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Jewish Journal

Light and Thanks

by Rob Eshman

November 28, 2002 | 7:00 pm

I spent most of this past week at the United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly (GA), the annual gathering which, this year, brought nearly 4,000 Jewish communal representatives (and journalists) from North America, Israel and elsewhere overseas.

The GA is part sales seminar, part pep rally, part continuing education, and major schmoozefest. This year, it was also something else: befuddling. Spend a half-hour in the hallways between sessions and you get a sense of the intensity and vigor of contemporary Jewish life. A charged-up communal leader from Knoxville, Tenn., told me the Jewish community there is strong and active. The rabbi from Austin, Texas boasted of a beautiful, multimillion dollar new Jewish Community Center campus. The lay leader from Tulsa, Okla., said Jews there were active and involved, and activists from Boston, Chicago and New York talked a mile a minute about new projects, new organizations, new ventures.

But then there are the actual, big lectures, the plenary sessions that are meant to rally and inspire the troops. They are lugubrious: anti-Semitism in Europe, on campus, in Canada. Terror here and abroad. Crisis in Israel, in Argentina, in the economy. Outside the meeting rooms, strength and vigor; inside, doom and gloom. Outside, Candide; inside, Cassandra.

As one speaker went on (and on) about the tragedies confronting the Jews, I ducked into the hallway, where I bumped into Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. "What is this guy talking about?" said Klein. "On and on and on, all these tales of woe." He wasn't being callous -- he's as aware of the tragedies as we all are -- he just wanted to hear a call to action. Ease up on the hysteria and give it a little inspiration -- and a little reality check.

The very people listening to the tales of woe are the very same lay and staff leaders whose fundraising efforts place UJC as the highest-ranking Jewish philanthropic organization in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They have access to the worlds of media, government and business unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people. They are, by almost any measure, stronger and more vibrant than at any other time in their history. As I write this it's past midnight on the third day of the convention, the hotel lobby is still noisy with animated GA conversation, and a giant electronic scroll board over Center City reads, "WELCOME UNITED JEWISH COMMUNITIES!" Hardly the signposts of imminent doom.

Events are terrible, as the brutal Jerusalem bus bombing that Thursday morning showed. Israelis suffer daily under the fear and the reality of terror.

But even that reality doesn't begin to describe the remarkable fact of Israel, its resilience and the daily achievements of its people. To cement Israelis in the American Jewish mind as nothing but victims-in-waiting is to demean the country and its people. To worry ourselves silly about media bias when the vast majority of news outlets editorialize in favor of Israel is almost indecently ignorant. To demand Jewry uncritically support Israel in these times, as some speakers did, negates Jewish and Zionist history. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon couldn't address the GA in person not because of pressing security concerns but because he is locked in a fierce election battle.

My sense is that most of the participants gathered information in the meeting rooms -- and some of it was hopeful and upbeat -- but a sense of perspective in the hallways.

The Thanksgiving/Chanukah doubleheader arrives then just in time. "Judaism is the religion of optimism," Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, told our contributing writer Rahel Musleah. "It's about increasing the light." He reminds us that we've fashioned a holiday in which each night, we bring more light into the world. "The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness," he said.

It demeans no one's suffering -- and there has been too much this past year -- to also count our blessings. Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Chanukah.

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