By Stacey Dresner
This year the Jewish Federations of North America’s 86th annual General Assembly was held Sunday, Nov. 10 – Tuesday, Nov. 12 in Jerusalem to celebrate both Israel’s 65th birthday and the partnership between the Federations and the State of Israel.
The theme of the GA this year was “The Global Jewish Shuk: A Marketplace of Dialogue & Debate.”
More than 3,000 Federation leaders from communities around the U.S., Canada, and Israel attended. Meredith Dragon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and Federation President Susan Weiss Firestone attended, as did a contingent from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, including Harold Grinspoon himself.
The Ledger spoke to Dragon about the GA upon her return to Springfield.
Q: What was the theme of this year’s GA?
A: The theme of the GA was based on a shuk – a marketplace – and it was supposed to be about the “Marketplace of Ideas” – a place where we could share in the experience of being in Israel and share ideas about the Jewish world now and in the future.
Q: When was the last time the GA was held in Israel?
A: It happens in Israel every five years. The first time it was in Israel was in 2003 and the reason they had it in Israel in 2003 was as a response to the second intifada. Tourism had plummeted and Israel was feeling very alone and isolated, so they decided to move the GA to Israel to show solidarity with Israel and Israelis and to infuse some tourism into the country. And then it became a regular thing, so this is the third time that the GA has been in Israel. It has taken a different flavor each time because Israel and World Jewry has been in a different place each time. This year there was a lot of discussion on the Pew Study and looking into the future and what the Jewish community can do to address the data in the Pew Study. That was certainly a big topic of conversation.
Q: Were you particularly inspired by any of the speakers?
A: I think the most inspiring speaker was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain. He was just extraordinary and spoke about a variety of topics. He spoke about the Pew Study and topics about creating meaning in Jewish life. I found him of all the speakers to be so incredibly inspiring.
The Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid, I also thought was a highlight, as well as the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who also spoke very beautifully. One of the joys of being in Israel, besides just the joy of being in Israel, is to be able to have the ability to bring in Israeli leadership who wouldn’t necessarily come to a GA in the United States. So to be able to hear from the Mayor of Jerusalem and the finance minister is really a wonderful opportunity when the GA is in Israel.
Barkat talked about the role of Jersualem as a focal point in the state of Israel, some of the changes that have happened to Jerusalem in the last five years, and what it offers not only to Israel but to the world as a center of learning and tourism. Jerusalem has gone through a tremendous facelift in the last five years and tourism is higher than it has ever been. It is the most popular tourist destination within Israel for Israelis and the Mayor is focused on elevating tourism from outside of Israel as well – the goal is to bring 10 million tourists to Israel in the next couple of years.
Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at the opening plenary and of course the big focus of his talk was Iran and what it would mean to have a nuclear-armed Iran. He spoke about the sanctions working, and Iran being in a place where they need to make some concessions because the sanctions have worked. And he reaffirmed his belief that we have to do everything possible to prevent Iran from having any sort of nuclear weapon.
Q: What did you do each day at the GA?
A: There were workshops and sessions for the first day and a half. Then on Tuesday we spent the day out and about in Jerusalem. The day began with a study session at a variety of educational centers in Jerusalem, which was great. We studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute and really the day was focused on pluralism. From there we went on one of the site visits in the Jerusalem area to see our dollars at work, particularly related to Masa and Israel-type experience programs. So we visited the Bezalel Art Institute and “Art Jerusalem,” a program for overseas students through Hebrew University that lets them study at the Art Institute. It was really extraordinary to see the students and the work they were creating.
From there we went to City Hall in Jerusalem and had a closing program which led to a march from the City Hall down to the Kotel, really to show solidarity for pluralism concerning the wall. There wasn’t a statement made other than that we really believe that the wall should be open and available for all Jews to pray and to feel like they have a place and a stake there. That was the wrap-up of the GA, and it was powerful. It was a powerful experience to be with so many people showing that the wall has a place for all of us.
Q: Why is attending the GA such a valuable experience for Jewish leaders?
A: The beauty and joy of the GA is really getting to be with colleagues that you really only see once a year and networking and talking and seeing what is going on in other communities.
I think the most important part of the GA was really the idea of the “Marketplace of Ideas,” and the Federation system being the lead institution in creating a place for people to share new ideas and perspectives, and being able to make a difference in the Jewish world collectively. There is something about the power we have when we are together to talk and challenge each other, and to talk about what is going on in the Jewish world. We are able to address it as an eclectic and collective system recognizing that the power of the Federation system is not only in the individual Federations, but in our work together. We have a tremendous amount of opportunity as a system to make some important change.