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General Assembly Reflections, November 13-15, Washington, D.C. 

General Assembly Reflections / November 13-15, Washington, D.C.

by Jerry Fischer

The energy of the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly is surging, but anxiety is damping down the charge.

Our delegation consists of Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz of Bnai Israel in Willimantic, Rabbi Susan Schein of the Connecticut College Hillel, and six Connecticut College students. We have one of the largest student delegations to the GA!

Programs and speakers that were quite remarkable: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who commanded us not to despair, and, in addressing the students, encouraged them to be open to everyone on campus (perhaps a slight nod towards a more open Hillel policy).

Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, who is so refreshing in his total public embrace of his Jewish identity, led two mini forums. The first was with NY Times correspondent Maggie Haberman, who covered the Trump campaign, and Kenneth Weinstein of the Hudson Institute. Ms. Haberman described the surprising and disturbing anti-Semitic attacks that she experienced on an almost daily basis. She also noted that President Trump tends to follow the advice of the last person he hears from before making a decision, and at the moment that person seems to be his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Ken Weinstein noted that for the next four years there will be a member of the President’s family lighting Shabbat candles and saying Kiddush. Ms. Haberman said that might be a small comfort given the vitriol that the Presidential campaign unleashed.

In the second mini forum three Israelis, Yaakov Katz, Editor in Chief of The Jerusalem Post, Aluf Benn, Editor in Chief of Haaretz, and Nadav Eyal, Chief International Correspondent of Israel were joined by Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution. They pretty much reached a consensus that Prime Minister Netanyahu might not be too happy with the outcome of the election because Trump is not well versed in international affairs, and is unpredictable. Yaakov Katz noted that the dynamic of playing off the forces of the President and Congress is no longer a play that Prime Minister Netanyau can deploy.

An interesting morning at the Press Stage was “Post-Traumatic Election Disorder in Israel and the United States with Aluf Benn and Chemi Shalev of Haaretz. Benn made the point that native Israelis have never experienced anti-Semitism and could not appreciate the alarm in America. Shalev feared that this election would further alienate American Jews from Israel if the Israelis were happy with Trumps policies and American Jews were not. Both cautioned that destroying the proposed two state solution could lead to another intifada or waves of terror that would seriously harm Israel. They also recognize the power of Russia in the region and the newly curbed strength of the Israeli Airforce by virtue of the Russian Airforce in the skies over Syria and Lebanon.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg provided a comforting, humorous, but sober relief to the day, and was quite proud of her new found notoriety. She was questioned carefully by attorney Kenneth R. Feinberg of mega settlement mediation and arbitration fame.

The session on Black Jewish relations was quite remarkable in the focus on renewed sharing of hate and oppression that bubbled to the surface during the campaign. A strong desire to renew bonds of solidarity and cooperation in the face of these perils suffused the session.

The General Assembly again proved to be the most vibrant and stimulating Jewish conference in North America. Next year it is in Los Angeles, and then in 2018 it is in Israel for the 70th anniversary of the State.

I hope we will have stronger delegations for those GAs and again have a good student showing from our Hillel’s at Connecticut College and Mitchell College, and maybe even from the Coast Guard Academy.

 Jerry Fischer is the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT.

Jerry Fischer's Dvar Torah at the General Assembly on Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014

November 1 marked the 30th anniversary of my tenure as Executive Director of the JFEC.  I thank Deb Stein and JFNA for giving me the opportunity to offer a dvar Torah and a few comments as I mark what might be a world record for continuous service to one community as a Federation Director.  If there is anyone out there who knows someone with longer tenure in one community please get in touch with me, because I can use some advice. With challenges ahead, my remaining years will be difficult ones and I could use some guidance. Seriously.

The Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is Chayyei Sarah. This is only the fifth weekly portion of our annual reading of the entire Torah. Towards the end of the parsha we read of the death and burial of Abraham, next to his wife, in the cave that he negotiated and purchased for that purpose. We also read that Isaac and Ishmael attend the funeral. It is easy, and not unusual, to highlight the apparent reconciliation of the two estranged half-brothers as a sign that peace and reconciliation is achievable, and to express hope that such reconciliation in the future not necessarily take place only at funerals. But the Parent’s Circle (, an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to suicide bombers is perhaps an echo that reflects the ancient story of Abraham’s burial.

For today, however, I would like to give a drash on both Chayyei Sarah and Bereisheet.  I think this drash for Bereisheet is important for us and indeed important to all size communities and to our national and global Jewish institutions. The drash from Genesis Rabah 19:3 is: Make a fence too high and it may fall and destroy what it was meant to protect.

