New Orleans — For a long time the 79th General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America had been scheduled to take place this week in Orlando, Fla. But after a top consultant scouted that city last winter, and concluded that it would add little to the spirit of the annual gathering of the federation movement — and that Disney World might prove a major distraction — the decision was made to move the three-day GA here to New Orleans.
It made a lot of sense; the parallels between the JFNA and New Orleans, however implicit, are strong — once proud, now on the ropes, but making a comeback.
Consider: The umbrella group of Jewish federations, with its impressive history of fundraising to provide social service in the U.S., Israel and around the world, has been beset by a decade of change, confusion and diminished status in the community, where its long-term relevance is questioned. Can centralized giving endure and thrive in an age of personalized, boutique philanthropy? Will a younger generation increasingly distant from Jewish core values continue federation work, especially when fundraising is down in a post-recession environment?
Even the organization’s new name — the third in a decade — seems uncomfortable to many.
And of course New Orleans is a symbol of a once-great city laid low by disaster — horrific man-made errors on top of a powerful storm — and struggling to regain its footing and stature.
When Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the several thousand delegates here on Monday, “New Orleans is the soul of America” and so much now is riding on whether it will “pick itself up again or not,” he could have been speaking about the future of the organized Jewish community, symbolized by federations, as well.
It was only natural, then, for JFNA to showcase New Orleans, and the fact that the charity raised $30 million for emergency aid after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, providing immediate, mid-term and long-term aid, shelter, food and counseling for the traumatized citizens of the community.
On Monday afternoon, more than 30 busloads of delegates set out to take part in a unique and ambitious Day of Service effort, with hundreds lending a hand at soup kitchens, construction sites and other volunteer projects aiding the city’s ongoing recovery.
What will be remembered about this GA is New Orleans itself, its desolation and slow recovery, the faces of those still suffering and the questions raised for the Jewish community about the balance between providing for one’s own while also helping the broader community.
There were the stirring (and predictable) addresses from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President Joe Biden pledging undying U.S.-Israel cooperation and commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran, and the usual array of dozens of workshops, panels and plenaries on issues from Mideast peace, to the struggle to provide social service at a time of economic unrest, to incorporating innovation into the system.
But a standout was the plea from journalist-turned-television producer David Simon to “do more” for those most in need.
On ‘Need’ And ‘Desperation’
Offering a careful blend of support and critique in his plenary presentation, Simon didn’t fit the federation-cheerleader mold.
The former Baltimore Sun crime reporter is best known as the creator of several gritty television series, including “Homicide,” “The Wire” and most recently “Treme,” about the music and people of a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, his adopted home, post-Katrina.
Simon noted that his late father, Bernard Simon, was the longtime public relations executive of B’nai B’rith, and he spoke of his admiration for the generosity of the Jewish community while urging that more be done for others in need.
He said he had his differences with the Baltimore federation about the disparity between funds spent on Jewish causes and others, when there was so much poverty in the black community.
He was well aware, he said, that there had been strong tensions between blacks and Jews after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, brought about when “black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism touched.”
“It doesn’t matter how it started,” he said, emphasizing the difference between communities in “need” and those in “desperation.”
“This is a Holocaust in slow motion,” Simon said of the poverty and lack of opportunity in many black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and New Orleans.
He praised the federations for the work they have done “in the right direction” and seeking to “get past the past” in contributing beyond the needs of the Jewish community.
“You guys are on the right track,” he said. “Do more.”
(He concluded by noting that he was donating his speaker’s fee to a charity that pays for health care for New Orleans musicians.)
‘Praying With Our Legs’
Jewish volunteers by the thousands have been coming to help out in New Orleans since Katrina. Particularly for young people, social action and tikkun olam (repairing the world) have become the primary expression of their Jewish values.
One goal of this GA was to underscore that for all the good works of small startups emphasizing service to the needy, the federation system was a major engine driving this work, often collaborating with the boutique groups to help them succeed.
On a bus tour that included a visit to a home recently rebuilt for a frail black woman and her young grandchildren, Simon Greer, who heads Jewish Funds for Justice, noted that JFNA funds and grants allowed his organization to provide micro-loans to small local businesses and help start the first interfaith permanent fund of up to $10 million for the New Orleans needy.
A number of young social service-oriented delegates wore buttons that read, “Ask me how I pray,” a reference to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation in civil rights marches in the early 1960s, and his statement, “I felt that my legs were praying.”
The largest contingent of young people ever at a GA — more than 600 college students attended under the auspices of Hillel — gave the event an injection of enthusiasm. After long being criticized as a conference for wealthy machers, the GA has showcased youth and “innovation” groups to such an extent the last several years that some older delegates are wondering if the federation officials have gone too far.
“Where are the folks in their 40s,” one veteran asked plaintively, adding: “They’re the ones whose financial support we need.”
For all its value as a forum for airing issues, energizing donors and providing high-level networking, the GA does not claim to represent mainstream American Jewry. Indeed, the delegates are lay leaders and Jewish professionals, highly engaged in Israel advocacy. And the participants in the annual Do The Write Thing program for budding college journalists tended to be pro-Israel activists who said they prefer reading long, analytical articles to short news bites on the Internet.
So when five well-coordinated protesters disrupted Netanyahu’s remarks — shouting out loudly, one at a time, about every five minutes — many in the audience were surprised to learn the hecklers were delegates to the convention, perhaps a telling warning that increasing numbers of American Jews are feeling distant from the Jewish state.
The protesters were members of Jewish Voices for Peace, which is highly critical of Israeli policies and sympathetic to divestment and boycott efforts. A few weeks ago, the Anti-Defamation League put the group on its list of “Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in America.”
Concern about delegitimization of Israel was a major issue at the GA, and the JFNA this week announced it was launching, in cooperation with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a multimillion-dollar project to combat such attacks on Israel.
The new Israel Action Network seeks to organize a collective response and develop “a long-term national strategy that promotes a fair, balanced understanding of Israel and Middle East issues,” according to the announcement.
The timely effort will take advantage of the large-scale community-based infrastructure of the Jewish federations movement.
Like New Orleans, the JFNA faces a long uphill climb, but based on conversations with dozens of delegates this week, it appears to have regained some good will and relevancy. And that’s why a three-day conference can resonate for a year.