LOS ANGELES — Striking a unifying note against a background that has included some of the most discordant events in relations between the Jewish state and the American Jewish community in recent memory, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke Nov. 13 of one Jewish people, with Israel at its core.
“The State of Israel was, and will always be, the home of every Jew,” Rivlin told attendees of the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly. “Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, traditional, Ashkenazi, Sephardi. Jews. We are all one people, and Israel is dear to all of us.”
Rivlin’s speech came after days of increasing tension between many diaspora Jews and the Israeli government over the failure by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement a deal providing for an egalitarian prayer space alongside the separate gender ones at the Western Wall plaza. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement cut off contact with the prime minister over the issue, and Natan Sharansky, the famed refusenik and former Knesset member who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, made a dramatic call for the deal to be implemented during a recent meeting with diaspora leaders.
Hours before Rivlin’s address, the JFNA’s board of trustees approved a resolution warning that ignoring the concerns of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements regarding the Western Wall, as well as a Knesset bill that would prohibit official recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed outside Israel, could “undermine the Zionist vision and the State of Israel’s sacred role as a national home for the entire Jewish people.”
The resolution called on the Israeli government to reverse its stances on both issues. Rivlin addressed the crisis directly.
“It causes such pain that the symbol of unity, the wall of our tears and joy, has become a symbol of division and disagreement,” he said. “I hope that in the future we can return to the table together, and reach an understanding on this important issue. It is our mutual responsibility.”
Rivlin’s speech, which also sounded alarm with regard to an increasingly dangerous Iran and praised Israel as a techonological leader, was his first major address to a Jewish audience outside Israel. He was not the only high-profile speaker scheduled for the Nov. 12-14 conference, and Netanyahu himself was to be interviewed live via satellite Tuesday afternoon.
But the conference went beyond international matters, focusing first and foremost on strengthening Jewish communities in the United States and leveraging their power to improve the Jewish world.
“After a year where many of our Jewish communities felt vulnerable and isolated, the G.A. served as a powerful reminder of the incredibly positive impact of the work coming from across our collective Jewish Federation community,” said Naomi Adler, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “Over three days, we came together to share our ideas, ask the difficult questions and reaffirm our Jewish values. Following a year of political divisiveness, we had the chance to share how we engage or community without taking a position while still being a very active part of important conversations.”
At breakout sessions on Sunday, beginning with firsthand accounts by both victims and responders of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, the audience heard details of how the federation movement mobilized to send aid within moments after the storm hit Houston’s Jewish community.
The power of federations was also underlined in a poignant speech delivered by David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, as he recounted the story of a young child of a Russian immigrant who, 25 years ago, called the Los Angeles Federation for help when her father had fallen and needed help. The father had posted the federation’s number by the phone, and told his daughter that in the case of any emergency, “call this number; it’s the Jewish building and they will help you.”
“That’s who you are,” Wolpe told the delegates. “You’re the Jewish building. Our task is to create ongoing generations of Jews that will help. That’s our mission.”
Marking the 30th anniversary of a 250,000-person march at the National Mall in Washington in solidarity with Soviet Jewry, Ilia Salita, president and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, representing the Russian-speaking Jewish community, thanked North American Jews and Jewish federations for their support in enabling Russian-speaking Jews to immigrate to the United States.
The emigration of Russian Jews in the late 1980s is “considered one of the most successful immigration waves in the history of the United States,” Salita said. With a nod to the federations, he added: “You recognized you were investing in our common Jewish future. You helped us discover that wonderful, incredible thing, the American dream.”
Also speaking was Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles’ first Jewish mayor, and the city’s second Mexican-American mayor. Garcetti talked about his family’s struggles and contributions as immigrants, and his dual identity as a Jew and a Latino. Garcetti urged his fellow Jews to continue to “connect, speak up, and find a better way” to enrich the broader community.
Other highlights included a Hollywood Roundtable, hosted by film producer Marc Platt who, along with his wife, Julie, co-chaired the G.A. Platt and his panelists described how a story told around a Shabbat table — about the power of connection and caring among three young Jews around the world, and a Muslim in Yemen — is making its way to the big screen.
Toby Tabachnick is senior staff writer for the Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent. Joshua Runyan contributed to this article.