Two futures
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Two futures

This year’s General Assembly in Jerusalem tackles the fateful issues of Israel-Diaspora relations and North American Jewry

The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is the place where thousands come to discuss, to debate and to hear impactful words from world Jewish leaders in plenary sessions. But as we all know, sometimes your Jewish world can change from a discussion with a friend in the hallway or over a cup of coffee with a colleague.

Every GA is important. But this year’s GA brings with it an extra measure of urgency.

This GA is really about two futures: the future of Israel and its relationship with the Diaspora; and the challenges facing North American Jewry. The recently released Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey underscored those challenges. At this GA, this critical time for our people, we will explore both Israel’s future and how we will approach many of our own perceived and factual deficits revealed by the study.

We are therefore choosing this time and space, this GA in Jerusalem, to challenge our community to come up big with major initiatives.

We suggest that in the interest of a new Jewish Head Start that we make Jewish early childhood free and available to every Jewish child.

We urge the expansion of the Jewish summer camp experience. For years we’ve studied camp, campers and the camp experience. We don’t need any more studies. We need more camps, so we can increase the percentage of Jewish children attending camp from 10 to 30 percent.

Let’s get to work on Birthright. Get the list, and ask the more than 350,000 alums what they want to do Jewishly now. Let’s use technology to re-connect with them where they are. We need to follow up.

Create Jewish development zones – Here we’d target five centers of Jewish populations with many Jews, but too few Jewish connections. It’s up to us to provide an adrenaline shot of Jewish investment, Jewish Head Start, one new Jewish camp, and Jewish programs for young single adults and Birthright alumni.

As we’ve said, if nothing else, the Pew study clearly demonstrates that our people stand at an urgent crossroads. But meeting at that crossroads is also the road of tremendous opportunity. Yet it’s only an opportunity if our leadership seizes upon it with renewed vigor and focus.

In a few more weeks, Americans will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Just as then, we Jews will celebrate during these three GA days by giving thanks for each other, for our common causes and even for our differences. For we are Jews, and we are family. Sometimes family members disagree. We might disagree over an issue pertaining to politics, social welfare or even Israel. But we all agree that those differences fall far short of the common love we have for Israel.

The importance of year’s GA is not only that that it’s in Israel; it’s that it’s about Israel. We learn from one another at this central gathering of our communal system. The GA is for us, but it also says something so important about us. Thought provoking programing will combine with inspiring experiences that we will take back to our communities, and that will fuel our neshamot, our souls, until we meet again.

So why? Why is this year’s GA going to be different from all other years? And what about GA 2013 in Jerusalem, the faith capital of the world?

We’ll be back this year in a spirit of thanks and partnership between North American Jewry and Israel. So it’s no wonder that the grand plenaries and interactive breakouts we’ll experience this year explore with purpose the core issues facing Israel and world Jewry. Our sessions have been carefully planned to address Israel’s place in the world today, the internal societal challenges Israel faces, the changing culture of Jewish philanthropy we now experience, and the present and future status of Israel’s relationship with the global community.

A remarkable constellation of Israeli and North American Jewish leaders will tell us how they are changing the world and blazing new trails in politics, philanthropy, business, religion and culture.

We’ll hear from leaders of the land, starting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who for his entire career has made the GA a priority in Israel’s relationship with the North American Diaspora. And we’re excited to say that one plenary will feature a question and answer session with President Shimon Peres with questions submitted by audience members and via Facebook. Also at the GA: Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich, and the Knesset’s youngest member, Stav Shaffir.

We’ll also hear from business leaders and innovators such as El Al CEO and former IAF Commander in Chief Eliezer Shkedi and Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream International.

This year’s GA will also feature Israeli voices we don’t usually hear as we celebrate Israeli innovation and thought leadership, like Emma Butin, an entrepreneur, blogger and product strategist; and Paz Cohen, who is helping use cutting-edge technology to amplify social issues. No Jewish communal group but the Jewish Federations of North America can bring together such a dynamic and wide-ranging group of names and figures.

The provocative topics impacting Israel and its relationship with world Jewry include an open discussion of developments in the Haredi world and the challenge of speaking effectively for Israel today, a challenge entirely different from the one faced by Israel advocates in 1967.

We’ll listen and we’ll talk about Israel at its heart. We’ll discuss Israel’s challenges with the Arab Spring and the influence of Iran, the world’s number one sponsor of terror. And we’ll also take a look at what is happening inside of Israel. Yes, Jewish pluralism and religious freedom among Jews is at a critical juncture in this still very young state.

We’re breaking new ground this year with programs such as FEDTalks, which will bring Israel to life in entirely new ways. Our aim is to help Federation and other Jewish professionals have the tools they need to better communicate about their work in the broader Jewish community.

In Jerusalem, we will walk through the capital of our people as we have done throughout history. We connect here in this holiest of cities with Jews who escaped the Holocaust’s tyranny, with Jews from the former Soviet Union who yearned for religious freedom, with Jews who wanted to take part in the day to day of what is truly God’s country. We are all brothers and sisters.

This will be for all of us a very different GA, a groundbreaking one of sorts where a dynamic forum will focus sharply on Israel and the Israel-Diaspora dynamic.

This is an opportunity for unprecedented dialogue between Israelis and North American Jews. No issue will go untouched, be it religious debate and discussion, the way Israel as a civil society moves forward, Issues of poverty and, yes, a wealth gap in Israel. These might be Israeli issues, but they are important to all Jews.

This GA should be considered a Global Jewish Marketplace of ideas and participatory dialogue to further those ideas.

Social networking? Israel is the nation that made it possible for the world to text, Facebook, blog, tweet and follow us online. So, of course, the GA, much of it live streamed, will be the center of “likes” for the entire Jewish world during these three days. At this wired GA, an unprecedented number of bloggers will keep the world uplinked to Jerusalem. We’ll learn together how technology and the social network will touch on new sectors like crowdsourcing philanthropy, Tweeting and Web streaming. There’s even a GA smartphone App.

May you have the time of your life. We have a great deal to do. Let these three days of GA in Jerusalem be the platform for our future in Israel, in America and all over the world.

And may the next Jewish communal study show that Jerusalem was where we came together as a unified people moving forward.

Let’s begin here.

Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman and Michael Siegal are, respectively, president and CEO and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA General Assembly takes place Nov. 10-12.

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