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Jewish Journal

The Jewish Community: What To Do Next?

Nation/World

November 20, 1997 | 7:00 pm

Two of America's most admired mayors, Democrat Ed Rendell ofPhiladelphia and Republican Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis, cametogether on a stage at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolison Nov. 17 to talk with Jewish community leaders from across thecountry about how their two cities work and what Israel might learnfrom them.

Rendell and Goldsmith are known as America's leading gurus ofdownsizing, privatizing and retooling big-city government. BothJewish, they had cleared their schedules for the morning so that theycould share their less-is-more gospel with the leaders of the Councilof Jewish Federations, who had gathered at the convention center fortheir annual General Assembly. The mayors' frank hope was that theassembled heads of Jewish philanthropy might use their combined cloutto help bring the gospel to Israel.

The mayors might as well have stayed home. Only about 25 or 30delegates, out of 3,400 registered at the assembly, came to hearthem. The rest were hard at work, pursuing some downsizing andretooling of their own.

While the mayors talked to their tiny audience, hundreds ofdelegates were packed into an adjacent hall to hear a local professordiscuss creative ways that charities can raise money. Hundreds morewere at a nearby forum, learning how to enlist volunteers to do theJewish community's work. Still others were attending a session on howto care for Jewish refugees in "the post-welfare reform era."

The story was much the same throughout the three days of theassembly. Celebrity experts who came to launch big ideas and newprojects found themselves talking to empty rooms. The crowded hallswere the ones where delegates could get advice on how to keep theirinstitutions afloat in an age of shrinking resources.

To watch the CJF assembly unfold is to witness a psychodrama oforganized American Jewry's inner life. A yearly gathering of NorthAmerica's 200 Jewish welfare federations, the assembly is the annualmarket day of the Jewish institutional world, when anyone with ideascan come looking for someone with money, and everyone else gets towatch. It is the moment when the great and small crises in Jewishinstitutional life rise to the surface and get played out on a bigstage.

And as the Jewish community grows in clout and importance as aforce in American public life, assembly watching gains popularityamong journalists, scholars, and American and Israeli politicians.

This year, the drama reached a peak of intensity due to theappearance by Israel's embattled prime minister. Speculation abouthow American Jewry would receive Binyamin Netanyahu turned the 1997assembly into a front-page news event in newspapers around the world.

But the fireworks over Israel masked the real drama at this year'sassembly. The big action there -- the big drama in American Jewishlife today -- is not about Orthodox rabbis or Reform conversions. Itis about the future of the American Jewish community as a force innational and international life.

Put bluntly, the problem is that the Jewish community hasaccomplished its great tasks of building Israel and saving SovietJewry, and it doesn't know what to do next. In the course of carryingout the historic rescue missions of the last half century, AmericanJews built a mighty political and financial machine. Now, they don'tknow where to point it.

They aren't even sure how much longer they'll have a machine.Without a crisis, it's not clear that donors will want to keep payingfor it. Solving this riddle is consuming the attention and passionsof nearly all the significant leaders in the $1.5 billion-a-yearAmerican Jewish philanthropic network these days.

The answers, so far, have been depressingly uninstructive. The twocentral bodies that coordinate the federations' work -- the CJF andthe United Jewish Appeal -- recently completed a three-yearnegotiation over a merger by deciding to move in together and share amailroom. Now a drive is underway to end the UJA-federation system'sspecial relationship with the 75-year-old Jewish Agency for Israel,the social-service body that gets most of the UJA's Israel-bounddollars. The big-city Jewish federations are demanding an end to theUJA's exclusive contract with the Jewish Agency so that they canstart their own private social-service programs in Israel. A decisionis expected in 1998.

Both of the restructuring plans are taken straight from themayoral downsizing playbook. They're aimed, ostensibly, ateliminating waste, creating leaner institutions and puttinginitiative back in the hands of individuals. But neither oneaddresses the question of why bother.

