Jewish Journal


October 19, 2006

L.A. gets ready to be the center of Jewish universe

75th Annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities


In just three weeks, more than 3,000 leaders of the international Jewish community, including the prime minister of Israel, are coming to Los Angeles.

What, you hadn't heard?

This season's best-kept secret among L.A. Jews seems to be that the 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities is being held in Los Angeles -- the first time in 26 years this city will host one of the largest annual gatherings of Jews in North America.

"This is a great opportunity for Los Angeles to participate in this national convention, where we don't always have a critical mass participating," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "More importantly, we have some extraordinarily talented Jewish human resources and some extraordinarily creative programming in L.A., and this will be an opportunity for us to highlight those individuals and programs."

But while some locals have already signed up, and hundreds have volunteered, a mention of the GA is more likely to elicit a blank stare than an excited nod in most Jewish circles.

"Never heard of it," said Marlene Kahan, a teacher who lives in Beverlywood. "But it sounds interesting. I'd love to read about it and find out what happens there."

The GA is one of the largest Jewish events on the North American calendar (the Reform movement's biennial conference surpasses the GA, with about 5,000 attendees), with thousands of lay and professional leaders from hundreds of communities gathering to explore the state of the Jewish world, and to set a vision for the year to come.

The United Jewish Communities represents 155 Federations and 400 independent communities, and the four-day conference, Nov. 12-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown, brings together Federation machers as well as other organizations and activists from around the world. Anyone who wants to be a player in the Jewish community is at the GA.

The powerful bloc of participants attracts an impressive roster of leaders, scholars and experts to run daily plenaries and a menu of hundreds of sessions on topics from global anti-Zionism to new trends in Jewish education to savvy solicitation techniques.

Anyone can register as a delegate. Southern Californians are offered a local's discounted rate of $275 (non-residents pay $525), and people who have volunteered to help out for a few hours can attend the conference on that day (volunteer slots have been filled). All events -- including a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday, Nov. 13 -- are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.

But word has been slow to trickle out to the far-flung L.A. Jewish community.

While a call for volunteers went out to synagogues and organizations months ago, full-page ads have only shown up in the last few weeks, and the UJC Web site didn't post program details -- such as speakers and session topics -- until early October. There are currently 425 local delegates signed up, along with about 300 to 400 student delegates, some of them at Southern Californian schools, signed up through Hillel. About 750 Angelenos have also volunteered to staff the convention, which is estimated to attract 3,000 delegates and an additional 1,000 exhibitors, organizers and staff, according to Judy Fischer, who is the Los Angeles Federation staff GA director. Fischer is working with lay host community chair Terri Smooke to organize the event.

Organizers admit publicity has been slow because the program was revamped following the war in Israel.

"The focus was transformed in light of what happened over the summer, and particularly in light of the implications of the war for Israel and for the Jewish people in our communities and across the world," said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Chicago Federation, and head of programming for the GA. "There is a strong sense of connection with Israel, and recognition that as much as this means as a single war, it wasn't just that. It has a deeper meaning."

The theme chosen over the summer was "On the Frontlines Together: One People, One Destiny," meant to encompass the war's implications regarding the Israel-Diaspora connection, global Jewish security, Israel's identity, its military, its leadership and how that reverberates out to Jewish communities across the world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to deliver the keynote on Tuesday evening (though in the past prime ministers have often ended up canceling or speaking through video feed). A record four Knesset ministers are also scheduled to address the group, including foreign minister Tzipi Livni, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's ministers of education and tourism.

During and following the war, federations from across the country funneled $330 million dollars to Israel through UJC. "In some ways this was kind of a breakthrough in the recognition of the centrality and significance of the UJC Federation system," Kotzin said. "The prime minister wants to be able to come and participate to express his appreciation and to advance ties between Israel and the North American Jewish Community. The GA exists at a moment where we can really keep up with what is going on and move things forward."

Other speakers include Canadian Parliament Member Dr. Irwin Cotler; Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi.

A plenary on "The Jewish Future" will feature a panel with Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Insitiute of Religion; Arnie Eisen, chancellor-elect at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox Yeshiva University.

