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Jewish Journal

GA taps into passion, will, power of the people

by Julie G Fax

November 16, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Perhaps it was the civilian, Karnit Goldwasser, who said it most clearly: "There are so many powerful and important people gathered together here. Together, we must raise up our voices."

Goldwasser's specific intent was to urge the thousands of Jewish leaders and a cadre of Israeli ministers present at the United Jewish Communities 75th annual General Assembly to keep up the pressure to rescue her husband, Ehud, who was kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists in July along with two other Israeli soldiers.

But in a larger sense, tapping into the power of the collective passion, will and resources of the Jewish establishment was at the heart of this year's GA, which had as its highlight an address Tuesday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The event concluded on Wednesday after four days at the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center.

The GA brings together federation leaders and representatives of just about every Jewish organization in North America and Israel for a combination trade show, policy conference and marathon pep rally. Officials said the event attracted 5,000 participants and volunteers -- protected by a hypervigilant private security battalion and a phalanx of LAPD officers -- making this the largest GA since the 2003 gathering in Jerusalem.

GA officials would not say how much the event cost, but The Los Angeles Federation estimated it expended about $200,000 in staff time and hard costs, money that leaders have been saving since they began planning the L.A. GA 13 years ago.

The mood was dark at many of the plenaries, which focused on the threats to Israel, the international fear of Islamic fundamentalism and the specter of a nuclear Iran.

Speakers from the prime minister on down, at numerous sessions and speeches, hammered home the point that Israel's first and foremost security threat was a nuclear-armed Iran ruled by a president who has declared his intention to "wipe Israel off the map."

"We in the intelligence community are willing to pay billions of dollars to learn what our enemies are thinking," Israel's Intelligence Minister Avi Dikter told an audience at a Tuesday panel with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. "The president of Iran is putting it on the table free of charge."

The GA's theme, "Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny," emphasized Israel's security, politics and relationship with the Diaspora. Yet in addition to the spotlight on Israel, more than 150 organizational exhibitors and 60 sessions cut a wide swath through Jewish life, highlighting issues such as reaching out to family caregivers, raising young philanthropists and innovations in Jewish education.

Speaking at the opening plenary, Goldwasser's anguished but unfathomably poised plea to Israel and the international community to keep attention on the abducted soldiers brought choked-up delegates in the enormous exhibition hall to their feet. It was a moment of emotion that speaks to why a GA is important: Being in a room with so many people who are so moved by the same thing ignites a passion and energy that reminds people that Jews belong to each other.

"It's a remarkable ingathering of all of these people, where we have an opportunity to share ideas and talk and teach each other," said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles. "I'm not sure there are too many moments of this magnitude where you can get a sense of Jewish peoplehood the way you do here."

This year brought an unprecedented six Israeli Knesset members and six Cabinet ministers -- including Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu -- and dignitaries such as French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy and Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria.

The star power was also on hand with appearances by the likes of Mare Winningham, Jeff Goldblum and Jon Voight and Jewish musical favorites Debbie Friedman and Mike Burstyn. But what the conference was for was pumping up leaders for another year of raising both Jewish consciousness and philanthropic dollars. The networking over dinner and in organizational receptions and the casual contacts made on the perennially snaking line to the Starbucks in the Convention Center lobby were just as key to strengthening the Jewish network as the official program.

A highlight was the sold-out Monday night show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a Yiddish theater revue and selections from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

Before the war with Hezbollah this summer, the theme of the GA was "Be With the Stars," a Hollywood-esque way of highlighting the community's major players and programs, as well as looking to the future stars -- the next generation of leaders.

But the upbeat star theme gave way to the more earnest "Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny," focusing on Israel and international Jewry's responsibility for and relationship with Israel.

"The program really touched on topics and issues that were on people's minds. We focused on what people are thinking about, and we had overflow crowds," said Glenn Rosenkrantz, director of media affairs at UJC.

The organization, which last year raised $3 billion among all the federations, has raised $350 million for Israel since the war this summer (which probably explains the presence of the 12 Israeli politicians).

Many participants interviewed said they were glad to have the chance to more deeply understand what feels like an existential crisis.

John Fishel, president of The Los Angeles Federation, said he understood and supported the decision to focus on Israel but regretted some of the compromises that had to be made.

"I guess I would have preferred more of a balance in terms of some of the domestic issues," said Fishel, the conference's host and go-to guy for all sorts of situations. "The Federation's mandate is not only Israel or overseas projects, it is about local and domestic issues, whether that be public policy, service delivery or discussions about Jewish identity and innovations in Jewish education," he said.

