Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

At the GA in LA

First, some alphabet soup, Jewish style.

For the first time in many years, the GA of the JFNA  was held in L.A. As almost always happens, the AJPA was part of it.

Translation: The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America was held in Los Angeles. (Readers, I know you knew that one.) The American Jewish Press Association was part of it.

For the last few years, the GA was in D.C. (Okay, I’ll stop now.) Washington is a city that looks like a city, dignified, monumental, quirky. Downtown L.A. looks like nothing much — unimpressive but tall buildings; big, wide, unattractive streets, construction. The first night we were here there was a game at the Staples Center, right down the street, so excited people in full sports regalia were everywhere. (To a non-sports fan, the look of adults in full sports regalia is more puzzling than appealing, but whatever…)

It’s always energizing to be at the GA. So many Jews! It’s not as if there aren’t many Jews (many many Jews) at home, but here, somehow, it’s different. For one thing, there’s a wide range; some are clearly observant, some not visibly so, all identifiably Jewish by the credentials hanging around their necks. And so many of them are young. I was thrilled to be hugged from behind by a young woman who had been in school with my daughter from kindergarten through 12th grade. They’re still good friends, and Jocelyn works at UpStart, a new Jewish funding agency, and now there she was. Beaming. The GA is full of those sorts of joyous connections.

It’s also a place for networking, and you see it happening all around you. You feel its buzz. You know it’s good.

I am avoiding writing about the content because, well, there isn’t so much. A lot of the point of the GA is making people feel proud, vibrant, and connected. This is a politically divided time — not news! — and so there seems to be more talking around that truth than addressing it directly.

Not addressing problems directly seemed to be endemic this year.

Often Israeli politicians address the GA. This year, it was Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, a teddy-bear-like man who emanates charm. He gave a long speech about the tensions between the American Jewish community and Israel, tensions that are new in the relationship, and that are ominous. He, like other speakers, mentioned the failure of the agreement over the Kotel, whereby non-Orthodox Jews were to be given access to a distant section of the wall for egalitarian prayer. He, like other speakers, mentioned the problems about the issue of conversion in Israel that seem to be growing worse, and to lap even at the edges of the Orthodox world outside Israel. But he, like the other speakers, could offer no hope — and unlike what has happened in other years, he at least held out no false promises. Instead, out of what seemed to be pain, he suggested that the American Jewish community be patient and hope that in the end, community and good will can prevail.

And of course just days after everyone went home, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (yes! the URJ! Because alphabet soup!), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, was assaulted as he tried to lead a group of men and women onto the plaza at the Kotel. (The plaza, note, not the men’s and women’s section, which end at the Wall, but the plaza that feeds the crowd to those sections.) He was wearing a tallit and carrying a sefer Torah; his assailants included both Orthodox civilians and uniformed police officers. He and his peers, in other words, were attacked physically for the crime of trying to pray as Jews at the place heralded as the beating heart of the Jewish people.

So the message at the GA was mixed (and the message from the real world was clear and nasty). But at least in the United States we’re all talking to each other, and that is where the hope comes in.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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