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Jewish Journal

Does the Jewish Vote Matter to Gore and Bush?

Three thousand young Jewish leaders converge on D.C. Was this the "right place, right time?"

by Michael Aushenker

March 30, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Inside a ballroom at the Washington Hilton, Rabbi Leonid Feldman, the Soviet-raised spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach, captivates thousands of young Jews with his moving, heartwrenching account of the long, treacherous road that led him to discover the Judaism that so many of us Americans take for granted. For him and his Russian Jewish brethren, just being Jewish -- let alone practicing Judaism -- was a life-jeopardizing reality.

At the same time, two Jewish American males, following a night of heavy partying, trade "How late were you up?" and "How wasted did you get?" exchanges in one of the hotel's restrooms.

Outside the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, dozens of young L.A.-area community leaders, up since dawn, brave a torrential downpour for the chance to lobby politicians with issues affecting America's Jewish community. Dressed in their best clothes, they will wait in line in the rain for more than an hour.

Meanwhile, Rhonda, a 20-something professional with dirty blond hair and an East Coast accent who paid hundreds of dollars for that very opportunity, skips the proceedings altogether. Instead, she cozies up to a bright blue martini at the hotel bar. It is well before noon.

Welcome to the Washington 12 Young Leadership Conference, a three-day biennial event held this year March 19-21 at the Hilton in D.C.'s hip DuPont Circle district. Every two years, the conference attracts some 3,000 young Jewish professionals from all over North America to improve their leadership skills, learn more about Jewish issues, and apply that knowledge toward social change through the lobbying of government representatives at the symposium's culmination.

Organized by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) -- a confederation of United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal, and the Council of Jewish Federations -- the conference is a dynamic hybrid: part intense policy study, part Jewish identity booster and part -- not a small part -- kosher "meet market." The official Congressional focus of this year's conference was three bills: a foreign aid package for Israel; tougher anti-hate crime legislation; and Return to Home, an HMO-related proposal guaranteeing certain lifestyle privileges to the sick and elderly.

But in truth, the advance buzz on Washington 12 was not, for the most part, on the policies it promoted, but on its reputation as the event to find suitable marriage partners. So, is the conference a serious social action effort or a mating ritual? Like college, this might be the type of experience where what you get out of it may depend on what you go there looking for.

While some might argue that the plenary speakers this year did not approach the caliber of past guests such as President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the keynotes were no less impressive. Discussion participants included Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator for the State Department; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and talk show host Charlie Rose. UJC chairman Charles Bronfman; Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers; James Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs; and Coretta Scott King, delineating the shared cultural and historical bonds of African-Americans and Jews, all made noted impressions.

Along with the plenaries, Washington 12 offered dozens of "breakout sessions," with topics spanning the spectrum of Jewish thought, politics, philosophy, spirituality and society: the Middle East, kabbalah, dating, Jewish ritual, religious pluralism, Jewish influence on American culture and politics, and, yes, the Internet. In a comical piece of programming, "Raising Your Child to be a Mensch" took place in the Hilton's Military Room.

Emotional highlights came from several directions. Rabbi Feldman all but stole the opening plenary with his stirring anecdotes of experiencing Russian anti-Semitism firsthand. Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen played the very ballad that he performed for late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just moments before his assassination. Dr. Michael Messing drew a standing ovation after recounting that fateful Shabbat when he and his young son were showered with automatic fire by racist Benjamin Smith. Recounting last year's Chicago shooting spree, which targeted minorities and claimed two lives, the eloquent Messing -- stately in the very suit once stained with the blood of his injured neighbor -- made a moving plea.

"My son and I still look over our shoulders every Friday night when we hear cars driving by," said Messing, urging his audience to fight for stricter anti-gun legislation so that "what was my living nightmare will never again become your living nightmare."

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