DENVER — The Jewish community must abandon the paradigm of Jewish continuity as an end in itself, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer told an audience of almost 3,000 delegates at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) last Sunday afternoon in Denver.
The 80th annual GA, a three-day event, had representatives from 115 federations and six networked communities, said Judy Silverman, a co-chair of the gathering.
Speaking at the opening plenary, Rabbi Kaunfer said he and all participants are searching for “the new way to inspire the next generation and to engage the current ones.”
Judaism offers “a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection,” he said.
Rabbi Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of the New York-based educational institution Mechon Hadar, was named twice as one of the top 50 rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine. He is serving as rabbi-in-residence for the GA.
“Our heritage is relevant, and that is the reason we need a Jewish future,” he said, adding that Torah, “the sum total of Jewish text and sources,” [is] “the pathway to meaning, substance and connection.”
In the organized Jewish community, Torah is often sidelined, the rabbi said. Sometimes, he noted, it takes the form of “a pithy quote… before we really get down to business.”
Torah has “the power to push us to ask bold questions,” Rabbi Kaunfer said.
As well, he added, “we have to make Torah accessible to all. We have to stop imagining Torah as only for the clergy and for the elite… We would never limit the pursuit of social justice, of charity, of service, to a few elite.”
Kathy Manning, chair of the board of trustees of JFNA, said this year’s GA theme, “The original Jewish social network,” is an accurate representation of what goes on at the event. “It’s something we Jews were doing long before Mark Zuckerberg was even a glint in his mother’s eye.”
The economic collapse in the United States “has fundamentally changed the nature of the North American Jewish community,” Manning said. Federations are now helping community members, including many former donors, deal with loss of their jobs, homes and savings, she noted, adding that Jewish schools with declining enrolment have closed or are at risk of closing.
U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Judaism “inspires us to do great things, but perhaps the greatest gift of our tradition is that nothing we do can be done without community.”
Although many of the challenges discussed at the plenary were specific to the United States, Russ Joseph, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Jewish Federation, said, “I think the general principles that guide the work that we’re doing are clearly applicable anywhere in the world.
“We in Canada, and especially in smaller Jewish communities, lose sight of the sense that there are other Jews out there.” Participating in an event like the GA, with thousands of others working for a common goal, “really does energize what you do,” he said.
Adam Singer, president of the Calgary Jewish Federation, said that despite the challenges facing the Jewish community, “there’s great optimism too.”
Educator and CJN columnist Daniel Held, who left Toronto to study for his PhD at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said it’s “phenomenal” to see Jewish learning play a central role at the GA.
One of five Canadian Wexner Foundation fellows, Held said it’s important for him to continue to be connected to Canada and Canadians. “It’s kind of ironic that you have to come to Denver to meet the other Canadians.”
Mordecai Walfish, also a Wexner fellow, is a Hamilton, Ont., native studying for a year in Israel. He credited Rabbi Kaunfer for his “bold and really useful” message.
Like Held, Walfish was looking forward to attending UIA Federations Canada reception on Monday. “I’ve been in the States for four years. I’m excited to reconnect with my Canadian [counterparts].”
He said the GA is “a great way to see people face to face that I’ve only had e-mail contact with in the last few years.”
McGill student Lainie Schwartz, a native of Winnipeg and a MASA fellow with Hillel Montreal, was hoping to network, hear interesting speakers and meet like-minded students.
Montrealer Elaine Dubrovsky, a JFNA board member and a past chair of Federation CJA’s women’s campaign who wanted to focus on learning about what’s going on in Israel, attended a session called “The big blue tent and Jewish dissent,” featuring a play about a CEO of a Jewish foundation confronting an anti-Zionist playwright and a disillusioned donor, among other characters. Every federation is facing similar issues, Dubrovsky said.