Jerusalem — American and Israeli Jews seemed to have switched traditional roles during the General Assembly of the UJA Federations of North America, held here this week.
Not only was the conference held in Israel for the first time in its 67-year history, but a surprisingly large number of Israelis were participating, seeking to connect with American Jewry. And Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pledged to provide millions of dollars to educate diaspora youth.
“You’re shocked,” he told a record opening plenary crowd of more than 5,000 delegates Monday evening, acknowledging that until now Israel has been on the receiving end of American dollars. “Yes, Israel is going to give money to the diaspora to help promote Jewish education. … It’s time we gave something back.”
The delegates,who filled the Israeli Convention Center, responded with enthusiastic applause.
In a similar vein, Dov Lautman, an Israeli industrialist who chaired the G.A., told an Israeli newspaper that American Jews should use most of the philanthropic funds they collect for their communities’ own needs rather than continue to view Israel as a poor cousin in need.
“The vast majority of the resources and money raised there should be used to strengthen the young generation there,” he said in an interview in Haaretz.
But American Jewish leaders were not enthusiastic about Lautman’s comments. Conrad Giles, president of the Council of Jewish Federations, told The Jewish Week that telling American Jews to keep their philanthropic dollars at home “doesn’t jibe with our need to respond to needs like aliyah, resettlement and supporting Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel. We don’t see the Israeli government or anyone else stepping up and saying they’ll make up the difference.”
Giles added that Lautman does not speak for “hundreds of thousands of impoverished Jews” who wish to come to Israel from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
The question of Israel’s share of future North American Jewish philanthropy is sure to continue to be discussed and debated, as will a wide range of other issues raised at the G.A. “This conference is not an ending, just a beginning,” said Giles.
Lautman and Netanyahu’s remarks reflect recent trends in the Israel-diaspora relationship based on the growing success of the Israeli economy and the deep concern, shared on both sides of the ocean, that renewed efforts must be made to ensure the survival of American Jewry, beset by assimilation and lack of Jewish education.
The Israeli government pledged to contribute to a new major effort to fund educational visits to Israel for youth between the ages of 16 and 26 from throughout the diaspora. The initiative, known as “Birthright Israel,” is being launched by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. There have been discussions among the philanthropists, the UJA federations and the Israeli government calling for each to contribute $20 million a year to the project.
Despite enthusiasm for the grand scope of “Birthright,” which would help provide a free trip to Israel for every young Jew, some officials have expressed skepticism. They point out that the Israel Experience programs, which provide partial funding for teens to visit Israel, have been less than successful in attracting large numbers of American teens, suggesting that peer involvement may play a greater role than the amount of funding provided.
The three-day G.A. has had a more experiential flavor to its program than its predecessors, and was described by some leaders as an extended North American Shabbaton. Rather than addressing issues of fund-raising or governance for the pending merger among UJA, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal, the conference was devoted to strengthening ties between Israeli and North American Jews.
The only other issue that dominated was the situation of Ethiopians seeking to be brought to Israel. (See accompanying story, page 45.) There was widespread agreement among Israeli government and Jewish communal officials that the 4,000 Jews remaining in the remote area of Quara must be rescued as quickly as possible. But there was controversy over the status of about 15,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who have converted to Christianity, and whether Israel should airlift them under the Law of Return.
One full day of the conference was devoted to field trips, with delegates choosing to visit one of 38 programs and projects dealing with education, culture, economy, politics and religious diversity. Another day focused on dialogue, exploring issues of common concern from both an Israeli and North American perspective, and Jewish learning sessions.
The final day was set to hold an historic meeting of the Knesset, rarely held outside the Knesset itself, with participation from American Jewish leadership. The highlight was the signing of the “Covenant of the Jewish People,” pledging commitment between the two communities.
The conference opened with Netanyahu’s address, followed by a two-hour multimedia extravaganza that included popular Israeli singers, humorous film clips from American movies, and a comedian impersonating David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yasir Arafat and Netanyahu.
The high-kitsch event was typically Israeli in that it was long, lavish and included moments of both poignant sentiment and tasteless humor. A highlight was a song, performed by an Ethiopian Jewish children’s choir, about leaving family behind and coming to Israel. A low point was a comedic impersonator’s routine of Arafat, lips quivering, spouting Yiddishisms.
But the major story of the evening was the overflow turnout of 3,000 North American delegates, despite the Iraqi scare, and some 2,000 Israelis, about twice as many as had been expected.
Some officials asserted that the large Israeli turnout reflected a growing interest among Israelis regarding North American Jewish organizational life.
But the fact is that the major Israeli dailies gave little coverage to the G.A. and sociologists said that most Israelis have little interest in, and feel less connection to, Jews in the diaspora.
These kinds of issues were explored when a trigger film was shown at the conference featuring college-age Israeli and American students discussing what they had in common and how they were different. After the brief film, scores of facilitators led small discussion groups about issues of Jewish identity.
At one table, the debate turned to whether American Jews have a right to express criticism of Israel, and the Orthodox dominance in Israeli religious life. Americans were touched when they heard an Israeli woman who lives in the settlements describe her children’s surprise to learn that Americans can open the windows of their cars when they go for a drive. And Israelis were surprised to hear an American from Oregon assert that most American Jewish communal giving for Israel comes from Conservative and Reform Jews.
One largely unanswered question was what Israeli participants were looking to find out from American Jews. But one Hebrew University student participant, Reuven Naveh, said he came to learn more about “American Jews as Americans rather than as Jews.”
At one session on the tensions between religious and secular Jews in Israel, Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma, a new college teaching Hebrew culture, said she is not interested in fighting with fellow Jews about religion.
“Ignorance is the No. 1 enemy of Jews today,” said the avowed secularist. She criticized Reform and Conservative leaders for taking a “paternal attitude” toward secular Jews, trying to attract them to their denominations rather than accepting their lack of interest in organized religion.
She and Avi Ravitsky, a Modern Orthodox university professor, said they could probably reach a compromise on religious-secular issues since both feel that educating Jews is more important than fostering dissension.
James Tisch, president of UJA-Federation of New York, was one of two speakers at a cross-cultural workshop featuring business professionals. On the panel with Tisch, who is president of the Loew’s Corp., was Dalia Lev, CEO of Israel Discount Bank Investments.
In talking about the relationship between Americans and Israelis, Tisch said it took a major turn in the last few years because of the issue of pluralism.
“It sparks tremendous fervor on the part of many Reform and Conservative Jews,” he said, referring to the decision of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate not to recognize conversions performed in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis.
“American Jews are not distinguishing between rank-and-file Israelis and the actions of the Chief Rabbinate and the state,” said Tisch. “There is a wedge that has been created and my fear is that unless it is dealt with, it is going to drive us apart.”
The Israeli chair of the UJA General Assembly here, Dov Lautman, said that although a large minority of Israelis are against a pluralistic society, it would be a “major mistake” not to accept it.
Tisch said he considered himself a secular Jew who was well-schooled in Judaism, having studied Talmud and Hebrew. He said he keeps a kosher home, celebrates the High Holy Days but is not a strict Sabbath observer.
“But the culture of Judaism pervades our lives,” he said of his family. “The lion’s share of our friends are Jewish and it’s a Jewish life we live. Israel is to a large extent a beacon we American Jews look to as the center of Judaism.”
Lev said she believed there could be improved interaction between American and Israeli companies.
“We have a lot to show you and we could learn from you,” she said. “We could get to know things quicker and better from one another.”