Defying predictions, America’s Jewish federations mustered to mount an unabashed show of strength when they gathered in Jerusalem November 10 for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). It wasn’t exactly the sort of defiance their Israeli hosts were accustomed to seeing at an American Jewish philanthropists’ convention.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the three-day meeting with fiery call to arms against Iran. His defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, delivered the same stern message the next day. Such Israeli battle cries are usually the cue for American Jewish activists to line up for duty.
But Iran was not the enemy the delegates had come to Israel to confront. Their main targets were closer at hand. Target No. 1 was Israel’s system of strict Orthodox control over Jewish religious affairs, which offends many liberal Jews who are the charities’ main support base. No. 2 was the waning Jewish loyalty of their own children, the next generation of American Jews. These threats aren’t physical, but they’re seen nonetheless as mortal threats to American Judaism.
Looking to move those two balls forward, planners added something new to this year’s assembly program: argument.
Open controversy is something North America’s 153 local Jewish charity federations have strictly avoided since their emergence a century ago, mostly for fear of alienating donors. Their traditional attitude was captured in the iconic slogan of their erstwhile national fundraising arm, the United Jewish Appeal: “We are one.”
The new tone was evident in the assembly’s opening moments, shortly before Netanyahu’s speech. In brief comments welcoming the delegates, the American co-chairs of the assembly, Washington, D.C., federation leaders Michael and Susie Gelman, said that they “look forward to the day when Israel will realize the dream of being a Jewish, democratic and pluralistic state.” Susie Gelman delivered her remarks in fluent Hebrew, which was then translated into English by her husband.