Elections have gotten under way for the 35th World Zionist Congress, set for this June in Jerusalem, and proponents say the three-day event is the best existing forum for Jews of wide-ranging religious and political persuasions - and from nearly every corner of the world - to help set the course for the future of the Jewish people.
This year, two new American slates are getting into the fray, hoping to give their respective communities a voice at the congress, which among other things will help determine how the $350 million operating budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel is spent.
JAFI has offices around the globe, and promotes Zionist education and immigration to Israel.
One new slate is the Elkins Park-based Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. The other is known as RAJI: Russian American Jews for Israel.
Carl Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said that at the last conference, held in 2002, JRF members ran on the slate of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
But several months ago, JRF decided to field its own slate of candidates. The split resulted not from any philosophical disagreements with ARZA, but because the JRF board felt that as a mature movement, Reconstructionist Judaism had to present its own vision of how it relates to the State of Israel.
"Obviously, issues relating to Jewish pluralism are of great interest to us," said Sheingold, invoking the name of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, father of the Reconstructionist movement. "His Zionism was very much in the context of Jewish peoplehood."
For its part, RAJI is fielding an ethnic, not ideological, slate of 50 Russian-speaking candidates and aims to harness the Russian Jewish community's support for Israel, while at the same time lobbying for more JAFI funds to be spent on Jewish education.
The emphasis on education stems from the hope of curtailing assimilation within the Russian-speaking community.
"Up until now, there has not been any representation of the Russian Jewish community in the United States. Its voice has been silent," said 35-year-old Andrew Mogilyansky, of Richboro, who is running on the slate. "Most of us have relatives in Israel, most of us have an opinion."
"It's our goal to make sure that the Russian Jewish community stays Jewish," added Mogilyansky. He said that the group's Web site (www.Jewish  vote.org) will allow supporters to convey to delegates their positions on a range of issues that may be raised at the congress.
Registration and voting for the congress is taking place online at www.azm.org  through Feb. 28. Those who define themselves as Jews can register to cast a vote for one of 12 slates vying for 145 seats allocated to Americans out of a total of approximately 500 seats. A large number of alternates usually attend the congress as well.
The congress, now held every four years, traces its roots back to the first World Zionist Congress, convened in Basel, Switzerland, by Theodor Herzl back in 1897. That gathering set the stage for political Zionism and the movement to establish a modern Jewish homeland.
Like the United Nations, delegates will have the opportunity to listen to the proceedings in their native tongues.
In the hopes of ensuring the participation of the younger generation, the rules stipulate that 25 percent of every slate must be filled by someone between the ages of 18 and 30.
Among those running is 23-year-old Isabelle de Konick, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
"Having younger voices are always important. It really allows the congress to reflect the entire age spectrum of the Jewish community," said de Konick. "This is an enduring way to keep the world Jewish community connected to each other."
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the congress.
"Instead of being disbanded in 1948, with the establishment of the state, [the WZO] continues to exist as an anachronistic framework, which represents a tiny fraction of the Jewish people," Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel's Meretz-Yahad political party, wrote in an op article that appeared in Ha'aretz.
'A Feeling of Awe'
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, couldn't disagree more. The Lower Merion resident has been to the congress at least seven times, and feels that each one has been invigorating.
"I have a feeling of awe and being part of history. It's about promoting what we think is good for Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people," he said. "This conference makes serious decisions about how a significant amount of money is spent; it's not just a debating society."
Rabbi Steven C. Lindemann of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., who is running on the Conservative movement's Mercaz slate, said that, in the end, the process of holding the congress is just as important as the results.
"There is value in everybody coming together and asserting a sense of unity that places Israel at the center of the world Jewish community," said Lindemann. "That is in itself a statement.
"It says that Zionism means striving to create the best possible society in Israel," he continued. "Even Jews who do not live there are committed to that idea - and find meaning in that."