It also meant that sessions that had been scheduled to feature local Jewish organizations ended up being pushed aside."I think if I have any disappointments it is that we pitched a lot of ideas initially and approached a lot of local institutions in town to share what we think are really innovative programs and are starting trends in Jewish life," Fishel said. "But when suddenly the decision was made to be more overseas focused, it cut into that programming."

Los Angeles programs were pushed further into the background by geography: The major Jewish institutions are not downtown, and leaders from other communities did not venture into the heart of the Jewish community.

But many participants were glad to focus on Israel and said that is one factor that brought them to Los Angeles.

"It was very smart to change the focus from the 'same old' to what is relevant to what is going on today," said Winnie Goldblatt, director of endowments for the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, who has been coming to GAs for 19 years.

She said the expertise and knowledge bank concentrated in the GA is especially exciting for those from small towns.

"It's one thing to read about things, and it's another to be here talking face to face about these things that affect world Jewry," Goldblatt said.

But some felt the conference preached to the choir and didn't ask leaders to stretch their thinking into a more creative embrace of Jewish education, culture and peoplehood.

"I think this is a tremendous opportunity to capture the energy of the community and create a common agenda and to push people forward in a common direction, and I'm not sure that opportunity has been fully utilized," said Jennifer Krieger, a community activist from Santa Monica who stood with some friends at the end of Monday's sessions, lamenting the buzz and creativity they all agreed was missing.

"As people who are Jewishly engaged, we want to hear something provocative and new that brings you to a new level of understanding and action. So far, I haven't seen or experienced that," Krieger said, her friends nodding in agreement.

But others felt inspired and rejuvenated to be among so many active leaders. "I like to think of the GA as a Birthright for adults in America," said graduate student Shira Moldoff, referring to the free Israel trip that since 1999 has infused more than 110,000 young adults with a passion for Judaism. "We're all in one room and we come together to share our ideas and our passions and our vision for the future, and I find it empowering."

The event is huge, and one can't help but be impressed with the bigness of it all -- the plenary hall where row upon row of chairs clothed in El Al seatback covers, the larger-than-life "One People, One Destiny" signs everywhere, the vastness of the Convention Center halls filled with Jews who care about being Jews.

"The conference is going phenomenally well," said Gail Reiss, UJC's vice president of development, who was in charge of planning the GA, on Day 2 of conference. "The turnout has gone beyond our expectations."

Given the size and scope of the event, things ran remarkably smoothly -- plenaries and sessions ran on time, the program and locations were accurate and logistics mostly worked well for out-of-town guests. Some glitches during registration had people waiting an hour or more, and Disney Hall holds only 2,500 people, leaving many with no tickets to the Monday night concert.

Participants came from all denominations, but attendance seemed to skew heavily to the over-50 crowd. Hillel brought in about 300 students for the conference and had 1,000 students spread out doing hands-on charitable work on Sunday. There was fair representation of leaders in their 20s and a larger than usual crowd of the often absent 30- and 40-somethings, thanks to a young leadership conference layered into the GA. But even those 200 young professionals did little to make the 30- to 40-year-old demographic proportionately represented.

The L.A. Federation said that 700 members of the Los Angeles community participated and an additional 750 volunteered.

All conference sessions, events and exhibition spaces were open only to those who shelled out $275 for the three-and-half days (discounted from $525 for out-of-towners). The 150 exhibitors, including many jewelry, book and art merchants who came from all over the world, complained that being closed to the public -- not always the case at GAs -- hurt their exposure time, as did the limited hours and time slots available for participants to browse the hall.

And while organizers put the number of participants at 5,000, it seemed that many were not staying for the full duration of the conference or not attending major sessions.

"There is no reason why in a city with 600,000 Jews, the plenary hall had to be half empty," said communal activist Selwyn Gerber, who said he thought the conference was inspiring, informative and very well run. "The boards of all the local shuls should have been invited to the discussion between the heads of the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform rabbinical schools. They have a stake in that conversation." (See story on Page 13.)

But despite the complaints, participants and organizers are calling the event a success, one that will have a lasting impact on this city.

"I think beyond any conference or interesting things to see and hear, what this really did was mobilize a whole segment of the community that would not normally come out for something like this, and it made them feel good to be part of a larger Jewish community," Fishel said. "Whatever criticisms I have, that is the lasting piece -- we did something important, and we're part of something fun and exciting. I think there is a tendency in L.A. on occasion to look at the glass as half empty, rather than half full, but we did some good stuff here." Tracker Pixel for Entry

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