By Jacob Berkman
NEW YORK (JTA) — The North American federation system has shifted the focus of its annual gathering to a decidedly Israel-centric platform.
When the convention, slated for Nov. 12-15 in Los Angeles, was originally being planned, the United Jewish Communities intended to play off its Hollywood setting with the theme, “Be With the Stars,” highlighting major federation contributors and exceptional professionals, according to the UJC’s treasurer and the incoming chairwoman of its executive committee, Kathy Manning.
But after Israel’s war with Hezbollah started in July and the federation system raised some $320 million to help build Israel’s northern region, the UJC decided to put Israel at the forefront and changed the theme of the General Assembly to “One People, One Destiny.”
The UJC uses plenary meetings and smaller breakout sessions at the gathering, which draws between 3,000 and 5,000 professionals and lay leaders to a different location each year, to pump up issues that it feels the federations should pursue during the following year.
The convention, known as the G.A., will be heavily dotted with appearances by top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israel’s prime minister is annually invited to address the General Assembly, but none has done so in person in the United States since Ehud Barak came in 2000.
Olmert’s presence this year is “extremely important” in demonstrating UJC and the federation system’s practical and metaphoric closeness with Israel, the UJC’s president and chief executive officer, Howard Rieger, said.
Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and the Likud opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, are also scheduled to address the delegates.
After the revamping, which started in August, all but one of the plenary sessions will focus on Israel. And even the one non-Israel plenary, a panel discussion about the future of Judaism with the heads of the main seminaries of the Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox movements, will still involve some questions about Israel, according to Michael Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Kotzin, who was brought in by UJC to oversee the overhaul, said that about half of the breakout sessions will also deal with Israel, with topics ranging from postwar Israel to the federation system and Israeli Arabs to the rise of radical Islam to “Fighting the Hezbollah Terror Army.”
“The G.A. is about being together and fostering a sense of community, and the major events of recent months center around what happened in Israel,” said Doron Krakow, the UJC’s senior vice president for Israel and overseas.
“We are raising consciousness on an intellectual level, and fostering the delegates’ sense of being in touch with what we see as our defining work. This will also serve as the context for the remainder of our work.”
Though the General Assembly is not typically a fund-raising event, the group is considering including a fund-raising component this time around.
“You can certainly say that there has been conversation about ways to appropriately include fund raising, but that is not on the schedule yet,” Kotzin said.
The Israel Emergency Campaign most likely saw its biggest spike during the war, Krakow said, adding that he does not anticipate another spike after the G.A., as most local federations start their annual general campaigns. Though the emergency campaign has no official dollar goal, officials have said that it could take about $500 million of American money to meet the requests of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s government.
But UJC officials say they see this G.A. as a way to seize on the central issue facing the Jewish people now. Though the war happened in Israel, its ramifications extend well beyond the boundaries of the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, extending to concerns about the Jews’ global security and the continuity of the Jewish people, Rieger told JTA.
The content switch did spark some debate within the UJC’s lay world, because “there were people who felt that where we were headed was going to be great,” but in the end the switch was deemed necessary, Rieger said.
Seizing a central issue is something that Rieger admits that some of the gatherings in the recent past, which some say fell flat, have been unable to do.
Rieger said the UJC will focus on its success in mobilizing and raising money for Israel through its Israel Emergency Campaign in recent months and on trying to figure out how to take that model and replicate it for dealing with other issues.
The change in agenda was publicly supported by those involved with the social welfare, social action and Jewish renewal arms of the federation system with whom JTA spoke, such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and JESNA, the educational group, even if it might steal some thunder from their projects. The Jewish Council has been heavily involved in the Save Darfur movement and JESNA focuses on the continuing challenges in Jewish education. Those topics are still on the docket, as are sessions about emerging philanthropy, developing leadership and Ethiopian Jewry.
“The fact is that UJC and the federation system need to be responsive to the way the world looks, and to have an agenda written a year ago would have been less interesting and relevant,” said William Daroff, the director of the UJC’s Washington office, which deals with advocacy and policy issues.
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