Is the GA Gaga?

Some leading Jewish figures worry that the assembly of North American federations occurs each year due to inertia - more than any fervent belief in a significant message.

NEW YORK - "The Jewish parliament," "the most important event in the community," "a conference that sets the agenda for American Jewry" - these are some of the epithets bestowed upon the upcoming General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish federations of North America.

But prior to the United Jewish Communities (UJC) gathering that will open on Sunday in Toronto, these descriptions take on an illusory character. Those who still employ such terms admit that they are expressing a feeling of nostalgia and longing for what the GAs symbolized in the past, rather than an assessment of the current reality.

Among the large number of important and long-time Jewish officials and functionaries interviewed for this article, none agreed with the contention of opposition circles within the Jewish community - that the GA has lost its justification and raison d'etre. On the other hand, in conversations and interviews, they did not refute the claim that the GA is continuing to convene because of the power of inertia, though there was a clear effort to give this argument a conciliatory tone.

The comments of Jewish organization leaders and functionaries clearly reflect the growing questions about the wisdom of continuing to convene the assembly. Community activists, including those who are integrally connected to the Jewish establishment, expressed mixed emotions and contradictory reactions about whether the GA is still necessary. The fact that almost all of the interviewees insisted on remaining anonymous indicates that they are uncomfortable or fearful about disparaging a Jewish event that has become an enduring community tradition, and are also not ready to be identified as someone who attributes special importance to the event or expects that a new and significant message for the community will emerge from Toronto this year.

"This is an assembly whose status and reputation as a central event has significantly weakened and it needs a shot of encouragement, rather than criticism and open self-flagellation," said the head of a central Jewish umbrella organization who has participated in GAs since the 1970s."Undoubtedly, it is no longer what it once was," admitted a top UJC official. (The UJC, established in 1999, is the umbrella organization of Jewish federations and is responsible for organizing the yearly assembly.) "In the past, the GA was considered the largest annual gathering of the community and this event was regarded as a show of strength for the community," he explained. "But the status of the GA and its centrality in community life has substantially eroded in recent years."

Aversion and alienationThe accepted version among the functionaries is that in recent years American Jewry has grown tired of events and conventions, especially those that are permanent fixtures on the community's calendar and are convened as a tradition that no one dares to violate or terminate. A growing feeling of aversion and even alienation has also developed around the annual GA.

"I am not prepared to say that the GA should be canceled," argued a leader of a major Jewish organization. "But it will not be possible to avoid reexamining its necessity, value and benefit for the community for much longer." This interviewee, who asked to remain nameless, argued that the first step should be for the leaders of the UJC to change the frequency of the GA, making it a biennial event or even one that occurs only once every three years.

Even the uppermost leadership of the UJC apparently has found it difficult to ignore the troubling emotions their event arouses among its participants. They decided to make the GA a day and a half shorter this year than in previous years. "From surveys conducted after recent GAs, participants clearly complained that the assemblies were too long and tiring," said Gail Hyman, a senior executive in the UJC office responsible for preparing the GA.

Hyman and her colleagues in the UJC's New York offices are aware of rumblings of doubt over the need to continue convening the GA. But they are not perturbed by the critical and pejorative attitude that they believe originates from outside the inner circles of community activity.

"The GA was and remains an important and central event for federation activists and grass-roots volunteers," she explains. "For them, it is very important to meet, to hear what is happening in the communities, to exchange ideas and to learn about developments in the community fields in which they are involved, such as nursing care for the elderly."

To bolster her claim about the importance of the GA, Hyman points to the fact that two weeks before it was slated to convene, the number of people registered to participate had already reached about 3,000 - a substantial increase compared to the 2,500 who participated in the GA last year in Cleveland. Representatives of 150 communities from 25 states will participate. At this stage, it is not known exactly how many Israelis will attend. Based on the number who participated last year, a senior UJC official estimated that between 200 to 300 will come to Toronto this year.

