In the first major post-election Jewish gathering, politics has been given a deliberately low profile.
Instead, thousands of Jewish communal professionals gathered in Baltimore for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America were focused on social justice and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, as the conference opened.
Issuing a strong call for the Jewish community to focus on social justice, as a means to repair the world, the GA’s opening keynote speaker, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, argued that this shift could be the answer to the problem of young Jews loosing interest in the community.
“And we are all—Federation and synagogue leaders alike—asking the same questions: Why aren’t our young people more like us? Why aren’t they joining synagogues? Why don’t they give to their Federations? Why don’t they stand up for Israel? Why don’t they go to Hillel? In short, why can’t they be dedicated and committed Jews just like us?” asked Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and the GA’s scholar-in-residence.
He added that Jewish community has failed to present the younger generation with vital institutions that are relevant for their lives. According to Jacobs, the answer to this problem is making social justice a communal priority.
“Against a secular culture that places each individual at the center of the universe, young Jews want to find a way to connect beyond themselves,” he said. “Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self, introducing us to a world of meaning and purpose. Tikkun olam is the pathway for most young Jews to live a life of Jewish commitment.”
While approaching the issue from a religious standpoint, Jacobs call for taking on social justice issues, which will also be the topic of many sessions during the annual federation parley, has also a political aspect fitting the results of last week’s elections. For federations, the prime provider of social services in the Jewish community, the coming moths will be a trying period, as President Barack Obama negotiates with Congress the future of possible cuts to government services which will have significant impact on many of the services provided by Jewish communities.
Politics, however, will not be discussed directly in most meetings and sessions of the General Assembly and the gathering will feature no major political figures either from United States or Israel. Maryland senators and the state’s governor are scheduled to address the crowd, as is the Israeli ambassador, a modest political representation compared to previous years.
The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing 155 Jewish federations in the United States and Canada opened its annual meeting in a low key. Organizers said 3,000 Jewish activists registered but in the opening plenary meeting many seats remained empty. Vendors and exhibitors also noted the low level of interest during the opening day.
One of the main challenges facing JFNA during its annual meeting will be to recharge its Global Planning Table, a new allocation system adopted last year. The GPT is aimed at creating a new process of dividing funds raised in the United States to causes in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, but the process has yet to yield an agreed upon basis for distribution of donations. In several meetings during the GA, participants will be invited to provide their input regarding funding priorities, a move that could be seen as a response to claims raised last year by federation officials who complained the process was not clear and that many in the federation system were left outside the discussion.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.