(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.”
Siegal called for the creation of “Jewish development zones” where large communities each would have a summer camp, high-quality Jewish day schools, increased youth programming and leadership training opportunities.
Panel sessions preceding the G.A. focused less on policy solutions and more on what principles should guide the Jewish community in responding to a lack of communal connection among young Jews. A two-day summit on formulating a plan to strengthen the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities ahead of the G.A. emphasized the value of immersive experiences for North American Jews in Israel and with Israelis.
“The Jewish identity of Jews around the world has weakened,” the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Harel Locker, said at the summit’s opening session. “This shift is opening a gap between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel, especially among the younger generation.”
Speaking Sunday at a Global Jewish Peoplehood Roundtable sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies Executive Vice President Gil Preuss said that federations should focus on giving young Jews meaningful, substantive Jewish experiences instead of aiming to attract the maximum number of participants to programs.
“What does it mean to be Jewish, to be part of the Jewish people?” he said. “If you focus on content, you’ll get numbers.”