Recalling 'The Parliament Of The Jewish Diaspora'
The General Assembly (GA) of the Federation movement has changed dramatically over the decades. Once a five-day affair, this year’s program was 90 minutes. But there’s more to the story.
What’s Next? Julie Platt (center) speaks with fellow JFNA lay leaders Neil and Lisa Wallack of Boston and Alissa Doctoroff of New York during the Oct. 3 virtual GA. They discussed LiveSecure, a project to raise $54 million to protect Jewish institutions around the country. (Photo courtesy of JFNA)
I’ve attended almost every General Assembly of the Jewish Federation movement since 1974, and this year was no exception. But this GA -- the annual conference of the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), serving 146 communities in the U.S. and Canada -- was like no other.
Once a “must-attend” five-day event with scores of sessions on the vital issues of the day – the GA this year was a pre-taped, virtual program with lay and professional leaders extolling the virtues of Jewish groups working together to meet the major challenges of Jewish life today.
It was held on Oct. 3 for a total of 90 minutes.
(There were, in addition, “leadership labs” Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 on Zoom for about 500 invitees.)
My initial response to this pared down program was critical, as in “what a comedown since the glory days of the past.” But was that fair?
I spoke to a few former leaders in Jewish communal organizational life for their reactions. One described this GA as “an embarrassment,” saying it was “a tactical error not to have had more substantive sessions.” Others were more sympathetic, based on today’s realities -- a still troubled time when large in-person gatherings of this nature are not possible.
“It was a placeholder,” shrugged one former Federation exec, “an opportunity to rally the troops” and inform constituents of the achievements over the last year made by JFNA, with its hundreds of partner agencies. Much of the focus was on its bold and effective responses to the pandemic, and to the rise in anti-Semitism by raising funds for the physical protection of synagogues and other Jewish institutions. (Details below.)
On reflection, I appreciated JFNA’s attempt -- with the theme of “What’s Next?” -- to push out its message of collaboration, innovation and action to communal insiders. But I also felt a wave of nostalgia for past GAs, and recalled “what was” -- how the role of the annual conference, and of Federations, has changed over the years in ways that underscore dramatic shifts in American Jewish life.
The Golden Age Of The GA
The GA goes back 89 years to the earliest days of the Federation movement. For decades, it was essentially a trade show, bringing key leaders – primarily wealthy businessmen -- together to discuss how best to provide a steadily increasing range of social services to communities around the country.
With the founding of the State of Israel, support for the Jewish homeland became a key component of the funding budget.
Many look on the period from the early 1970s through the 1990s as the Golden Age of the GA as it came to be the most important communal event on the American Jewish calendar. It took place over five days, including Shabbat (later pared down to three days, then two) and brought together several thousand of the most influential professional and lay leaders of North American Jewry as well as major political, communal and religious figures from Israel and other countries.
No one knows GA history over the last 50 years as well as Ted Comet, who made his impressive imprint on the event -- widening its reach and deepening its content -- soon after coming to the Council of Jewish Federations (now JFNA) in 1968.
In an interview this week, Comet, 97, related with great clarity how on his arrival he started the young leadership component to lay involvement, and a year later began to change the content and goals of the GA, under his direction.
“I wanted to develop a greater sense of Clal Yisrael (Jewish unity) among the leadership in America with leadership in Europe and Latin America,” he told me. In addition, “I wanted the GA to be a place for intellectual thought and engagement, a place for debate and discussion on important ideas apart from the business of providing social services.”
He helped institute a scholars in residence program, highlighting thought leaders like Rabbi David Hartman, Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Leonard Fein, an academic and co-founder of Moment magazine. Dozens of panels and sessions addressed the most pressing social, political and communal issues of the day. And a Shabbat program was added that offered prayer services and sessions on Jewish texts.
In time, a conference that had not offered kosher meals included an Orthodox minyan with hundreds of worshippers.
The most dramatic GA in memory took place in Boston in 1969. At a time of national upheaval and protests over Vietnam and civil rights, a small group of young, idealistic Jewish activists – mostly college and graduate students -- demonstrated at the GA. Their primary demand was for more funds for Jewish education -- a radical idea -- and programs directed at Jewish youth.
(At that time, much domestic funding from Federations went to the more secular institutions of Jewish life like hospitals and social services for the elderly.)
