General Assemblies always inspire me,” said Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, two days after returning from the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The event, held Nov. 9-12 in the Washington, DC, suburb of National Harbor, Md., featured such prominent speakers as Vice President Joseph Biden, remarks via video from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a speech by Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who happens to be Jewish.
It also included starring roles for professionals and lay leaders of the Greater MetroWest federation, who spoke about local initiatives on religious pluralism in Israel, aiding Holocaust survivors, and accommodating those with disabilities.
“The caliber of the Jewish communal professionals and the Jewish communal volunteers was so high that just gathering a few thousands of those people in a large setting is one of the most useful and engaging things you can have in the Jewish year,” Ben-Shimon said of his first GA as the GMW federation’s top professional.
“I am particularly proud that we in Greater MetroWest moderated eight sessions in the GA — sessions on disabilities, on Israel encounters, on the role of the Jewish newspaper today, on the needs of the global Jewish community,” he said.
More than 30 lay leaders and professionals from Greater MetroWest attended the gathering and hosted a reception for New Jersey’s other federations. “It is a point of pride for us that our federation is so well represented in the national system,” Ben-Shimon said.
The GMW delegation had private briefings with Ido Aharoni, the Israeli consul general in New York, and Natan Sharansky, a one-time Soviet refusenik who now chairs the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal said she was “very proud of being president of Greater MetroWest, not only because we had such a strong delegation, but to see that we are on the cutting edge of what is happening in Israel relationships and being an inclusive community.”
Dannin Rosenthal moderated a panel called “Beyond Happy Hour,” about strategies communities are using to engage younger adults.
Paula Saginaw of North Caldwell, vice chair of Israel and Overseas at the federation, said she spent most of her time at meetings related to Israel. At one, participants debated Orthodox control over marriage and conversion in Israel.
She said the issue “is a very important one, and we have established a program called IREP, the Israel Religious Expression Platform. Through JFNA, we will try to convince the Knesset to make changes in the marriage laws” to expand religious expression in Israel.
Saginaw also said JFNA is starting an initiative called RUSH — Responding Urgently to Survivors of the Holocaust. “We intend to raise $15 million a year for the next three years so that the 25 percent of survivors who live beneath the poverty line in North America can live their lives in dignity. Our federation will certainly be supporting this,” she said.
The Israel agenda
The convention included a presentation by Rebecca Wanatick, community inclusion coordinator of Greater MetroWest ABLE, which advocates for Jews with special needs. In her session she described a synagogue self-assessment program that allows congregations to evaluate their inclusiveness for those with disabilities.
“Don’t wait to be told that you have congregants and community members who didn’t know that they had a place in your community,” she cautioned delegates.
Amir Shacham, the federation’s associate executive vice president for Israel and Overseas, said federations are using the “Israel agenda” as a way to meet challenges in fund-raising and membership
“Communities are grappling with new and innovative ways to grow the campaign,” Shacham said. “My goal is to try to connect people to their communities through the Israel agenda. There are various gateways for people to get involved because of their passion for Israel.”
Shacham said many of the programs at Greater MetroWest “are now part of the national federation system. We are doing a lot to try to attract a younger generation, with some success. Other communities are coming to us to learn how to build partnerships with places in Israel. For example, we are partnering with the Cincinnati federation to help them build partnerships in Israel.”
An attorney by training, Dannin Rosenthal counted the opening plenary session as a personal highlight. It featured a conversation with Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, both Jewish, and NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg.
“No disrespect to Justice Breyer, but as a Jewish woman lawyer, getting to see Justice Kagan was very inspiring,” said Dannin Rosenthal. “They talked about the fact that one-third of the court is Jewish — but how it doesn’t really matter.”