Allow me to be a bit nostalgic. The first GA I attended, 29 years ago in Chicago, featured a variety of Shabbat dinners, a Shabbat morning with several services held simultaneously, followed by a d’var torah in a central hall which was attended by all the various minyanim. And a Kiddush luncheon that was remarkable. And it was like that for many years.

My lay leaders enjoyed those GAs and attended services from the streams of Judaism not present in our community – Reconstructionist, Secular Humanist, and modern Orthodox.  And the learning! Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Danny Landes, Chancellor Schorsch. And the rich cultural experiences…the most memorable for me was perhaps the Cajun Kiddush in New Orleans and then running into Rabbi Haskell Lookstein and his wife listening to a set of the The Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the French Quarter.

The GA was a place where we could really mix it up regarding Shabbat, and we really did. But slowly that faded. A fence too high was put up…we were not able to be orthodox enough to meet the demands of the most rigorous of our orthodox fellow Jews, and slowly the restrictions chipped away at what once was a lively and respectful Shabbat experience. That we could not use a tea bag or a microphone on Shabbat was perhaps the most ridiculous manifestation of this trend, and then…no more Shabbat at the GA.  A fence destroyed what it should have protected…Jews of all varieties learning, enjoying and sharing Shabbat together.

Through the iterations of CJF and UJA to UJC and now JFNA, mega donors generously lent their support to our Assembly, yet there were clearly struggles between left and right, religious and secular. Amos Oz was a late night speaker in a distant hotel room, HaAretz offered a program outside of the main GA venue, and there seemed to be a studied and cultivated neutrality for a few years. This fortunately changed recently, with the GA in Baltimore and Reform leader Rabbi Dick Jacobs as the scholar in residence (and kudos to Rabbi Jacobs for telling Ambassador Oren that the security situation is no excuse for the intolerable status of non-orthodox Judaism in Israel) , and then the GA in Israel, where, thank God, trying to cultivate neutrality is essentially hopeless. 

We convened in Jerusalem last year shortly after the release of the Pew report that painted a dismal picture of the American Jewish future. It was a serious, and alarming survey, all the more so because we were not able to deflect it by pointing to a bias based on the organization sponsoring the survey.

Despite our fences, religious, political, or economic, we do not seem to be protecting the Jewish future with them, but perhaps, dimming the light needed to allow our future to flourish. Not squeezing a tea bag and not using a microphone does not make a Jew. Fencing out a major Jewish organization from the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations only diminishes what was once, but no longer is, an inclusive Council. National Hillel is struggling with this issue of what to fence in and what to fence out…and we may soon see that once again fences might hurt rather than help.

In small Jewish communities we face the crisis that the Pew report pointed to, but we are, because of our small numbers, much less able to manage.  Small communities do not have a 92nd Street Y, a Jewish Museum (the NYC one is now open and free on Shabbat, kudos to the JTS), a Holocaust Museum, or a major JCC to hold Jewish cultural events and attract Jews who dearly want to identify as Jews but no longer find relevance or resonance in the liturgy of the orthodox, conservative, reform, or reconstructionist congregations in our communities.

The Reform movement encouraged their congregations in small communities to reach out and join hands with the Conservative congregations to explore ways to cooperate, coordinate, and combine efforts.  No positive response was heard from the Conservative movement. The fences must stay up. So now events are overtaking us. Buildings built in the heyday of the suburban and small city boom of congregational construction are nearly empty, with repairs and utility costs eating up an increasingly greater percentage of a diminishing membership revenue. Our buildings are rented to churches, clubs, and civic groups. Our nursery schools still have enrollment, but we are only raising revenues, not Jews, because there are hardly any, or in fact no Jews, enrolled in the nursery schools. Yet these children from the general community do have a very positive experience within the Jewish community, and that is a good thing.

What can Federations in small communities do about this? We can and should be the facilitators and conveners of meetings with all the Rabbis in our community, provide programs that address the entire Jewish community, and should be celebrated or commemorated by the entire community. Yom HaShoah, Yom HaAtzmaut, a Harvest/Ecology/Farmers Market at Sukkot, a community interfaith model Seder are some examples.

Our Federations are the only engines that can create living bridges to modern Israel through the Partnership Together Young Emissary program, through bringing Israeli scouts, performances by Israeli High School music groups, and sponsoring Israeli and International Film Festivals in our communities for both the Jewish and general community. And we can encourage cooperation between congregations that will allow for a critical mass of participants, particularly in education and youth programs.

And if your offices are still in the inner city (as we are in E. CT), and even if they are not, we, the small Federations in small, intermediate or large cities, should be active participants in the local programs and policy discussions that center on social services and social needs in our communities. In many communities we have built too high a fence between the needy in the general community and the needy in our own community. In Eastern CT we  have members of our community still active in United Way, in struggles to feed the hungry or house the homeless, but too often, we, the “central address” of the Jewish community are distant from those efforts, and do not value the work our fellow Jews do in those efforts of Tikkun Olam. JFNA does this very well for us on a national level, but I fear we are not as active as we should be on the local level.