But all other conference-wide sessions will focus on Israel, as will more than half of the smaller sessions. It is a shift that not everyone is thrilled with.

"As someone who lives in Israel and is a Zionist, I think it is unfortunate and actually speaks to the lack of an overarching vision for the future of the Jewish people," said Yossi Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Family and Life, who now blogs daily at peoplehood.org.

Abramowitz has attended around 20 GAs, and moved to Israel this summer. "What it does affirm is that for major donors, the Israel agenda is very hot, and it drives fundraising and involvement," he said. "We have relied on essentially a vicarious sense of Jewish peoplehood to fuel fundraising, and it's come at the expense of a domestic vision or even a global vision of Jewish life."

But Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute of Jewish and Community Research, thinks organizers made the right choice by seizing the momentum of where communal concern is now.

"There have been GAs that have been far more devoted to domestic issues. I think with the recent war and the war on terrorism in this country, all of those things are on people's minds a great deal, and it doesn't surprise me that the focus of the conference shifted," said Tobin, who has attended 20 years worth of GAs. "One might also argue that it's a healthy sign, that if that is what is on people's minds, they were actually able to adjust the program."

Tobin and Abramowitz agree that the GA is an important venue for ideas to percolate and for leaders to log face-time to understand what is going on nationwide. That will happen both in official sessions and in informal schmooze time in the corridors of the Convention Center and the Westin Bonaventure, where most delegates are staying.

"I think anytime you get thousands of Jews together with some sense of unity and purpose, there is always magic in the room," Abramowitz said.

"People who are there reinforce each other's values and commitments and remind each other about why they are involved in this enterprise," Tobin said. "People take back information to their communities, and you can see an idea presented by a federation at the GA being used by other federations across the country five years later."

This year, it will also give the country a chance to understand what West Coast Jewry is about. While most of the Jewish power infrastructure is centered on the East Coast, about 20 percent of the Jewish population lives on the West Coast. L.A is the second largest Jewish community in the country, after New York. The San Francisco Bay Area has surpassed Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago in Jewish population.

"Managing a federation in St. Louis is a whole different beast than managing a federation in Los Angeles, so I think it will force the conversations to be more circumspect and analytical. You can't talk in platitudes about what it means to be a federation when you are sitting in Los Angeles," Tobin said.

"It's important for people to understand that anything that happens in California first in terms of Jewish life is going to happen to them at some point in the future, whether it's the higher rate of intermarriage or geographic dispersion on the one hand, or a renaissance in creativity in terms of arts and culture in Jewish life on the other," Tobin said.

Fishel said he has been working hard to make sure Los Angeles is represented in sessions, in the culture of the conference and in the exhibits that line the halls of the convention center.

The L.A. Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation are hosting an evening at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, open to delegates only, where the L.A. Philharmonic will play selections from the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, which is also cohosting. Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy and Cantor Alberto Mizrachi will present a Yiddish Theater Revue.

But it might be hard for delegates to truly get a sense of the local Jewish community with the convention downtown, where Jews might work but generally don't live or play. Fishel is hoping people leave their downtown hotels to take in some of the local Jewish color.

He is also working on pulling some of the top name speakers to side events on the Westside or in the Valley, so locals who aren't participating can benefit from the concentration of leaders in our city.

Still, Fishel is encouraging people to sign up as delegates to benefit from the entire conference.

And this year, all delegates will have a say in passing resolutions and framing action items at the convention's closing meeting. In the past, that meeting was open only to members of the UJC Board of Trustees and its Delegates Assembly, a standing body of 435 members representing federations, small communities, national and Israeli agencies and the religious denominations.

This year, the final assembly will be open to all conference participants.

"We will have spent two and half days focusing on the issues, developing an awareness of the issues," Kotzin said. "So how about using this day to say now what do we do about these issues? This is the time to talk about programs for action, to forge a blueprint of what we are going to do as a community to address these issues and forge an agenda."

And even while only a small percentage of L.A. Jews will actually attend, hosting the conference can energize a city. "It really pumps up the community, in terms of attendance and volunteering," said Kotzin, who was at the Chicago Federation when that city hosted in 2000. "There is a sense of pride people in wanting to show off your own community."

For more information, visit www.jewishla.org or www.ujc.org.

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