At a Crossroads: North American Jews' Moment of Truth

As the General Assembly starts, we must focus on reaching the growing numbers of Jews who are disconnected from Jewish life and from Israel.

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North American Jews are realists. We acknowledge problems and seek solutions to strengthen our Jewish communities, Israel and the world around us.

Sober realism is required now.

The most immediate act of problem-acknowledging and solution-seeking must begin now, at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual three-day General Assembly, beginning in Jerusalem today. The Pew Research Center’s study, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” is the proverbial smack across the face that the American Jewish community – and Jewish Federations, specifically – must deal with, and soon.

The study’s key finding regarding young Jews’ disconnection from Jewish life tells us that we as a community stand at an urgent crossroads. The JFNA, as the coordinating body of 153 Jewish Federations and 300 Independent Network communities, is wasting no time in tackling that reality and proposing solutions to be debated and discussed in Jerusalem.

Our JFNA’s four-part action plan would:

• Launch a Jewish version of the groundbreaking federal Head Start program by offering free Jewish pre-school education to every Jewish family.

• Quickly and decisively increase the enrollment of children attending Jewish camps from 10 percent to 30 percent of the community.

• Connect the more-than 350,000 Birthright Israel participants to further transformative experiences in our communities and steer them toward meaningful opportunities for leadership and engagement.

• Create Jewish Development Zones to connect Jews to the Jewish communal structure at vital stages of their lives, particularly as young adults.

The Pew findings have injected ever-greater urgency to the existing real-life challenges facing North American Jewry, such as promoting Jewish continuity, providing Jewish education, building ever-stronger Diaspora-Israel relations and meeting the needs of Jews at home, in Israel and in 70 nations worldwide.

There are plenty more. And then there’s the ongoing challenge confronting world Jewry: Keeping Israel, and the world, safe from a potentially nuclear Iran.

Jerusalem’s gathering will cover these matters seriously and in-depth. Conference sessions will equip officials of local Federations to better reach unaffiliated Jews in our communities, build leadership among our younger generations who are affiliated, and deepen networks for combatting the de-legitimization of Israel.

Plenary sessions and open discussions will engage us with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and key voices in the government and Knesset, including Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, Minister of Economics Naftali Bennett, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, Member of Knesset Shelley Yacimovich (the Labor Party’s leader) and Stav Shaffir (the youngest member of Knesset). Joining them will be Jerusalem’s newly reelected Mayor, Nir Barkat.

We’ll hear, too, from such leaders of Israeli industry as Eliezer Shkedi, the CEO of Israel’s national airline, El Al; Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream, whose company represents a success story of the first order – and, no less important, fosters respect and collegiality between its Israeli and Palestinian employees; and rising entrepreneurs like Emma Butin, who advises companies on product strategy.

At the GA, those of us from North America will brainstorm with our hosts and peers: The leaders of Israeli philanthropy and social service agencies. We in North America and Israel have much to learn from one another on meeting the Jewish world’s crucial communal, religious, social and economic needs.

Holding the GA in Jerusalem, which JFNA does once every five years, provides a unique forum for Israelis and Jews from North America to discuss the most pressing issues and brainstorm on approaches for dealing with them. No Jewish communal entity but Jewish Federations reach across the spectrum of Jewish life to draw such a dynamic, wide-ranging group. We are blessed to avail ourselves – on a level that even we cannot match the other four years of the cycle – of the know-how that’s made Israel an intellectual, entrepreneurial marvel that’s admired the world over.

Coming to Israel enables us to learn, more than any other time, what makes Israel tick and really peel back the headlines and confront pressing issues there and in our home communities. For example, sessions will explore who, or what determines the permissibility of a person’s marrying or divorcing in Israel, the various perspective on the Western Wall and its place in Jewish life, the rich-poor divide (in Israel? Among world Jewry?); how we foster female entrepreneurship and philanthropy; and how we encourage disabled people to take their deserved place in society.

As a group, we will walk through Jerusalem to the Western Wall, the Kotel. Unfortunately, the Kotel, so much a holy symbol for all Jews, has recently divided us around the issue of prayer access. We must respectfully debate these critical issues, while underscoring the point that every Jew has a place at the Wall.

We’ll leverage technology to bring the GA to the rest of the world. Webcasts of the major sessions, live Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, an unprecedented number of bloggers from Israel and beyond, and regular email updates will help keep us all connected. We’ll ask President Peres questions via Facebook.

These two futures - the future of Israel and its relationship with the Diaspora, and the future of North American Jewry is what we’ll be exploring the whole time.

Clearly, the Pew study is the communal warning alarm – a clarion call that cannot help but awaken us anew, concentrate our best thinking and problem-solving capabilities, and put JFNA and the entire North American Jewish community on a path to renewal.

The three days we gather in Jerusalem means availing ourselves of the dynamic, global Jewish marketplace of dialogue and debate that the GA always is. But the marketplace at this year’s GA must innovate like never before and develop a product that every American Jew will want to be part of.

We have no time to waste.

Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman and Michael Siegal are, respectively, president and CEO and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America. 

An ultra-Orthodox man prays alongside a tourist at the Western Wall. Wednesday, September 4, 2013.Credit: AP

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