I am proud that my Federation, after resettling over 80 refugee families from the former Soviet Union, then resettled Kosovars, and then refugees from Hurricane Katrina. I am proud that we have a very busy food pantry in our Federation offices, that we are a United Way agency, and that we have lay leaders very active in our struggle to meet the needs of the homeless. I am proud that our Young Emissaries not only interact with all the Jewish kids in eastern Connecticut, but also visit public and parochial schools, Rotary and Lions clubs, and church groups.

I opened with an ancient drash on Bereisheet, but I will close with a drash on this week’s parsha, Chayeii Sarah and its relation to the challenges of modern Israel.

Sarah's lifetime-the span of Sarah's life-came to one hundred and twenty and seven years. 

The Rabbis tell us that Sarah’s age is spelled out like this to teach us that Sarah, throughout her life, had the innocence of a 7 year old, the beauty of a 20 year old, and the wisdom of great age. She was a very protective mother, and when Ishmael taunted Isaac, she had Ishmael and Hagar banished from the home. That is an extreme way to build a fence…but it was torn down as you shall see.

But when she died Abraham bowed low to the people of the land, the Hittites, 8 and he said to them, "If it is your wish that I remove my dead for burial, you must agree to intercede for me with Ephron son of Zohar. 9 Let him sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst."

Abraham was not too proud, and bowed low…he was the supplicant, and he was willing to bow low to those whose help he needed in order to bury his wife. He was going to give his wife a proper burial, and he even asked for a mediator to close the deal.

Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.

If you reflect on Abraham’s life you can hardly say it was easy. He left home, he wandered, he pretended that Sarah was not his wife and she was taken in to a foreigner’s home. He was childless for a long time, and then the first child he fathered was banished, and his second son was deemed unable to choose a wife for himself. So how was he blessed? I’ll get to that in a minute

Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negeb.

This was the region that Hagar had gone to.  This is perhaps the most beautiful part of the Rabbinic commentary on this parsha. Tradition tells us that Isaac felt such compassion for his father’s grief and loneliness, and desired to repair the rift that arose in the family when he was a young child and Hagar and Ishmael were banished, that he went down to Beer lahai roi to find Ishmael and Hagar. He wanted to not simply tear down the fence, but end the banishment.

 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.

Tradition tells us that Keturah was in fact Hagar, but she was renamed so as not to offend Sarah. And Isaac brought Hagar/Keturah back to Abraham who continued to live a long and fruitful life with Keturah/Hagar.

So, how was Abraham blessed in all things? His sons were reconciled, his complete family was reunited, his wife was buried properly, he provided Isaac with a good wife, and he lived to “ a good ripe age, old and contented”.

I think, however, that we must turn to Pirkei Avot to truly understand how the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.

Ben Zoma asks: Ayzehu Ashir? Who is rich? Hasameach b’chelko. One who is happy with his portion.

Ayzehu m’chubad? Who is honored? Hamechubad et habriot. One who honors all of God’s creations.

So, how does this apply to modern Israel.

We must, within Israel proper, heal the breach between Jewish and Arab Israelis. I have taken 26 groups to Israel in my 30 years, and each time I try to meet with an organization promoting peaceful co-existence.

When you take a group to Israel I urge you to add to your Missions visits to Druze villages (they have sacrificed their sons to defend Israel), to Arab and Bedouin villages (many are now encouraging their children to enter national service or even the IDF) or to programs that strengthen Jewish Arab ties. On your table is a yellow sheet listing two exceptional organizations, Ein Shemer Greenhouse and Beit Hagefen.

 And I urge you to make the real, modern, struggling Israel of Jewish, Moslem, and Christian Israelis part of all your future trips. Lower the fences, cross the fences, and discover, as President Reuven Rivlin is urging Jewish Israelis to do, that the modern state of Israel is, beyond Ashkenazic and Sephardic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and diverse. Israel can be the Tree of Life, and unlike the tree in the Garden of Eden, we should touch and taste all parts of it. And if we all touch and taste every citizen of Israel, Jew and Arab, then we, who cling to this struggling yet vibrant state, will be happy and strong. And we might meet each other, regular Americans and regular Israelis, not over a funeral but over a simcha.

May we all go from strength to strength towards peace!  Chazak v’Amatz, Strength and Courage.

Thank you.

Photos from JFNA's 2014 General Assembly


Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan

Supreme Court Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan talk about their careers during the opening plenary at the 2014 Jewish Federations of North American General Assembly Nov. 9, 2014 at National Harbor, Md.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of London talks about anti-Semitism in Europe.

