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A Roadmap for Building Flourishing Jewish Communities

The 2021 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America was a remarkably joyful celebration of the Jewish community's resilience, and a rallying cry for redoubled involvement in Jewish life and investment in the Jewish future in the face of adversity

Ted Merwin
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Screen shot from the GA's plenary session. Clockwise from upper left Neil and Lisa Wallack, Alisa Doctoroff and Julie Platt
Screen shot from the GA's plenary session. Clockwise from upper left Neil and Lisa Wallack, Alisa Doctoroff and Julie PlattCredit: Courtesy of JFNA
Ted Merwin
Promoted Content

It might have been natural to go into this year’s General Assembly (GA) with a dearth of optimism. A series of difficult events could have cast a pall on the conference: the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic that prevented a return to an in-person conference, the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas and the surge of both antisemitism and anti-Zionism that erupted in its wake, and the continuing concerns that so many throughout the Jewish world have about the viability of our communal institutions. The challenges were even clear in the GA’s theme, “What’s Next?” – tackling how to move forward following such tumultuous times. 

But anyone expecting this GA, the premier gathering of the North American Jewish community, to be a downer found, instead, that it was extraordinarily uplifting, marked by messages of hope delivered by leaders from the highest levels of the Israeli and American governments, as well as the Jewish community.  

New set of opportunities

“I’m an optimist,” said Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “When I think about who I am, and what I believe, I understand that it is my community that made me this way,” he added in an augmented reality address at the GA’s main plenary. The opening session attracted over 10,000 attendees across multiple platforms and was followed by two days of more intimate, discussion-oriented sessions that dove deep into a range of issues facing Jewish life.  

When it comes to a commitment to building flourishing Jewish communities, Fingerhut doubled down. Jewish leaders have made an “everlasting covenant to support and uplift our Jewish communities, so that, come what may, we and the Jewish people may flourish today and forever," he asserted.   

Last year, during the height of the pandemic, Jewish Federations rallied the power of their system-wide approach to help ameliorate the pain facing communities. Using a national matching grant to spur local giving, the Jewish Federations raised $62 million to enable frontline social services agencies to provide food, shelter, psychological counseling, job training and many other desperately needed resources to those who were most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fingerhut’s message of hope and inspiration rang loud and clear throughout the conference.   

It was heard in the remarks by Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY), the lawmaker from the Bronx who has been an indefatigable advocate for Israel. He spoke about how his trips to Israel have reinforced his determination to build and maintain coalitions of diverse Americans to support the Jewish state, especially as the nation contends with the volatile “powder keg of antisemitism.” 
It was heard in the words of Nikki Haley, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who highlighted what she called the “urgent need to protect Jewish communities,” both in Israel and in the Diaspora. “The haters won't win,” she insisted. “They can't beat you. You have the truth and justice on your side.” Haley pledged her own unyielding commitment to keeping Jews safe.   
And it was heard in the sentiments of Mark Wilf, chairman of the board of JFNA, who emphasized the importance of paying attention to the “urgent agenda” of the current era, “while rebuilding the Jewish engagement moments that have been lost, and imagining a whole new set of opportunities to help our communities flourish.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog called for strengthening Jewish institutions and collaborating in fighting antisemitismCredit: Courtesy of JFNA

The fight against antisemitism          

In a striking variety of ways, the event highlighted the many crucial ways in which organized Jewish communities are reemerging from the pandemic with a renewed sense of vitality, whether through summer camps, day schools, services to the aging, trips to Israel, or a host of new initiatives dedicated to fighting antisemitism. 

One such initiative, LiveSecure, is the ambitious and innovative plan to raise a total of $54 million to protect the entire North American Jewish community from attack. The goal, announced at the GA, sets LiveSecure up to expand the number of Jewish communities with comprehensive security programs in place. Currently, just one-third of the 146 Federations throughout the United States and Canada have such initiatives. Within three years, the security umbrella will cover every single Jewish community.  

Alisa Doctoroff, chair of the Jim Joseph Foundation, said that security is a prerequisite for building flourishing Jewish communities. Younger generations of Jews, she said, yearn for connection and purpose, but that can only be built on a bedrock of security. “We need to make sure that they feel safe to achieve that.”  

Shared sense of peoplehood

The most stirring rhetoric, however, came from Isaac Herzog, the new president of Israel, who called for renewed efforts to unite the global Jewish community. “I cannot imagine a world in which Israel and North American Jewry are not intimately tied to each other,” he said. “We must declare our urgent duty and overreaching goal, to strengthen our shared sense of peoplehood, to enhance and deepen the links between us." 
Herzog called for strengthening Jewish institutions and collaborating in the fight against antisemitism and other forms of hatred. He called for many more trips, especially by teenagers, between the two principal centers of Jewish life in the world.  

“As President of the State of Israel, I will make it my mission to strengthen the lines of communication, to reinforce the underlying bond and mutual responsibility,” he said. “As President, I will act with every group, every individual, every denomination, to ensure that North American Jewry knows that Israel is your home away from home, and to ensure that the Israeli people accept and respect every Jewish voice,” he added. 

Bringing world Jewry together requires a renewed focus on the ever-increasing diversity within the Jewish communities, whether in North America or Israel. Eden Alene, the Ethiopian-Jewish Israeli pop star who made it to the final round of this year’s Eurovision singing contest in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, told the GA audience of her intersecting background. Being the first Ethiopian Jew to represent Israel in the competition, she recalled, “was amazing. I felt very proud of my culture and my color.” Her performances at the GA, sung in a combination of Amharic, Arabic, English and Hebrew, testified to the power of bringing people together through the common language of music. Alene is no stranger to breaking down barriers; she broke the record for the highest note sung in Eurovision history during her performance of “Set Me Free” this year.  

Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY) spoke about how his trips to Israel have reinforced his determination to build coalitions of diverse Americans to support the Jewish stateCredit: Courtesy of JFNA

Strengthening each other 

In the days after the main event, Jewish leaders from across the country gathered for two days of “leadership lab” sessions, discussing the major successes that JFNA has had in fighting racism and hatred, expanding its pathbreaking work with Holocaust survivors to help others who have suffered from trauma; contributing to shared society work in Israel; developing new approaches to “impact investing” in the realm of philanthropy; and building resilience in teens, parents, and Jewish communities in general.  

Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel Yair Lapid addressed the group. Like Fingerhut, he struck a note of hopefulness and confidence, promising that Israel will be a “tolerant, welcoming country to our friends and family abroad,” and pledging to “expand and deepen the dialogue” between Israel and North American Jewry. In seeking to answer the question “What’s Next,” the General Assembly put a renewed focus on building up the pillars of flourishing Jewish communities, communities that are healthy, safe, caring, welcoming and inclusive, educated and engaged, involved in the broader society and deeply connected to Israel and the global Jewish people. 

Fingerhut encapsulated the sentiment, inviting the entire organized Jewish community to share in his dream of a revitalized Jewish life in North America. The pathway to a brighter future, he suggested, is through the power of coming together and strengthening each other.  

“When I think about who I am and what I believe, I understand that it is community that made me this way,” he reflected. To the question of how to move forward in the most effective, meaningful, and redemptive way, he declared, the response is surprisingly simple, and it reverberated powerfully throughout this year’s GA.  
“The answer is community.” 

For more information about the Jewish Federations of North America, visit the website, and to see highlights from the GA, Click here