Not just talk when federations meet in Israel for G.A.

NEW YORK – This time, it’s not going to be just talking. There’s going to be listening and debating — and, eventually, action.

That’s what Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, says will distinguish this year’s General Assembly, which is slated for Nov. 10-12 in Jerusalem, from past G.A. conferences.

“We have really changed the format of the G.A. to really create debate in varying forms,” Silverman told JTA. “It’s about really creating the great debate and dialogue on the challenges of our times.”

The first showcase of the new approach will come Sunday, on the afternoon before the conference’s formal opening, when some 250 young adults convene for a “shuk” (Hebrew for marketplace) to debate and contribute ideas to “tackle key challenges facing Jewish communities and Israel — according to the five themes on the main G.A. agenda.”

The themes are Israel and philanthropy, Israel and world Jewry, Israel as incubator, Israel on the global stage, and Israel’s civil society.

“We don’t know what they’re going to say,” Silverman said. “They’re young people who have varying opinions, both through them or their friends who are less affiliated and whatnot. The idea is to hear.”

Silverman’s pledge for a G.A. makeover this year follows efforts in the past few years to open up conference planning to input from individual federations and outside groups. But such efforts have failed to win over critics, including some federation executives and observers, who say the G.A. has been declining in excitement and importance.

Following last year’s conference in Baltimore, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, wrote a column calling for a “radical rethinking” of the G.A. to “reverse its slow slide toward irrelevance.”

The conference, Rosenblatt wrote, was “a microcosm of its parent body, the Jewish Federations of North America: an impressive collection of committed, caring professional and lay people spread too thin and lacking in focus, and giving the impression of following rather than leading at a critical juncture in Jewish life.”

In his interview with JTA, Silverman acknowledged that recent assemblies have fallen short, particularly when it comes to producing outcomes.

“I don’t think we’ve done the best job of using the G.A.,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful discussions but we haven’t concretized them. One of the things we’re very committed to coming out of this G.A. within a very short time period is concretizing what we do, creating a call to action around certain areas.”

One of the top priority areas, he said, will be what to do about the findings of the recent Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jewry, which has alarmed many community leaders. The survey paints a portrait of a rapidly assimilating American Jewish community, particularly among young people.

Silverman said initially that he wasn’t planning to add discussion of the Pew survey to the G.A., but he later shifted course.

Now, he said, the plan is for everyone from federation presidents and executives on down to debate and discuss the Pew survey, and to follow up on the discussions with concrete action — task forces, working groups, pilot programs.

“There are going to be real actions that will be taken post-G.A. from this,” Silverman said.

Most of the conference will be devoted to Israel, as is typical for the conferences held in Israel (the G.A. location rotates annually and is held every five years in Jerusalem). Speakers will include Israel’s prime minister and president, government ministers, Jerusalem’s mayor, and CEOs of such Israeli companies as SodaStream and El Al. More than 2,500 people, including Israelis, are expected to attend. Some of the Americans will be coming early for federation “missions” to Israel.

Nearly all of the speakers will be squeezed into a single day at the conference.

Though the G.A. is being billed as a three-day affair, the conference part really is just one full day of sessions, on Nov. 11, preceded by an opening plenary the evening before.

On Nov. 12, instead of sessions at the Jerusalem convention center, G.A. participants will be dispatched to locations throughout the city for Jewish learning experiences. Sites include the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Schechter Institute and Hebrew Union College.

Afterward, they will visit partner programs in Jerusalem that receive federation support. Later in the day, following a stop at City Hall, conference-goers will reconvene in Safra Square and walk together to the Western Wall, or Kotel.

The walk is meant to be heavy on symbolism.

The federations have thrown their support behind the proposal to upgrade and expand the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall for use by egalitarian and women’s prayer groups. And there will be a session featuring both Women of the Wall, the liberal group that has challenged the status quo by holding women’s prayer quorums at the holy site, and Women for the Wall, the traditionalist group that has sought to thwart those ambitions and maintain the status quo there.

The mass walk to the Western Wall, Silverman said, “is a show of Jewish unity to underscore the centrality of Jerusalem and that there is a place for all Jews at the Kotel.”

The G.A. also will cover the issue of civil marriage in Israel. Asked if the Jewish Federations intended to weigh in as it had done on the Western Wall controversy, Silverman said the immediate purpose of the session is to help American Jews understand the issue, which pits Israel’s Chief Rabbinate against Israelis who want more freedom about how, and who, they can marry.

One subject that is not slated for discussion at the G.A. is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Silverman says that’s because the federations, like the Israeli prime minister, are on the record supporting a two-state solution and negotiations are ongoing, so there’s nothing to talk about at the moment.

“What’s to really have a dialogue about right now?” he said.

Whatever happens at this G.A., next year could see a new CEO for the Jewish Federations. Silverman is in the last year of his five-year contract, and no CEO in the 13-year history of the federation umbrella organization has lasted more than five years.

Silverman says that’s not on his mind.

“It’s one of those things that I don’t spend time on, that I don’t think about,” he said. “It’s not part of who I am culturally. I’ll sit with my board at some point and have a dialogue. Right now I’m trying to stay focused.”