At least among top UJC officials, there is a strong conviction about the necessity of convening the GA in the future and a sense of confidence that no one will dare to prevent it from continuing. The dates and venues for the next three years have already been selected. In 2006, the GA will convene in Los Angeles. In 2007, it will meet in Nashville and in 2008 in Jerusalem.

An original argument has also been presented to justify the existence of the GA. "If the GA is canceled, it would be interpreted by non-Jews as proof that the Jews can no longer meet and discuss their affairs, and it would be regarded as a sign of weakness of the Jewish community," according to one senior UJC activist.

It is also difficult to not be impressed by the multifaceted program prepared for the participants this year. It includes discussions and workshops on a wide and rich range of issues the organizers have identified as facing Jewish communities, or which they feel should be given priority treatment by the federations.

For example, a workshop will be held on the disturbing data concerning the aging of the Jewish population in North America; one discussion will be devoted to the spread of poverty among American Jewry. The GA will also discuss the role of the federations in solving the issue of bringing the Falashmura to Israel, and will examine the response of community welfare institutions to Hurricane Katrina and the lessons that can be learned from coping with the disaster's victims. There will be a workshop on the impact of the disengagement and implications of the evacuation of settlements in Gush Katif on Israeli society.

The GA will also include debate on the objectives of Jewish education and the resources required for expanding it. Jewish students who represent organizations active on college campuses, such as Hillel and Chabad, will utilize the GA for an in-depth examination of factors and motives involved in preservation of their Jewish identity.

Inner circleThe important part of the GA, reserved for an inner circle of top federation leaders, entails discussions about allocating the funds collected in the communities and defining the priorities for using the financial resources to fund goals and projects. According to the accepted data, the Jewish federations raise $850 million annually - not including the money collected during special campaigns launched, for example, to assist the elderly and infirm in the former Soviet Union, the Falashmura who seek to come to Israel, or the victims of Katrina.

According to the pattern of allocation and priorities set in recent years, 70 percent of the contributed funds is allotted to local community needs and 30 percent is channeled to Israel, including an annual allocation to the Jewish Agency. Senior Israeli officials in New York claim that the proportion remaining in the community is larger, and the amount allocated to Israel is actually less than 20 percent.

However, just as UJC executives are not fazed by critical questions about the need to continue convening the GA, senior Jewish functionaries were also not bowled over by the program awaiting GA participants. They refused to regard the long list of discussion topics as proof of the event's importance or evidence that it represents the community's true set of priorities.

"The GA expresses technocratic emphasis on the way of thinking by federation leaders and UJC executives, which dictates their patterns of action," said a leader of a New York Jewish organization. "There is no lasting, significant content in this GA," he declared. "In the past, there was electricity at the GAs and today they are conducted as a mechanical routine."

Another common argument raised in these conversations is that the GA and its priorities reflect a separatist tendency vis-a-vis the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora, and a focus on internal matters, and that this trend is growing stronger and spreading among the federation leaders.

"The GAs in the past were a central forum for clarifying and presenting the needs of Jews in the world, who were the focus of activities of the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee," explained a top executive in a large and well-known Jewish welfare organization. "What has happened in recent years, and especially since the establishment of the UJC, is that the issue of 'Jewish needs in the world' has grown weaker." According to this source, the total amount of contributions raised by the federations has continually increased, but the sum allocated to Israel and overseas Diaspora needs has shrunk. "The GAs have become less patient about listening to the woes of Jews in Romania and less considerate of the distress of Jews in the former Soviet Union."

Local fears - like the uncertain future for American Jewish continuity, increased assimilation and the spread of poverty among Jews - have become more acute in recent years, have accelerated the process of seclusion and heightened the preference of dealing with needs that are closer to home, rather than to focus on the needs of the Jewish people and Israel.

Federation leaders have also recently become worried about growing signs of changes in the priorities in the world of Jewish philanthropy. A recent study indicated that a large part of major donations is allocated to non-Jewish goals, including funding for research, universities and museums. According to one assessment, 27 of 30 recent donations by Jews were allotted to non-Jewish endeavors.