It may be that question cannot be answered yet. That, at least,was the message delivered to delegates during the assembly's mostelectrifying session: back-to-back speeches by two fortyishfirebrands, both arguing that Jews are entering a new era in theirhistory, whose contours and meaning are not yet known.

"We're entering the third era of Jewish history," said Rabbi IrwinKula, newly elected president of the CLAL-the National Jewish Centerfor Learning and Leadership. "We've become powerful and affluent.We've become normal. It's unfamiliar. We're nervous. There's nothingwrong with that."

"We have to ask ourselves what it means to live as Jews in a timeof no emergencies," said Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency."Give me enemies, and I'll find you a solution. Give me peace, andI'm lost. This is the challenge of this generation."

The danger of the new era, Burg said, is the temptation to thinkJews no longer need instruments of collective power. "We reached thepeak," Burg said," and, all of a sudden, everybody is making Shabbosfor himself, going his own way, promoting the local agenda. We justbecame the superpower of Jewish history, and by our own hands, we arebreaking that power down. We have penetrated fields we were forbiddento enter -- military, scientific, political. And we did everythingtogether, through our collective responsibility. Those people who nowwant to do things on their own -- do not let them win."

J.J. Goldberg is author of "Jewish Power: Inside the AmericanJewish Establishment." He writes regularly for The JewishJournal.

Excerpts from Prime Minister Netanyahu's Speech to the Council ofJewish Federations

...Saddam Hussein is at it again. At this time, I call on all ofyou, as I call on all the citizens of Israel, to stand behindPresident Bill Clinton. He is not only the leader of the free world;he is one of Israel's best friends. At this moment, when he is facingdown Saddam Hussein, President Clinton deserves to know that allthose who cherish peace and freedom support him.

Preserving Jewish Unity

We too are facing a crisis of our own inside our Jewish world. Ihave been invited to appear here as the prime minister of Israel. ButI would like to express myself also as a fellow Jew, as an Israeliwho has spent some years in America, as a friend who is deeply andacutely aware of your bewilderment and pain. I want to state at theoutset as emphatically as I can: No one, nobody, can deprive a Jew ofhis Jewishness. No power on earth can rob any Jew of his or heridentity. There can be no such thing as a second-class Jew. Every Jewis a legitimate Jew. Period....We are all brothers and sisters, allmembers of one Jewish people, all practitioners of the Jewish faith.My friends, this is not the first crisis in our history, and I amsure it is not the last. It is also, by no means, the worst crisis.But this does not ease the pain it inflicts, the anxiety it promotes,and the alienation it causes. We cannot, we must not allow thiscrisis to become a disaster. We cannot, we must not allow it to pullus apart....

We are determined to reach a consensus between us. It will have tobe a creative solution, allowing at once continuity and change,involvement and inclusion, alongside stability and purposefulevolution. But it is important that you know that whatever the shapeof this creative solution, there will be no change in the status ofconversions performed outside Israel. Every Reform, Conservative andOrthodox conversion done in the U.S will continue to be recognized inthe State of Israel. I will not allow this to change. We are going tobe able to achieve a historic agreement inside Israel only with yourhelp. And it is to seek your help that I have come here tonight. Youare not a third party looking in. You are partners at the table,partners in the common cause of Jewish unity. I will be coming to yousoon to seek your advice and counsel. I will be coming to you in ashort time to seek your support for a historic solution that we willfashion together. We will have embarked on a path of conciliation forthe Jewish people at the close of the 20th century, at the eve of the21st. Let us stop looking at each other as enemies. Let those whowould divide us go elsewhere. We are lifelong friends, brothers andsisters, one family, one people. We can overcome this crisis becausewe must overcome it, to secure the survival and unity of the Jewishpeople. We have a historic responsibility for future generations ofJews. Let us live up to that responsibility in kindred spirit offriendship and common purpose.

