By Judith Segaloff
(JNS) As thousands of leaders from the most prominent Jewish international organizations gathered in honor of Israel’s 75th birthday, in a last-minute same-day cancellation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew from his role as keynote speaker.
The kickoff at the Expo Tel Aviv International Convention Center on Sunday to the series of events and celebrations instead featured Israeli President Isaac Herzog solo, with opposition leader Yair Lapid speaking the next day.
It was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization.
After the opening event, the Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America. Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Congress of the World Zionist Organization are in Israel for their annual Board of Governors meetings.
“We are thrilled to be in Israel with 3,000 leaders from across the Federation system to celebrate the miracle of Israel,” Jewish Federations of North America Board Chair Julie Platt told JNS in an interview. “We have partnered with Israel for over 100 years and we usually hold our assembly in the fall, but to celebrate Israel’s birthday, we moved the meetings up.”
(Early Jewish Federations and organizations then known as United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal have been raising funds to support the Jewish state since well before May 14, 1948.)
“The General Assembly is an opportunity to convene, listen, learn and engage in dialogue with Israeli decision makers from the opposition and coalition as we continue to express our concerns on issues of importance to North American Jewry and their implications on our communities,” said Platt.
Israel’s volatile political situation presented challenges for JFNA, including calls from certain individuals and organizations to leave Netanyahu off the speakers’ roster. A letter went out from JFNA “orgsplaining” the afterward-moot decision to invite Netanyahu to speak on Sunday.
“We know from your letters and emails that you care deeply and sincerely about the future of Israel. You have specifically questioned the participation of Prime Minister Netanyahu and other leaders of the governing coalition due to their role in the very contentious debate about Israel’s judicial system. Some have even called for the Jewish Federations of North America to withdraw their invitation. We respectfully disagree.”
“We want to be supportive and encouraging,” explained Platt, “And we want democracy to thrive in Israel. Yet we feel it is important that there be checks and balances in governance. We are supportive of Herzog’s offer to negotiate compromise [on judicial reform] but as we support flourishing Jewish life and the nongovernmental organizations that support our society, we support LGBT rights and religious pluralism and we have our feet firmly planted in the conversation about compromise and democracy.”
Platt added that these are not political issues; they are issues about flourishing Jewish life and they mirror similar discussions being held all over the world.
The JFNA letter concluded, “The Jewish Federations of North America have approached the debate regarding the judiciary with the goal of helping to strengthen and preserve our beloved State of Israel and the connection between Israel and the Jewish communities we represent. Seeking the wisdom to guide our actions, we are reminded of the Mishnah: ‘Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.’”
Platt acknowledged that she expected protesters to attempt to disrupt the events.
“The protest issue is the trial of democracy, and we respect that right while very much hoping that our Israeli colleagues will not get in the way of our celebrations,” she said. “While we welcome democracy, we hope that there can be the opportunity for people to express their opinions in a respectful forum. We have a wonderful loud democracy in the United States as well.”
American Jews and Israel
Beyond the celebrations, the conferences addressed topics of importance to American Jews and Israel, including:
A Jew is a Jew is a Jew: The Law of Return and Defining What Qualifies as “Jewish Enough”/Separation of Synagogue and State: Is it Possible?
Smart and Savvy: The Future of Investing in Israel and
Climate Change: Innovative Developments and Collaboration from The Abraham
While American Jews are concerned with Israel’s democracy, they are also worried about the demographic changes in communities in the United States. Hebrew school enrollment declined from 230,000 in 2007 to 135,000 in 2020, with the number of schools waning from 2,000 to 1,398, according to a recent report by the Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit organization sponsored by New York’s United Jewish Appeal (UJA).
Platt said everyone is trying to find innovative and creative ways to make the traditional Hebrew school model more engaging.
“In Federations across the country, there is a great desire to find creative ways to bring our youth into Jewish life. We do a tremendous amount to bring Jewish children into summer camp and we work with many organizations to bring youth to Israel. We know that could not be more important,” she said.
Young Leadership Cabinet
One of the solutions for engaging with young Jewish Americans is JFNA’s Young Leadership Cabinet. Jacob Shapiro, a co-chair of the Young Leadership Cabinet, is a second-generation Federation member who has been affiliated with JFNA for over 20 years (he is in his 30s).
“Federation is a major part of my identity,” said Shapiro, an owner of his own investment firm based in Chicago. “This will be my 20th trip to Israel and it gives me goosebumps to think about being in the country during the 75th anniversary of Israel. It’s such a milestone.”
He said that every trip has been different, particularly with the burgeoning development of the last 10 or 15 years.
Shapiro has seen pushback from other young people against supporting Israel. He sees it as a real challenge and looks to his mentors within JFNA to help him address some of the issues when he isn’t sure how to do so.
“We see it every day,” he said. “Criticism from within can be so painful. And while it can be painful to hear what others have to say, we need to focus on the external criticism, which is infinitely more dangerous.”
The Young Leadership Cabinet is composed of 450 people from 74 different American cities with a diverse spectrum of career paths and levels of religious observance. Of those, 25 were in Israel for this event.
The Young Leadership Cabinet recently ran a mission to Latvia and Hungary with 175 participants that included large Federation cities such as New York and smaller ones like Tidewater, Virginia.
“It was the second-biggest Federation mission ever,” said Shapiro. “We witnessed the rebuilding of the Latvian and Hungarian communities — schools, synagogues and community centers. What fuels me to participate is sharing with my colleagues. They’re committing their time, energy and resources to travel together and share experiences.”
He said he is focused on the next 50 years to invest, as he does in his business, in Jewish communities all over the world and especially in Israel.
“We have been doing assessments on where our local Federations are spending the money,” explained Platt. “We are always looking for creative and innovative ways to engage younger people.
“Lots of people are working in the ‘on-campus’ space and it will take lots of people working in that space. There are a lot of conversations that need to take place at high school levels before students even move on to college campuses. It is a conversation that is happening and is a work in progress and much is done locally through community, leadership, education, JCCs and NGOs.”