Jerry Fischer and Rabbi Rachel Safman

Jerry and Rabbi Safman catch up before a plenary at the General Assembly.

Jerry Fischer and Henry Zachs

Jerry and Henry manage a quick talk before a plenary begins at the General Assembly.

Thousands to Gather Outside Washington, D.C for “Signature Event of North American Jewry” Jewish Federations of North America to Host 2014 General Assembly in Washington Nov. 9-11
Vice President Biden, Justices Breyer and Kagan, Labor Leader Herzog, Ambassador Dermer, Rabbi Sacks and many others to address assembly

Washington, D.C. – Thousands of Jewish community leaders from across the globe are preparing to convene outside Washington, D.C. for The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly November 9-11. Featuring dozens of speakers from across the political, philanthropic, business, religious and cultural landscapes, the GA will gather attendees from 124 different communities throughout North America, Israel and Europe for what is regularly referred to as the “signature event of North American Jewry.”

A wide range of speakers will be joining the GA to address participants, including Vice President Joe Biden, who will deliver remarks on November 10. In addition, Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan will open the General Assembly in a November 9 session hosted by NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg. Other sessions and plenaries will feature Isaac Herzog, Chairman of the Israeli Labor Party & Leader of the Opposition; Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer; Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks; Academy Award-winning actress and activist Marlee Matlin; NBC’s political journalists Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell; and many more.

The GA program will also host local, global and policy leaders, such as: Alon Davidi, Mayor of Sderot, Israel; Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Rachel Botsman, author and founder of Collaborative Lab; Valerie Green, General Counsel for the Corporation for National and Community Service; Josh Harris, owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils; bestselling author A.J. Jacobs; Mark Wilf, owner of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings; Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf; and many, many more.

Attendees at the GA will have the opportunity to attend a wide range of panels during the three-day conference, touching on numerous topics holding tremendous importance to the worldwide Jewish community. Panel topics include:

    Rising anti-Semitic attitudes confronting Jewish communities in Europe

    The constant dangers facing communities in Southern Israel

    The future of Jewish education in North America

    Freedom of choice in marriage in Israel

    The rising challenge posed by the BDS movement

    Jewish life on college campuses throughout North America

    Improving disability inclusion in the Jewish community

This year’s General Assembly will also showcase “FEDovations,” a series of sessions in which Federations from across North America will share ideas and programs that have had a tremendous impact in their local communities. Over 200 local Federation programs and activities were submitted, highlighting their most successful initiatives, with 54 chosen to present at the conference.

The GA will come to a close on Tuesday, November 11th, with an extraordinary closing plenary commemorating Veterans Day. A special ceremony will honor American Jewish veterans of both the United States and Israeli armed forces. The plenary will also feature remarks by top Israeli political leaders and numerous musical performances, including one by the winner of the Israeli version of “American Idol.”

The Jewish Federations of North America represents 153 Federations and over 300 smaller communities without Federations across North America, which collectively raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs at home, in Israel and in 70 nations worldwide. Jewish Federations also manage more than $15 million in endowments.  These collective efforts make JFNA and its local Federations one of the world’s largest charitable networks. Through JFNA, local Federations have sent over $4.1 billion to Israel over the past 15 years (1998 to 2012).

Federations also have provided emergency funds in crises, both at home and abroad. This past summer, Jewish Federations’ “Stop the Sirens” campaign raised more than $54 million in support of communities in southern Israel under siege from rocket attacks from Gaza. The organization is also working closely with partners at home and abroad to provide much-needed aid during the turbulent situation in Eastern Ukraine. Domestically, Federations have lent support in a number of unexpected and urgent situations, including during recent flooding in Colorado and Detroit.

Federations support social service projects in their local communities, in Israel and around the world. The organization has taken a leading role in pushing for improved long-term care for vulnerable populations, including through a historic number of initiatives for aging Holocaust survivors in concert with the White House and Department of Health and Human Services. JFNA has also advocated strongly for needed foreign aid to Israel, tax reforms to improve charitable giving in the U.S., and greater rights for people with disabilities.

WHAT: The 2014 General Assembly

WHEN: November 9-11, 2014

WHERE: The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, National Harbor, MD

REGISTER: Registration for the GA is free to approved media. Members of the media can contact Max Samis at for online registration information. Registration will also be available on-site beginning on Sunday, November 9th. NOTE: Additional logistical details for media who wish to cover the Vice President’s remarks on November 10th are forthcoming.


The Jewish Federations, collectively among the top 10 charities on the continent, protects and enhances the well-being of Jews worldwide through the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charity and social justice) and Torah (Jewish learning).