I spent the day today at what has been known as “The GA” The “GA” (General Assembly) is the annual meeting of all the federations of North America. I have participated in a number of GA gatherings over the years – San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, and a few I no longer remember). Over the years I have attended this conference in a couple of different capacities (e.g. presenter and exhibitor). However, this was the first time I attended as journalist. This was also the first time I attended GA in Israel.
The first thing that struck me was the large number of Israelis attending. I ran into many old friends and made a few new acquaintances. However, almost all of these attendees were living in Israel. An old friend ran by me and said: “I am looking for the chulnikim (those from abroad)”. Of course, the chulnikim were there in large numbers, just at times they were outnumbered by Israelis trying to solicit the participants on behalf of various charities or other activities.
I was happy to be able to attend a plenum with President Shimon Peres. Peres is always insightful, and shows no signs of slowing down. I will never forget a speech he gave to a group I was leading about 25 years ago on the implications of the fall of the Soviet Union. Peres delivered the speech completely extemporaneously. At the time I was a Ph.D. student at Columbia University in Political Science and Peres’ analysis was clearly superior to anything I heard at school. This morning, during the question and answer session led by David Horowitz, Peres had three great lines worth repeating.
That to the new you generation: “Self expression is more important than free expression.” What they have to say is the most important and it does not matter whether it impinges on what has been.
“There were two types of countries in the Middle East– ‘holy’ and ‘oily'”. We have always been the holy one, with our recent gas discoveries it’s not clear where we stand.
“The greatest contributions that Jews brought the world is dissatisfaction. We are never satisfied with what we have and always want to make it better.”
President Peres was preceded by U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro who gave his usual words of assurance on President Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security.
While there were many sessions on all aspects of Israeli society, the real elephant in the room was not being discussed – how the federations can remain relevant in Israel and continue attract a new generation of donors. On one side of the ledger, the federations in North America give approximately 300 million to Israel every year. However, that amount is dwarfed by the 2 billion invested in Israeli hi tech every year (not to mention the nearly 5 billion in buyouts of Israeli high tech firms this past year.) For that matter, the sum of annual Federation donations to Israel is lower than the recent increase in the Israel’s defense budget. On the other side of the ledger, presenters were clear that younger donors like to have a much greater say in what they give money to. The cause has to talk to them. How do you square that requirement with the Federation allocations process that gives a high percentage of the money going to Israel to the Jewish agency– which has spent the last few decades searching for a mission to justify its continued existence?
Two final notes: Jerry Silverman, the JFNA President gave an interesting speech, saying: “We must think big”. We need big solutions. He then went on to describe one of the biggest problems facing the Jewish community – the price of membership (e.g. how much does it costs to send kids to day school and camp; the community’s two most successful programs) is way too high. I certainly agree. However, having started a day school, I can say that it’s really hard to keep those costs down (even though we need to do much better). Silverman then presented one of his big ideas: free Jewish preschool. A nice idea. Having a great nursery school has been a boom to many synagogues, keeping those kids after nursery school has been a much more difficult task. Silverman called for better ideas, so I propose one: let the Jewish communities pay for one free year of Jewish camping. Not a cheap plan, but one that will have major impact– if it noticeably increases the number of camp participants – or maybe, one step better, a highly subsidized summer camp in Israel. Just a thought.