November 27, 1997
Invitation to a Showdown
Power, Politics & People
Readers' Quiz: Who was the unhappiest Jew in Indiana last week?Was it:
A) Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had to endurethe icy stares of 4,000 hostile delegates at the General Assembly ofthe Council of Jewish Federations, as he begged them to set asideinternal divisions in the face of deadly enemies such as Iraq?
B) United Jewish Appeal chairman Richard Wexler, who repeatedlyappealed to the assembly's delegates not to let their anger overIsraeli religious policies cripple the legendary American Jewishfund-raising machine?
C) Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, whoarrived to find an American Jewish philanthropic establishment deeplyalienated from his Jerusalem-based agency and bent on radical budgetcuts, despite all his recent streamlining efforts?
Answer: None of the above. It appears that the unhappiest Jew inIndiana last week was insurance agent Ed Wormser of Terre Haute, 85miles southwest of Indianapolis. Wormser is the president of TerreHaute's tiny Jewish Welfare Fund, which raises some $17,000 a yearfrom the town's 250 Jews. The General Assembly that convened inIndianapolis on Nov. 16 was about the biggest Jewish event ever totake place in Ed's neck of the woods. Unfortunately, he missed itbecause no one remembered to tell him in time that it was takingplace.
"I think it's crazy," Wormser said in a telephone interview fromhis home, on the assembly's second day. "I know we don't raise bigbucks. We're submicroscopic. Still, somebody should have thought ofus. Communities like ours can really benefit from experiencing ameeting like this, and we didn't have the opportunity."
The reason the organizers forgot Ed Wormser -- and leaders likehim from a dozen other one-shul towns around Indiana -- is one ofthose classic cases of many small errors adding up to one bigfoul-up. It's the sort of mistake the organizers are certain to learnfrom so that they can go on to make new ones next year.
For the rest of us, though, there's a bracing lesson in EdWormser's misfortune. The assembly in Indianapolis may have been ascene of great turmoil and angst, but Wormser wanted to be there justthe same. People usually want to be part of the action, if they'reinvited.
That's the way it is with a big convention. Whatever else it maybring -- great clashes between warring philosophies, dark warnings oflooming danger -- the delegates usually experience it as a rippinggood time. It's a chance to learn from others, to be part ofsomething bigger. It's a chance to see another part of the world,even if it's only Indianapolis.
And, indeed, while the top guns of American and world Jewry werefulminating from the podium of the Indiana Convention Center lastweek, warning of the calamities sure to result from the Jews'disunity, disengagement, disaffiliation and that nasty habit ofmarrying the wrong kind, the folks down on the convention floor werehaving the time of their lives.
"I haven't been to a General Assembly in many years, and I mustsay, it's very good," said an exuberant Delores Wilkenfeld, adelegate from Houston, interviewed on the assembly's final day. "Ijust came from the biennial convention of the Union of AmericanHebrew Congregations in Dallas, and now I'm here, and it's quite anexperience."
Paradoxically, the assembly may have been all the more successfulthis year because of the crisis atmosphere that hung over theproceedings. With Netanyahu isolated on countless fronts at home andabroad, his journey to Indianapolis to mend fences with AmericanJewry, Israel's last and best ally, captured the world's imagination.As such, Israel-Diaspora strains over religious pluralism becamefront-page news from Kuwait to Kansas City. The whole world, itseemed, was watching to gauge the assembly's mood.
"There's no denying the experience of sitting in a room with 4,000people and listening to the prime minister of Israel," said CindyChazan, executive director of the Jewish Federation of GreaterHartford, Conn. "Whether or not you agree with him, it's a headyexperience."
Because of such heady experiences, many delegates went home fromIndianapolis with energy renewed. The bitter pluralism debates, farfrom reducing their will to carry on fund raising and communitybuilding, actually gave them a boost. For a change, it seems, thethings they do and care about actually mattered. "What our peoplefelt was the passion," said Marvin Goldberg, executive director ofthe Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, N.C.
All this may help to answer a riddle posed with increasingfrequency by the Jewish community's latest generation of doomsayers-- those who say that with the big crises of the past nearly settled,there are no big crises left, and that's a crisis. Now that MiddleEast peace is visible on the horizon and most Jews are out of Russia,what will hold the Jews together? Does the age of normalcy meanthere's nothing to look forward to but drift and decline?
If the Indianapolis assembly was any indication, normalcy may notbe all that bad. In the next great stage of Jewish history, beingJewish may be something like being American or French -- ascomfortable as we make it, and filled with the content we give it.The challenge will be to fight today's battles and then go back tobusiness as usual tomorrow.
Normalcy, then, may be a matter of learning to walk and chew gumat the same time. The Indianapolis experience suggests that Jews outthere are ready for it. What's needed is a leadership that canremember to send out the invitations.
J.J. Goldberg is the author of "Jewish Power: Inside theAmercan Jewish Establishment." He writes from New York.