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The General Assembly, begun in 1933, was for decades the most visible institution in the national federation system. It attracted thousands annually, including federation staffers, donors, politicians on the make and an endless parade of independent activists looking to influence community policy or grab a share of the income.
Beginning in the early 1990s, as part of a strategy to reenergize the system, the central body—then known as the Council of Jewish Federations—decided to reclaim ownership of the event by barring outsiders. The plan backfired. Instead of reenergizing the assembly, it turned it into a professional seminar.
This year’s assembly represented an attempt to recapture some of the old spirit. It faced a huge challenge, beginning with low attendance. Registration, traditionally above 3,000, was below 1,000 just weeks before the opening. In the end only 1,500 delegates came from America and Canada. In the final days JFNA scrambled to fill the seats with Israelis, offering registration fees as low as $15.
It worked. About 1,500 Israelis joined the 1,500 North Americans, bringing the total to a respectable 3,000. No less important, the scramble brought in new Israeli faces unlike the government and Jewish Agency officials who traditionally attended the assembly. Many were small-scale, innovative social entrepreneurs of the sort who used to show up at assemblies in America and liven the discussions—social protesters, community organizers, experimental Jewish educators, settlers, peace activists.
Somehow, the combination clicked. The participation of the newcomers, combined with the energy generated by the few genuine debates, created an atmosphere of excitement and determination that hadn’t been seen at a General Assembly in years.
“What happens here is important,” said British-born kibbutznik Gary Levy, 39, who runs an educational program in the rural Galilee. “We will be a light unto the nations only when we’re a light unto ourselves.”
Contact J.J. Goldberg on Twitter @jj_goldberg