches — “Israel has created so many products! The mobile phone! The cherry tomato! Drip feed irrigation!”), but that we are now at a global precipice. The widening gap between Israel and the diaspora is, according to incoming Chairman of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog (it was a spiffy lineup of speakers), “an existential threat.” So is “Sudden Onset Apathy,” the increasing lack of interest regarding global Jewry, from both the Israeli and the American sides. This narrative is actively trying to get us worried, to get us planning: “Where there is no vision, we are in danger,” Herzog says.
Now, none of this really hits me until I’m sitting in a session on Collective Impact Activism later that day. As I listen to these educational leaders, titans of industry, etc etc etc, talk about how to unite disparate organizations, I realize that the concept they’re dancing around is a shared sense of crisis. When they say “momentum,” or “urgency,” or even “mission,” they mean a crisis that will keep us on our toes. (This hit me like a bolt of lightning — my notes on that session are incoherent lumps of metaphor, interspersed with all-caps phrases such as: “REMEMBER THE SENSE OF URGENCY,” “UNIFIED UNDER THE BANNER WE THRIVE,” and “THE IDEA OF COLLECTIVITY IS COLLECTIVITY.” It’s really hard to overestimate how big a realization this was for me.)
Now that blows the whole GA wide open for me. Suddenly, halfway through the first day, I feel I understand the whole thing! It’s a two-part system. The first part generates a crisis. (Apathy, as per above, but it could be anything. Although note the interesting part of a crisis of apathy — the crisis itself is the lack of a sense of crisis!) This is totally natural if your goal is to strengthen a community — think about how the issues of Soviet Jewry united the global Jewish community. In fact, as I gleaned from the activist session, the main work of crisis response is actually building the narrative of crisis — get everyone worried, get them working, get them united.
So then the second part, the amazing, beautiful part, is the action. And lo and behold, I spend the rest of that day having the enormous pleasure of walking around crowded NGO booths, seeing all the different ways entrepreneurial, humanitarian Jews are improving the world, from international aid to making Jewish text more accessible to funding youth villages in Israel. Walking around, my heart wants to leap out of my chest just to get closer to all of these people. They are all people who care, and that makes them amazing, full stop. (Look at me, shilling the “Crisis of Apathy” narrative!) I just find myself surprised by their tenacity. Impressed by their vision. I can’t help but feel that all of them have the right priorities. Different people, different paths, the same goal: improving the world. Everybody’s trying. That’s not to be underestimated.
So ends my first (remarkably positive!) day. (God, I went on for a while. I’ll try to keep it shorter, I promise.) My second day, however, starts on a radically different note.
As I walk in, smiling 20somethings (I’ll admit to an immediate bond with what seemed like the only other young people there) hand me “booklets that were censored from your GA bag.” I see more of them standing on the lawn in front of the building, holding a huge cardboard sign: “WE NEED TO TALK about the occupation.” Seems thematically appropriate to me, but I’m surprised at how many people are just walking past, rolling their eyes, even scoffing. (I’ve always thought that “scoffing” seems like the sort of thing that people stopped doing at the turn of the millennium, but the conference-goers once again find a way to surprise me.) I hear one teenager mutter to her friend, “Why talk? It’s not our fault,” and while I don’t know where I stand with regard to the second half of her statement, the first half infuriates me.
The defensiveness and unwillingness to start a dialogue prompted me to think more critically of the GA as a whole. Are we really talking? Are our little monologues really adding up to a dialogue? Are we even discussing uncomfortable things? If so, why does it seem like everyone is in total agreement? (I went to a session on pluralism, and heard people from all walks of life — Israelis, Americans, Orthodox, Reform — all basically agree that they want Israel to be more pluralistic. But is that really talking? Isn’t the obvious next step to include a charedi anti-pluralist? Isn’t that the conversation we need to have, the distant “we” of “we need to talk”?)
I spent most of the day talking about this, discussing and criticizing the GA, and I’m glad of it. If I had my day of admiration, then to balance it out I need a day of disillusionment.
Of course, that brings me to the third and final day of the convention. I’d like to say that today I am “re-galvanized by the power of communal action,” or that seeing Bibi speak (oh, did I mention yet that I got to hear the Israeli PM live?) restored my faith in the GA or the JFNA or the JA or whoever. (Also, I have to point out that these organizations need better, more distinctive acronyms. I mean, this is just getting ridiculous.) I wish that I could say those things, but I can’t. Communal action remains cool. It was definitely an experience to see Bibi. But I came into the day with a storm of emotions, and those aren’t enough to seriously sway me.
That said, one thing does break through my shell: as David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, is speaking, he starts casually quoting some Tehillim, commenting on them, bringing them forth. And that’s when I realize: I’m listening to a politician give a dvar Torah! So I start to really let it seep into my bones that I’m now living in a Jewish state, that this state of affairs makes sense. I bask in that for a while, enjoying the feel of the thought in my head. Even if I’m not overly impressed by every part of the GA, I will admit that in that moment, they gave me a big gift. And then, almost before I know it, (and certainly before I’ve processed it,) it’s over. The GA is done, and I’m leaving.
So this is how I’m coming out of this year’s GA: a little confused, a little frightened, a little proud, a little enlightened. Trust me, it’s a good place to be.
Joey Yudelson of Teaneck, who graduated from SAR High School in May, is spending his gap year in Israel.