A Google search of the string “American Jewry and Israel relationship” pulls up opinion pieces with some potentially worrying headlines.
“Polls show deep divisions between Israelis and American Jews,” offers Ynetnews.com. “Israel’s Rupture with American Jewry Evokes Biblical Story of Cain and Abel,” a piece from Haaretz reads. The articles mention both religious and political divides between the two Jewish communities.
“Let’s Talk” was the theme for this year’s General Assembly, the annual Jewish Federations of North America conference, which came to Tel Aviv with those divisions in mind.
“I believe that almost every single speaker mentioned [the theme],” said Naomi Adler, CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “At times, it felt a little too elementary, but it was a springboard. In the end, it worked.”
Three thousand people attended this year’s GA, which took place Oct. 22 to 24. About 30 attendees — including Jewish Federation employees, professionals and the recipients of the Young Leadership Awards — came with the Philadelphia delegation.
It was Tel Aviv’s first time serving as the host city for a conference that for the last three years has been stateside.
“It’s so important to show our support of Israel by actually holding our largest conference in Israel,” said Susanna Lachs Adler, board chair of the Jewish Federation.
The day before the GA began, David Gold, the Jewish Federation’s GA Mission co-chair, helped organize a trip to visit the Jewish Federation’s Partnership2Gether region in Netivot and Sdot Negev. There, some of the Philly delegation did a security tour, met members of the Israel Defense Forces and visited with people with the Studio Lab of Sdot Negev, who have worked on the issues of accessibility and age-friendly community, among other activities. They also saw damage wrought by arson attacks launched by Palestinians in neighboring Gaza.
The GA’s plenaries and breakout sessions included topics on Israel’s work as a startup nation, Birthright, integration of the haredi Jewish community, the peace process and more. There were conversations on religious pluralism in Israel and the egalitarian section of the Western Wall. Speakers included Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Isaac Herzog, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others. During his address, Netanyahu said he would complete the egalitarian section at the Wall swiftly.
“Part of the GA’s ‘Let’s Talk’ was to educate our Israeli counterparts on the importance of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox,” Gold said. “Jews are still Jews, and they should feel totally welcome in Israel.”
Adler was on stage at one point during the GA, moderating a plenary conversation with Steve Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and Steven Nasatir, president of Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. Both men are leaving their positions and spoke about the future of Jewish Federations.
For Lachs Adler, the most impactful part of the GA was hearing about the role Israeli philanthropists are playing in the world in partnership with Diaspora Jewry.
She found GA co-chairs Danna Azrieli and Marius Nacht interesting. Azrieli, chair of the real estate-focused Azrieli Group, spoke about the relationship between American and Israeli Jews as two sides of an arch, independent but supporting each other. Nacht, a partner and founder of a health technology and life sciences venture fund, spoke about the two Jewish communities’ opportunities for partnership in different industries.
“Now I see that there is more opportunity for partnership with Israeli philanthropists,” Lachs Adler said. “For me personally, that’s a new dimension to our relationship with Israel. … It’s not that it didn’t exist before. It’s now just becoming more a part of the culture.”
The Philadelphia delegation’s time there also included a few events just for them at the GA, Gold said. This included a briefing with Herzog, during which they discussed what the Jewish Agency is working on and the delegation’s concerns about pluralism. The delegation also had a briefing with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, better known by the acronym JDC.
“The fact that we were in Israel during Israel 70 and that we were in Tel Aviv and the fact that there were over 3,000 attendees, half of which were from Israel and half of which were from North America, allowed us all to discuss our similarities and our differences and listen to each other,” Gold said.
A week after the conference, Lachs Adler pointed to last weekend’s massacre of congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue as emblematic of the need for differences of all kinds to be addressed peacefully.
“We see that hate crimes and intolerance and ways of solving differences with violence is an ongoing issue,” she said, “and we have to be ever vigilant and ever mindful and raise the bar on dialogue and teaching everyone in our community how to do that, both within our own faiths and across faiths.”