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Federation donors told of a shift in priorities
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Federation donors told of a shift in priorities

Historian describes Zionist identity as latest challenge

When major donors gathered for the annual Pacesetter event for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, in addition to the familiar reasons to support its annual campaign, they heard a very different pitch from those given in the past.

Two guest speakers described Israel as prospering and no longer in need of the same kinds of help Diaspora Jews used to provide.

What they emphasized was a different set of needs — to fund initiatives that foster Zionist passion and to build bridges between Diaspora and Israeli Jews.

Instead of framing Israel as a crisis case, “with an emergency campaign every year,” said historian Jack Wertheimer, supporters need to portray Israel as “the grandest Jewish experiment in hundreds of years” and one that is already bringing changes and benefits to American Jews.

Wertheimer was the keynote speaker at the event, hosted by Mark and Jane Wilf at their home in Livingston, and attended by 62 people, among them many of the federation’s top givers. By evening’s end they had pledged a total of $2.4 million for the federation, which supports local Jewish institutions as well as programs in Israel and Jewish communities around the world.

Also speaking was Avital Chizhik of Highland Park, a senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

She recounted her experiences on YU’s Counterpoint program in Arad, Israel, where she worked at a summer camp financed with help from the Central federation. She not only taught English but helped raise Zionist awareness among teenagers more interested in global youth culture than in their own homeland.

Wertheimer, the Joseph and Martha Mendelson Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, described a similar challenge among Diaspora youth.

Their elders need to encourage a Zionist passion in the young, he said, “without beating them up and treating them as if they have something defective.”

He listed four other factors militating against strong feelings for Zionism among the young.

One is their belief that they “can lead good, rich Jewish lives in the Diaspora and don’t need Israel as Jews did in the past.”

The next is lack of interest in spending their own money to go to Israel. He suggested that Birthright Israel, with its free trips to Israel, though “a remarkable success story,” is also a symptom of the problem.

He named tikun olam as the third factor, saying that young people often have an idealistic drive to help others — in Africa and Guatemala, for example — but not their fellow Jews, like those in the former Soviet Union or Israel.

Wertheim also cited intermarriage, which in many cases has weakened the Jewish connection of children growing up in interfaith households.

He said it is possible that the young will develop a deeper appreciation of Israel as they get past their own “odyssey years,” when they’re absorbed in developing a career and relationships, and Israel seems very far away.

‘Amazed by generosity’

Money pledged during the event was an increase over last year’s total, according to Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president and director of financial resource development. The night’s total included a gift from the perpetual annual campaign endowment of the late Alf Gelfond, who died in 2007, and his wife, Sandy, who died this past August.

“Given the economic environment, I was more than amazed by the generosity” of the supporters, Cooper said.

Among those present was a new contingent — a number of lay and professional leaders from United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the federation in Morris and Essex counties with which the Central federation is considering a merger.

Missing from his usual place among these givers and honored by the speakers was the federation’s vice president-for-life Sol Kramer, who died on Sept. 23 at the age of 91.

A number of participants drew comfort from Wertheimer’s suggestion that young Jews would come to value Israel as they mature. Women’s Philanthropy campaign chair Joan Schiffer Levinson described how she has seen her daughters develop a strong Jewish connection of their own.

Marilyn and Gerry Flanzbaum, both former presidents of the federation and now residents in Israel most of the year, announced that their grandson is about to start his service in the Israeli army. They increased their pledge in his honor, as did their friends, Dave and Renee Golush.

Federation executive vice president Stanley Stone, speaking after the speeches, welcomed the unaccustomed angle the speakers brought out. “That’s just what we want,” he said, “something that makes people sit up and think.”

Erwin Fisch, the federation’s major gifts chair, introduced the program, and Don Rosenthal, financial resource development chair, called for the pledges.

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