The most dramatic moment I’ve ever experienced at a GA (General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America) took place in 1977, in Dallas, on a Shabbat afternoon, when Golda Meir walked onto the stage for what many of the several thousand in the audience suspected might well be her last appearance in the U.S. And it was. She died in Jerusalem less than a year later.
That afternoon the former Israeli prime minister, a combination of national leader and mother figure to Jews around the world, was greeted with a loud, long and passionately spontaneous rendition of “Am Yisrael Chai” from the crowd, and she responded with impromptu remembrances of her remarkable political career. She spoke of her childhood in Milwaukee, her emigration o Israel, and how she was called on to come to the U.S. in early 1948 to raise funds for arms from Europe for the impending war for statehood. Hoping to collect $8 million, she managed to raise $50 million, prompting David Ben-Gurion to later describe her as “the Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.”
Her remarks, and the love in the room for this elderly, bent, raspy-voiced woman who embodied Zionist fortitude and your grandmother’s wisdom, are etched in my memory, and no doubt the same holds true for anyone who was there.
On the eve of appearances by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel at this year’s GA this week in Washington (President Barack Obama canceled his scheduled visit to attend a memorial ceremony at Fort Hood, Texas, the site of last week’s army base killings), I am thinking back on some of the highlights, and low points, of the past 35 years since I began attending what many considered the premier Jewish communal event on the calendar.
For many years, the GA was a kind of parliament of the organized Jewish community. Sponsored by the umbrella group of the North American Federation movement (then known as CJF, the Council of Jewish Federations), it also attracted and featured leading professionals and lay leaders from a wide variety of Jewish organizations and institutions, including those from overseas, and set the communal agenda for the coming year. There was depth and breath to the program, dealing with spiritual and educational matters as well as national and international issues of concern.
Over time the five-day GA program has shrunk to two days, and what used to be anticipated as an exciting, must-attend event came to be viewed by many as obligatory and less than inspiring. In part that’s because the GA focus narrowed in recent years, with its increased emphasis on the nuts and bolts of successful fundraising within federations. The once-inspiring event had become a trade show.
And in part the lack of energy surrounding the GA reflected the inner struggles of the UJC (United Jewish Communities), reconstituted a decade ago and hobbled by internal problems of bureaucracy, finances, morale and a perceived lack of vision and purpose.
Constituent federations complained that they were paying too much in dues and getting too little for it.
With the recent arrival of an accomplished and personable new chief executive, Jerry Silverman, who helped put the Foundation for Jewish Camp on the map for major foundation funding, and with (another) new name for the organization — The Jewish Federations of North America — there is a sense that the federations’ umbrella group may be turning the corner. Morale is up in-house, and landing the prime minister for the GA is something of a coup. But Netanyahu’s talk is sure to eclipse the now even more crowded agenda of forums and panels, which each year give insight into the zeitgeist of the community.
I attended my first GA in 1974, in Chicago, and was baffled to hear some of the leading voices of the day, like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Leonard Fein, passionately call for the termination of the Institute for Jewish Life, the highly touted new project launched by the federation movement and intended to usher in an era of Jewish renewal, thanks to a planned $100 million in funding. All of this as a result of student demonstrations calling for more funds for Jewish education at the 1969 GA in Boston.
(Can you imagine that advocating for Jewish education was controversial back then?)
But in reality, the Institute never received anywhere near the funding or support imagined, and some of its most fervent supporters, calling it a sham, urged at the ‘74 GA that the Institute be put to rest since it had not turned out as planned. (So intrigued by all this, I later wrote a long analysis of how a major project created to renew Jewish life soon became little more than a footnote.)
One insight into the GA experience is to see how, over a period of years, an issue can percolate and become a priority. For example, in the 1970s there was no formal discussion at a GA about the plight of Ethiopian Jews; it was just too marginal a concern. It first was raised by activists, who invited GA delegates to a meeting at a nearby hotel. The next year there was a small panel at the GA on Ethiopian Jewish rescue, and only a year or two after that did it make it to the plenary level.
In 1984, at the GA in Montreal, Aryeh Dulzin, chief executive of the Jewish Agency, jeopardized a new and delicate secret effort to rescue Ethiopian Jews by telling the thousands of GA delegates of the plan, at least indirectly. The rescue was halted for a time several months later because it became public. Did Dulzin think he could confide in so many Jews and have the plan remain private?
In the late 1970s, the GA became a pivotal place to debate whether Jews fleeing the Soviet Union should be directed primarily to Israel, to strengthen the state through aliyah, or to promote the right of emigrants to decide for themselves where they should live, with many opting for the U.S.
In 1988 the “Who Is A Jew?” issue grew heated in Israel and became the focal point of that year’s GA. An emergency mission of American Jewish leaders flew directly from the GA to Tel Aviv to oppose a pending Knesset law and voice their concern about non-Orthodox Jews being treated as second-class citizens in the Jewish state.
Other vivid GA memories for me include finding no kosher meals at the GA in San Francisco in 1978 other than frozen airline cuisine (all meals are kosher now); entering the conference center in Los Angeles in 1982 to hear Menachem Begin speak, only to learn that the prime minister’s wife, Aliza, died earlier in the day in Israel and he was on his way home; observing with dismay how the crowd at an opening plenary left in droves at the GA in Philadelphia in 2002 because too many speakers had gone on way too long, leaving keynoter Natan Sharansky to address an almost empty room; and the pride in joining thousands of other GA participants on a solidarity march through Jerusalem during the GA in Jerusalem in 2003, as the intifada raged.
What memories from this year’s GA in Washington will endure?
It has the makings of a great one, with an appearance by a master orator, at a time of real tension between Washington and Jerusalem. But it may be a small moment at a session or a conversation in a hallway that will linger in one’s mind, change one’s point of view or touch one’s heart. That’s the power of a GA that its new leaders hope will restore its status as the most important Jewish conference held each year.