Jewish Federations Annual Conference: What to Expect

President Rivlin will likely call for a renewal of talks between the Israeli government and U.S. Jews about the deal to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations of North America's 2009 General Assembly.
AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin are expected to address the growing rift between Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli government at the annual three-day conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, which is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles on Sunday.

The gathering is expected to attract 3,000 people from across the Jewish world. For the first time, Rivlin will attend the event in person, while Netanyahu is slated to address the conference via satellite, a decision which is seen as an example of the growing gap between his government and world Jewry.

Citing senior sources within the JFNA, Haaretz reported in October that Netanyahu opted out of attending the conference in person due to his unwillingness to share the limelight with Rivlin, who had agreed to speak at the events months before.

Tensions have run high over the past year, and the widely held frustration and disappointment among Diaspora Jews toward Netanyahu is no longer a secret. The main reasons for this rift are recent decisions made by the Israeli government to thwart a long-negotiated agreement on the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and to consider a bill that legalizes the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

Earlier this month, American Jewish leaders joined Israeli lawmakers at a meeting of the Knesset's Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, accused the Israeli government of "betraying" Diaspora Jewry, The Times of Israel reported. Jerry Silverman, the JFNA's president and CEO, said the Israeli government's "backtracking" on the deal to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel was very upsetting.

According to the conference's organizers, this year’s gathering will differ from previous years. "We have spent a lot of time getting to know what attendees are looking for when they come to the GA," said JFNA spokesperson Rebecca Dinar, referring to the General Assembly, another name for the conference. "They want to be inspired, they want to network and they want to have serious conversations about the issues that matter most to Jewish communal life," she said. 

To "jump start" the conversations that are likely to take place during the conference, organizers told Haaretz, the event will kick off with four "hot topic" conversations delivered by panels of "in-demand leaders and experts." Those topics include the Trump administration, relations with donors, Jewish community life in the present and future, and the relationship between North American Jewry and Israel. JFNA promised that attendees will be presented with a diverse set of opinions.

In his speech on Monday afternoon, Rivlin is expected to call for a renewal of talks between the Israeli government and American Jewry about the Western Wall, a move that some might view as an attack on Netanyahu. The president is also expected to say that members of the Reform and Conservative movements are not second class Jews and he will hold a short, closed-door meeting with the JFNA's leaders. 

On Monday afternoon, on the main plenary stage, Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, will join Gidi Grinstein from the Reut Group, a leading Israeli public policy research/strategy institute, and Bethamie Horowitz from New York University in a conversation that the conference's website explains will provide attendees with insight into why it has become more challenging to maintain support for Israel. 

A different session on the ever-complicated relationship between U.S Jews and their Israeli counterparts is titled "Just Between Friends: Do We Even Know Each Other?" Historian Jonathan Sarna will spar with journalist Shmuel Rosner on the "realities of a global Jewish identity and how perspectives differ according to which continent you live on." Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky will make an appearance on Tuesday. 

It remains to be seen whether the conference will touch upon controversial topics recently revealed by Haaretz, including the JFNA's support for Israeli settlements and opaque practices by some federations and executives.