On one level the young activists were pushing through an open door, embraced rather than resisted by their elders. But the purse strings remained controlled by the establishment leadership, and changes came slowly.
Starting in the 1970s, the GA became a kind of Parliament of the Jewish Diaspora, setting the agenda for the coming year. Various communal delegations debated and passed resolutions on a wide range of issues, from social service allocations to policies impacting on domestic and overseas life -- all while maintaining an air of excitement over an agenda that also explored ideas and innovation.
The GA was “the” place to be and to be seen, whether attendees spent most of their time in sessions or in informal meetings with colleagues they could count on seeing at least once a year.
Part of the excitement of the GA, and success of the Federation movement, in the last three decades of the last century was generated by major outside influences. Most notable were the Soviet Jewry movement, which galvanized much of American Jewry to support freedom for their brothers and sisters to leave Russia; the defense of Israel after the euphoria of the 1967 Six-Day War and the deep depression following the Yom Kippur War six years later; and the dramatic effort to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews and resettle them in the ancient homeland.
American Jews were largely unified in their support for these emotionally compelling causes, and Federations were the primary institutions for raising and distributing the funds.
No Clear Path To Consensus
But times have changed.
The days of strong communal cohesion and a deep belief in collective giving through Federation are gone.
Jewish life has become more complicated and diffuse.
Gradually, the GA has narrowed its scope and focused more on the business of fundraising. In the last two decades, making the case for collective giving has been an uphill battle.
Foundations and individual donors became a major source of financial and social influence in Jewish life in recent years, in some ways eclipsing the impact of Federations. Younger people now are less inclined to support national institutions, often seeking smaller, more hands-on, start-up and personalized ways of charitable giving and/or becoming involved in Jewish life.
The gap between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community has widened, and affiliation among Jews under 30 is waning dramatically. There is no one cause or project -- like freedom for Soviet Jewry -- that cuts across denominations and political differences. And Israel, once the great connector, has become a major issue of division within our community.
How, then, should the Federation movement -- whose bedrock principle is consensus -- present itself to its constituents on Zoom?
“There is no clear path to navigating the currents creating disunity and internal division today,” noted Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history and astute observer of the Jewish community. He speculated that offering up discussions on third-rail issues at a GA at this time “might have created potential for further division and gotten people angry.”
Given that reality, it made sense for the recent GA to have avoided the kind of dialogue and debate that distinguished the conference in years past. Instead, the focus was on shared values and goals, driving home the point that only a major national umbrella group like JFNA is poised to respond quickly and effectively to unforeseen challenges.
During the program, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, a Republican, each spoke passionately of their support for Israel.
The intention, JFNA CEO and president Eric Fingerhut told me, was to counter the perception that Democrats and Republicans are divided on Israel. He added that he was emotionally moved to see Torres and Haley, each from a different minority community, speaking out for Israel.
The most dramatic statement of the GA presentation came from Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, who said that it is “almost too painful to express aloud,” but that “too many American Jewish youth are uninterested in what it means to be Jewish, and the complex challenges facing Israel. And too many Israelis show little interest in and understanding of their diaspora brothers.”
Herzog said “the two epicenters of Jewish life,” Israel and the U.S., “are under threat of growing apart.” Many would say we are already there.
The overarching message of the GA, as Fingerhut pointed out, was that JFNA has the power of convening” the key organizations in American Jewish life and, together, “work through the common challenges.
“You need us and we need you,” he said.
Many observers would agree that JFNA has enhanced its stature in the community through its prominent leadership role during this difficult time, galvanizing forces, coordinating and collaborating with major funders and other institutions in providing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and grants to help keep communal Jewish groups afloat.
Similarly, JFNA was able to distribute $180 million in grants from government funds to non-profits to bolster security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions in response to the threat of anti-Semitism.
Julie Platt, JFNA national campaign chair, explained the group’s most recent initiative, LiveSecure, seeking to raise $54 million to “broaden and deepen the security umbrella for the communities we serve.”
These and other major initiatives, taken in the midst of -- and in many ways in response to -- the Covid pandemic have solidified and advanced the case for the mission of the Federation movement: the power of collective action, and the sense that major crises can be met when the Jewish communal world works together.