What to Expect at the GA 2011

Youth empowerment, aliya, strengthening the bond with Israel – and maybe even a little politics – a look at some of what will be discussed at the 2011 Jewish Federations General Assembly.

Preparations for the Jewish Federations General Assembly involves several steps: First you check the weather, then you send some emails to see who's coming (many Jewish community leaders and activists meet exactly once a year - at the GA), and then you find out who is rumored to speak.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to pull out after his participation was formally announced, and U.S. President Barack Obama is already booked for another big Jewish event at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, outside Washington, D.C. in December.

Jewish GA

At the moment, two officials have confirmed their attendance: U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. There were quite persistent rumors that U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden will be coming – but there has been no confirmation from his office or from the GA organizers. It is also unlikely to happen since the last time Biden hosted Jewish community leaders for a Rosh Hashana reception, he promised to set a meeting with them to discuss Jonathan Pollard – and he still has not delivered.

One last-minute speaker might be the wife of Alan Gross, a 62-year old Jewish-American who is serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban prison after being accused of spying and trying to destabilize the country (Gross, an international development specialist and a social worker, was helping the Jewish community in Havana to connect to the Internet).

Since Gilad Shalit has been released, the Jewish community's attention may shift to Gross' woes, and a more vigorous campaign for his release might follow. Though still unconfirmed, Judy Gross may speak on the final day of the convention.

This year, unlike conventions that were held at the beginning of the recession or when the Israeli-Arab conflict was particularly violent, there seems to be no overarching theme. Yet the GA is as much a place to conduct hallway conversations and deals, as it is a place for non-profits to get some tips on how to deal with the recession or how to engage with young people.

About 3,000 people are expected to arrive in Denver - many of them young delegates, and almost none of them former Israelis, who have not yet become part of the Jewish communities' institutional structures in the U.S.

Some panels will discuss new and old challenges in the Middle East, but unlike the annual AIPAC gathering, the Jewish Federations usually prefer to stay clear of political controversies, especially during an election year - the organizers stress that they work with all administrations).

In the hallways, participants will no doubt share their views on Netanyahu and Iran and on the presidential candidates in the U.S. There may even be some gossip, but the focus of the conference remains the interests of the community and how best to develop and preserve them.

Dr. Misha Galperin, who used to be a CEO and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, will be coming to the convention as President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development. His agenda includes various topics that deal with the relationship between the Federations and Israel, and contrary to what some observers say, he disagrees with the claim that Federations members are more reluctant to donate to Israel.

"They might be less willing to donate through the institutions," he said. "The donations market has changed, people are focusing on their own interest. But the amount of money donated to Israel has been growing".

The Jewish Agency, on the other hand, expects next year's budget to be smaller. "We've been going through a very difficult prioritization process," Galperin said. "There is likely to be impact, depending on how the economy goes, but I also think that we need to focus on what we are able to accomplish."

One of the topics he will discuss is the need to bring the rest of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. "There is a list agreed on all the institutions, the total cost of bringing them to Israel is 7.5 million dollars, and we still need 2.5 millions to be raised," he said. "The absorption of olim is supported by the Israeli taxpayers, and the Jewish agency, together with the Federations… is working with them in Ethiopia, preparing them for aliya."

The Jewish Agency is also concerned with aliya from other parts of the world. "There are few places where Jews feel vulnerable in Muslim countries, and we are monitoring it," he said."There is increased interest in aliya from the former Soviet Union – even Moscow and St. Petersburg, something we have barely seen for a while – young people who are interested in coming (to Israel)."

Another challenging topic is how to extend programs aimed at reconnecting young Jews with Israel.The biggest question is how to keep this connection alive after their first trip with the "Birthright" or "Masa.”

"We absolutely feel the results – we have 60,000 alumni of 'Masa' in the community and the way they live in the community makes a big difference," Galperin said. "This year we'll have 33,000 kids at 'Birthright,' next year – 42,000, and then 51,000. There is a new initiative for a longer second trip that we expect thousands to attend."