(JTA) — When it’s held in Israel once every five years, the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly aims to focus on challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish state. In large part, this year was no exception.
Israel’s president, prime minister and other prominent politicians addressed the crowd. Sessions covered Israel’s foreign and domestic agenda, from Iran’s nuclear program to Israel’s marriage laws to the aftermath of the 2011 social protests. The conference culminated with a walk to the Western Wall.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Jerusalem. The release of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews gave conference delegates a comprehensive picture of Jewish life in America, a set of sometimes troubling statistics and plenty to talk about.
Hanging over the delegates’ heads were two questions that have obsessed the Jewish community since the study was released last month: What does it mean? And what do we do about it?
Answers came in sessions before and during the conference, and in speeches by JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman and Chairman Michael Siegal. Taken together, they recommended greater accessibility to communal resources and programs such as preschool and camp, combined with a focus on developing personal connections between community leaders and young Jews.
“The fact that we act collectively, that is our brand,” Silverman said at a plenary Monday. “Not just the things we do, but the fact that we do them together. Let’s never forget that. Let’s never be so passionate about a single cause that we forget that our real cause is community.”
Silverman lamented the high cost of Jewish education and called for Jewish preschool to be free, as well as for a major expansion of the Jewish summer camp network.
Federations, Silverman said, need to do a better job of engaging the “low-hanging branches” of alumni from large programs like the free 10-day Birthright trip to Israel. He recommended establishing a one-on-one mentoring program between community leaders and young Jews.
Silverman also advocated making better use of technology and announced plans for the creation of an encyclopedic website within a year to share communal best practices and pool data. He reiterated his call for Birthright to make more of its data available to communities nationwide, a process that Birthright says was already underway.
“Half of our young population has been exposed to Israel and yet we don’t follow up,” Silverman said Monday. “We could change the face of Jewish communal life one relationship at a time.”