Just Who’s Inside The ‘Big Tent?’

Just Who’s Inside The ‘Big Tent?’

GA debates inclusivity, federations’ relationship to Israel, overseas funding at annual meeting of JFNA.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Denver — In one of the most innovative sessions at this week’s 80th annual General Assembly (GA) of the North American Jewish federations, the biggest annual meeting on the communal calendar, two actors presented a 25-minute play exploring the practical challenges of what it means to have a “big tent” Jewish community, trying to be inclusive while maintaining loyalty to valued beliefs.

The interactive play, sponsored by the Jewish Agency’s educational group, Makom, focused on the chief executive of a Jewish federation learning that the local Jewish community center’s theater was about to stage a play highlighting the struggles of a Palestinian family. The exec first confronts the angry, anti-Zionist Jewish playwright, and then in subsequent scenes, the theater’s art director who defends the artistic merits of the play and the right to present it, and a major donor committed to ending her support for the federation for allowing the play to be shown.

Robbie Gringras, artist in residence at Makom, introduced the play, noting that it was based on actual experiences. He called it “fictional realism,” and attendees familiar with similar controversies in San Francisco, New York and Washington nodded their heads.

After the performance, the audience was invited to offer opinions on the characters’ actions and dialogue. Several scenes were then replayed, incorporating audience comments, and then members of the audience were invited to come up and replace the actors and put their thoughts into action.

It was a fresh and thought-provoking session, offering no easy answers but encouraging the notion that one can be loyal to and critical of Israel at the same time.

This concept of holding seemingly contradictory positions in balance highlights the federation movement’s struggle to define itself and its purpose in these rapidly changing and worrisome times, including determining its relationship with Israel.

A key challenge for federations today is to project confidence for the future while acknowledging that donations are down, government support for key social service agencies is in jeopardy, and interest among younger people for identifying with the organized Jewish community in general, and federations in particular, is on the decline.

Behind-The-Scenes Concerns

This year’s GA, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella group of the movement, lacked a top-tier speaker from either Washington or Jerusalem. (Last year, in New Orleans, Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both addressed the delegates.)

Netanyahu was scheduled to come this year but canceled last week. That absence may have removed a bit of glamour and excitement from the program, but sometimes those appearances, with the required extra time for security checks and precautions, are a distraction from the main goal: to inspire delegates about communal needs and inform them on the issues of the day.

Ironically, the most newsworthy aspect of this GA, at least to a relatively small group of Jewish professionals, was a meeting scheduled to take place after the three-day conference ended, attended by the JFNA board behind closed doors, and unknown to the great majority of delegates.

It’s a plan for the JFNA to launch an initiative called the Global Planning Table, which would change the way overseas allocations are made. At present, those allocations are divided between the Jewish Agency for Israel (75 percent) and the Joint Distribution Committee (25 percent). The new plan calls for the federations to have a greater say in determining overseas needs. (See story on page 44.)

There was an air of mystery and apprehension among some insiders about the new plan, with critics saying it would have a negative impact on the Jewish Agency, the JDC and the JFNA, but others maintaining it would strengthen their efforts.

“People are scared of change,” Jerry Silverman, the CEO of JFNA, told me Tuesday morning, before the meeting, in dismissing the dire predictions posted on anonymous blogs.

He said the vision of the Global Planning Table was to improve federations’ work as a collective and provide a forum to consider “the biggest challenges in Jewish life” and to “research, discuss, debate, set priorities and respond to change.”

He expressed confidence in an outcome that will create “a more open environment” to “educate and inspire, and offer a call for action.”

Emphasis On Youth

Little mention of the Global Planning Table was made at the GA itself, with officials continuing their effort to engage and showcase young people. There was much talk of social media and ways to use the new technology to spread the message of federations’ efforts. This year’s theme was “the original Jewish social network,” making the case that the GA, in the words of Silverman, is “the place where the Jewish community comes together to dialogue and learn.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who helped found the egalitarian New York yeshiva, Mechon Hadar, was no doubt the youngest scholar-in-residence in GA history, and a key message he offered was that Jewish texts are for everyone.

“The Torah is not just for the elite,” he said.

In noting that Israel has become a dangerously divisive issue in our community, he called for more open discussion and for resisting the idealization of Israel. “The real Jerusalem, with all its difficulties, demands our attention and connection,” he said.

The issue of Israel and how to discuss its problems, and our own problems with the Jewish state, was a major focus of the GA. There were sessions on “big tent” inclusion and exclusion, communal efforts to combat delegitimization, and one program called “Israel: Have We Lost That Loving Feeling?” with a panel including writer Peter Beinart, whose argument that young Jews are distancing themselves from Israel as it becomes less democratic continues to spark discussion and debate.

At the session, he found little argument when he called the American Jewish community the “wealthiest and Jewishly most illiterate” in history, asserting that the lack of Israel attachment among young Jews was a reflection of their overall lack of attachment to Judaism.

He and the other panelists called for teaching young Jews about the realities of Israel, including problematic policies, rather than avoiding them.

Action On Delegitimization

Last year JFNA launched the Israel Action Network, a planned three-year project to combat delegitimization of Israel in North America. A staff is now in place and its efforts are underway to counter those who say Israel is not a legitimate state, with an emphasis on reaching those who are confused or misinformed rather than concentrating on Israel’s extreme enemies.

At one session, Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian parliament and former Justice minister, stressed that delegitimization should not be approached as strictly a problem for Israel. He said that delegitimization operates under the cover of the United Nations, international law and human rights, and that “we must retake the narrative” and be more aggressive, speaking out “in the name of public values, not in the name of Israel.”

He also advocated inverting the attacks of Israel’s enemies by, for example, sponsoring a Mideast Justice Week on campus, highlighting how Israel is the only country in the region with true democratic values. This, he said, would be more effective than directly defending Israel against Israeli Apartheid Weeks, which are prevalent on campus.

College students and young professional participants in Do The Write Thing, an annual program for young journalists at the GA, spoke of their frustration in making Israel’s case in their Mideast studies classes, particularly with faculty, many of whom are Jewish. The program, sponsored by the American Zionist Movement and the World Zionist Organization, offered strategy and advice.

Wrestling And Hugging

Of course the GA delegates do not represent a cross-section of American Jewry. They are wealthier, more supportive of and more involved in Jewish life than most. But the program did offer content that challenged assumptions, which is healthy.

And while there was no definitive resolution to the “big tent” issue – most would say inclusion is the primary goal and that red lines need to be established by each community – a metaphor was offered that had resonance for many. Yonatan Ariel, executive director of Makom, summarizing the interactive play about the embattled fictional federation director, suggested that reaching tough decisions on inclusion can be made by considering the dichotomy of “wrestling and hugging.”

Some on the edges of the community want to wrestle with Israel, some passionate supporters only want to hug it. The most important part of the equation, he said, was the word “and.”

It’s the combination of both wrestling and hugging that reflects the reality of the struggle that isn’t going away. 

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