As the World Zionist Congress convenes in Jerusalem Oct. 20-22, three area delegates are among the 500 from around the world helping to decide how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on Jewish life in Israel and internationally.
The congress, which meets about every four years, chooses officers and helps set policy and budgets for several major Israeli and international organizations allocating money for such things as Jewish education and social services. Of the 500 delegates, 190 come from Israel, 145 from the United States, and 165 from the rest of the world combined.
“This is the single most important gathering of Jews from all over the world who care deeply about the historic Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael and the relationship of Jews to the land and its people,” said Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, national chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
ARZA is fielding the largest slate — 40 percent of the American delegates — at the gathering. Many delegates representing the liberal and progressive parties are expected to push for a greater voice for their movements in Israel, where only members of the Orthodox rabbinate can officiate at weddings, funerals, and conversions.
At the congress, said Miller, “we argue and debate and discuss what we believe are critical issues facing Israel and the Jewish people around the world. Every Jew and every Zionist has the dream of what Israel should be, and no one individual or group has a lock on what that means. The good news is today we have a Jewish state where we can argue about all these issues and make our own decisions. We are no longer at the good will of some other people or government where we are just guests.”
For Miller, who is attending his first congress, the key issues are Jewish education around the world, the settlements, religious pluralism and democracy in Israel, aliya, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, anti-Semitism, and “undoubtedly now terrorism.”
“Change doesn’t usually come rapidly anywhere, but if we’re not engaged in the process then somebody else will make all the decisions, which is why I’m going” to the gathering, he said. “Don’t forget, at one time the Zionist Congress was discussing and debating a dream about the possibility of a national Jewish state, and now it’s all about what that national Jewish state should become.”
Michelle Rich of Manalapan and Gary Rosenthal of Somerset are both representing Mercaz USA, which describes itself as “the voice of Conservative Jewry within the World Zionist Organization.”
Rich, who is director of teen travel and programs for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and a member of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, is also attending her first congress; she is going, she said, with an open mind.
“I am so excited,” she said. “I want to see all these voices come together and have this be a learning experience. There are many resolutions, and I want to see how all the factions interact. I’ve heard it’s a lively and animated discussion. A highlight for me will be expanding my knowledge about Israel and continuing my support for Israel, which is very important to me.”
Rosenthal, a former president and member of Temple Beth El of Somerset, also served as USCJ’s NJ regional president and international treasurer and financial secretary.
“I want to make sure the resolutions passed are the ones we want passed, with all that is going on in Israel,” he said. “I have two granddaughters living there, and I want to make sure that the Conservative movement and other movements’ rabbis are allowed to perform marriages.”
Rosenthal said, “This is an honor indeed as I will be part of a delegation that will meet leaders of Israel to discuss current problems and goals and offer resolutions to keep our mutually valued relations.”
The congress was founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897 to help in the establishment of a Jewish state and act as a parliament for the Jewish people. It has significant control or oversight over three key institutions: the Jewish National Fund, which owns some 13 percent of Israel’s land; the Jewish Agency for Israel, which deals with immigration, absorption, and Zionism education and has a $475 million annual budget; and the World Zionist Organization. The congress helps formulate the organizations’ policies, appoints some of their leaders, and has a say in how their money is spent.