Combating Jewish Assimilation

The unity of the Jewish people is the most precious asset we have.It is urgent and vital that we maintain it. But I want to remind youthat unity between Israel and the Diaspora will have little meaningif there is no one left to unify. What has been happening in the past50 years is deeply disturbing. After the Holocaust, we numbered 12million. Natural growth should have almost doubled this number in thehalf century since then. But our number today is about the same. Wehave been ravaged by assimilation, and unless we stem thishemorrhage, it will have devastating effects. We must support Jewisheducation in the Diaspora and bring Jewish youth to Israel toexperience our nation in its homeland. We must impart Jewish valuesto our children. We must increase the teaching of Hebrew. We mustassert the centrality of Israel in our life. We will need your helpfor their future absorption.

Rabin Assassination

Why, if the picture I paint is so rosy, is the national moodreputed to be so low? One reason for our feeling of unease has to dowith the terrible event we commemorated only last week: the murder ofour prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff, YitzhakRabin. Only one individual committed this heinous crime, but theentire nation shuddered to the depths of its soul and cried out inanguish. As Americans know all too well, the assassination of aleader in a democracy is a national trauma, which takes a long timeto heal. The shock and emotional upheaval are still shared by theentire nation. We still ask ourselves how such a thing could happento us, the Jewish people. We hope that the wound will heal, that wewill learn the necessary lessons and extend a hand to each other. Iextend my hand, now and always. No issue, no controversy, no conflictcan be allowed to destroy the basic unity of our people.

Peace

Our hand is extended also to our Arab neighbors.

In the election campaign last year, I promised to bring peace withsecurity. None of us expected to be able to achieve this overnight oreven over a year. What we meant was that we would not sign agreementswhich would not bring us security.

Peace without security is meaningless, just as security withoutpeace is barren and sterile.

If our experience in the Middle East has taught us one thing, itis that peace cannot be achieved unless we see things as they are.This is often difficult. It is far more tempting to receive praisefrom all over by conceding more and more, by withdrawing more andmore and giving more and more without receiving any security inreturn. But we know that taking the easy route invites disaster. Ithas never brought peace, and it will never bring peace. That is whythe days of unilateral concessions by Israel are over.

This is the realistic approach, but it has its price. We areaccused of shattering the dream of peace, of destroying the hope forpeace. But the opposite is true. Only a realistic approach, onlysober policies, unclouded by illusions, will bring peace. I amconvinced we can achieve peace and that we will achieve it if thereis goodwill on the other side. I am convinced that only thisgovernment is capable of uniting the people of Israel behind apermanent peace settlement with the Palestinians and a peace treatywith Syria.

The realism I am talking about includes our recognition of thefact of the Palestinian entity. We accept this fact, and we have aclear, coherent and realistic plan to live in peace with thePalestinian entity. For many of us, this has meant substantialadjustment of expectations. What is missing is that the PalestinianAuthority also recognize reality.

The Palestinians must understand that there is no alternative toan all-out war against terrorism. They must disabuse themselves onceand for all of the delusion that they can destroy Israel -- instages, or through an alliance with such regimes as Saddam Hussein'sor Iran.

The Shape of Peace

I have not drawn any precise maps to define what we have in mindfor an agreement with the Palestinians. But I know that I represent abroad national consensus when I declare that the Jordan Valley mustbe Israel's strategic border; that Israel will not give up control ofairspace and water sources; that it must keep strategic zones itconsiders vital; that it will not allow a Palestinian army, equippedwith heavy weapons or nonconventional arms, to form west of theJordan; and, above all, that Jerusalem will stay the undividedcapital of Israel forever.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the embodiment of our aspiration to revive our lifein our ancient land. There has never been such an association betweena people and a city as that between the Jewish people and Jerusalem.It is the rock of ages, and it is our rock! It has never been thecapital of another people. It will never be the capital of anotherpeople. It will remain one city forever, a free city, open to allfaiths, united under Israel, indivisible under God...

Peace, security and prosperity are within our reach.

As a nation, we are 50 years old. In the life of a state, it is anage of budding maturity; it is an age when our nation's vigor is atits peak. This vigor will enable us to achieve all our objectives,but only if we can first achieve unity among ourselves. Divided, weare an endangered species. United, we are invincible. *


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