Cities rebelOne development that is expected to have a negative impact on the results of the GA in Toronto is the crisis in relations between the UJC and the largest and leading federations in the United States. In at least 10 major cities - including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Chicago and Cleveland - the local federations have recently acted independently, while weakening their ties with the UJC to the point of almost severing them. These federations raise most of the contributions and are determined to allocate the funds to goals and projects while demonstrably circumventing and ignoring the administrative authority of the UJC.

"This rebellion is also a factor that accelerated the process of eroding the status of the GA," said the head of one Jewish organization.

The link between Israel and the GA and its benefit from Israel's perspective is a subject of controversy. Nachman Shai, senior vice president of the UJC and director of the organization's office in Jerusalem, argues that from an Israeli perspective, the GAs are becoming more vital and important than in the past. "In light of the drastic cutbacks in welfare budgets in Israel and a reduction in allocations to weak groups, the civil sector in Israel took upon itself areas of responsibility that the government abandoned," he explains. "Therefore, the discussions and workshops at the GA are important for Israelis as a means for learning ways of handling welfare-related social issues, while gaining exposure to methods of fundraising and determining the way funds are allocated."

Nonetheless, Shai acknowledges complaints that among the Israelis who attended the GAs in recent years were a considerable number of "machers" from nongovernmental organizations in Israel, some of whom came to rub shoulders with affluent Jews and solicit contributions from them for various goals, at least some of which are inconsistent with proper practices.

On the other hand, a senior Jewish source in New York, who monitors activities and events in the local Jewish arena as part of his official position, claims that the leaders of the UJC suffer from a "problematic conception" that is expressed "in their determination to prevent the GA from becoming an Israeli event." But the problematic nature of this attitude, he explains, is "that the lack of an Israeli emphasis and the weakening of the link to Israel accelerate the process of erosion of the GA's status and utility."

Thus, the official argues, the UJC leadership decided not to include Israelis among the speakers at the GA plenum. At least three government ministers turned down invitations to participate in the GA, he says, after it was made clear to them in advance that their presence would be limited to participation in panels and workshops. In recent years, the level of Israeli officials attending the GA has declined.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided not to attend the Toronto GA and the participants will hear him speak via video. The official reason that Sharon declined the invitation was that the GA in Toronto falls on a date when he must be present at the official ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's murder. However, according to the prevailing interpretation among community functionaries, the prime minister's absence from the GA also reflects the erosion of the event's importance.

Israeli participationThe senior Israeli official slated to attend the GA is Deputy Minister Michael Melchior. Foreign Ministry officials have also been invited, including senior officials from Israeli consulates in North America. Workshop participants will include Yossi Bachar from the Finance Ministry; Ilan Cohen (director general of the Prime Minister's Office), leading business figures Ofra Strauss and Leora Meridor, Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit and others. An Israeli delegation of eight newspaper editors and managers of print and electronic media will also attend.

However, Jewish sources in New York say that despite the presence of Israelis at the GA and the inclusion of Israeli issues (such as the Arab citizens of Israel and development of the Negev and Galilee) in the discussions and workshops, "the event in Toronto is not relevant to Israel." Some of them scoffed: "They will discuss there the budgets and allocations for local needs to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, but will only toss a bone to Israel."

On the other hand, Israel's consul general in New York, Arieh Mekel, who identifies himself as a veteran GA participant, warns against underestimating the value of the assembly. Mekel argues that the gathering in Toronto offers a potential for renewing the close partnership between Israel and the Diaspora in many fields. Under the Foreign Ministry's guidance, Mekel plans to propose an initiative at one of the sessions for cooperation between the UJC and the Foreign Ministry's Center for International Cooperation (Mashav). According to Mekel, the plan would be to create a joint basis and mechanism for international assistance in areas such as the fight against AIDS or aiding the victims of natural disasters. "The UJC did wonderful work," he notes, "in assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina."