The General Assembly in New Orleans - Natasha Mozgovaya
The General Assembly in New Orleans. The location was a reminder that Judaism can be about rehabilitating communities. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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NEW ORLEANS - The location of this year's Jewish Federations of North America's annual General Assembly conference seems to have served to remind Jewish activists that Judaism can be about helping to rehabilitate a disaster-struck community, not just about quibbling over the best way to support Israel.

Simon Greer, the president of Jewish Funds for Justice, came to New Orleans as a volunteer several times. He said bringing students to the Louisina city, to help Jewish as well as non-Jewish residents, was a way for them to express their Judaism.

The Jewish federation activists, who have contributed $28 million to help restore Jewish institutions in New Orleans and are trying to bring back Jews who fled after the city was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - and to make the place attractive to others - seemed to feel a rare sense of satisfaction in the city, as volunteers shared their experiences. The volunteers also breathed new life into the city's two kosher restaurants.

The Jewish community of New Orleans now numbers some 8,800 people. Considering that around 1,800 people lost their lives in the hurricane and its aftermath, the synagogue and homes in the well-off Jewish neighborhood of Lakeview that were lost to flooding didn't get that much attention.

The synagogue's Torah scrolls were later rescued and buried by Zaka volunteers, and the community's rabbi left the city - leaving the congregants to start from scratch. They have to build a new building, find a new rabbi and try to attract new members.

The Goldring-Woldenberg Jewish Community Center was closed for a year. The first floor was completely flooded; the library on the second floor has become office space.

The librarian, Dvora Shlekman, lives only six blocks away and her own house was flooded. She has been there for 17 years, and every day she learns something new about how people deal with difficulties.

But despite the sense of unity, participants also discussed the midterm elections and the controversy over new construction in Har Homa. President Barack Obama's statment from Indonesia criticizing the construction was read in panel discussing the impact of the elections on the Jewish community.

For Larry Greenfield, a conservative who is a research fellow at the Claremont Institute, a California think tank, this is more proof that the Obama administration is dangerous for America and the Jews.

Greenfield cites what he calls Obama's abandonment of America's allies and what he says is the link Obama makes between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to Greenfield, the bottom line is that twice as many Republican politicians support Israel twice as do Democrats. Obama will sell F-35s to Israel, Greenfield says, but will limit their technological capabilities.

However, Ann Lewis, a Democrat and president of the No Limits Foundation, called for more realism, pointing out the ongoing cooperation between the United States and Israel, the $3 billion in aid to Israel and the U.S. pledge to maintain Israel's qualitative edge.

Lewis said the Democrats would have to live with the outcome of the elections until 2012, with budget cuts in areas that are important to the Jewish community, such as those for senior citizens and other social programs.

Ami Eden, editor in chief of the JTA website, says that while Obama has not gone far with regard to Iran, neither did George W. Bush, and there is not much difference between the Bush and the Obama administrations with it comes to Israel.

Knesset opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni, who addressed the closing session of the GA, repeated her opening sentence from her speech last year: "I didn't come here as the head of opposition; I came today to open a new dialogue between Israel and the world Jewry." The comment signaled that she did not intend to wash Israel's political dirty laundry in public. More statesmanlike that ever, Livni thanked the delegates for their contribution to Israel and said she had come to open a dialogue between Israel and world Jewry. She told the audience Israel needed that dialogue if it is to remain the national home of the Jewish people.

"The Jewish state is not only a shelter from physical threats but a state that inspires, which is strong enough to meet criticism - especially criticism that comes from love, from the Jewish family," she said.

With regard to negotiations with the Palestinians, Livni said: "It's not about who has more rights for the land but what's important to us, and we need to divide the land."

Livni was greeted with thunderous applause. Her speech was interrupted only once by a heckler, who said something garbled and was ejected from the hall - unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech, which had to be stopped five times due to heckling.