JERUSALEM — More a festive celebration than a thoughtful presentation of ideas and policies, the opening of the General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities here on Sunday night was marked by the enthusiastic cheering and support of some 3,000 delegates from North America and Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Any sense of sombre occasion suggested by the headlines in the Israeli media, which indicated that the global financial crisis would impinge upon and dominate the four-day gathering, was nowhere in evidence at the gala opening.
Songs and classical music featuring youthful performers were the entertainment fare offered to the large audience, which responded with occasionally raucous release.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered the keynote address at the outset of the proceedings, even before the national anthems had been sung, and then quickly left the large auditorium.
He acknowledged his lame-duck prime ministerial status early in his remarks. “Although this is most likely my last appearance before this distinguished crowd as prime minister of Israel, this is by no means a goodbye,” he said, without elaborating.
The outgoing prime minister cited the by now familiar list of “complex challenges” facing the Jewish state, at the top of which were “the peace process between Israel and its neighbours, the constant threat of terrorism, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the global financial crisis, socio-economic gaps in Israel and the education challenge.”
Then, in acknowledgment of the fact that more than 800 delegates in the room were students, he called for the increased engagement of Jewish youth worldwide in communal life, adding that “there are also other, more silent, covert concerns, the dangers that we discover when it is almost, sometimes, too late – a weakening affinity of Jewish youth in the Diaspora to Israel is one such issue. The distancing of the future generations from the most basic principles of the Jewish faith is another such issue. And the gradual decrease in Jewish demographics is another such an issue.”
The prime minister also reiterated the call for the free world to increase measures “to prevent Iran from achieving its devious goals.”
The theme of the program was “a celebration of partnership” between the Diaspora and the State of Israel.
Mark and Jane Wilf, the North American GA chairs, emphasized that younger Jews must be viewed as full members of the partnership.
Israeli GA chair Shari Arison urged the partnership to try to lead the world in finding solutions to pressing problems through the application of Jewish values.
The annual GA meeting brings together professional and lay leaders from 157 Jewish federations and 400 networked communities across North America
Delegates at the GA were to choose from a wide range of seminar and plenary discussions on Monday. On Tuesday, they were to head off by bus for site visits throughout the country to see firsthand how UJC funds are being put to work.
Usually held in North America, this year’s assembly was originally planned as essentially a large celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary. Many commentators and writers pointed out that the gathering had been overshadowed, if not overtaken, by two events: the global economic and financial crisis, and the impending elections in Israel.
“The financial crisis has generated fears and profound uncertainty about the ability of the American Jewish federations… to continue to provide the desperately needed social services,” wrote Jerusalem Post reporter Haviv Rettig.
“This was supposed to be a moving meeting between the two largest [Jewish groups] in the world,” the GA’s chief planner Nachman Shai, senior vice-president of UJC Israel told the Jerusalem Post. “In the end, it is clear the discussion will be dominated by the [economic] crisis.”
But not all participants, at least on the first night of the GA, seemed too overwrought by the implications for the GA and for future UJC projects of the financial crisis.
Nelson Halpern, attending his sixth GA from Calgary, said he felt very good about the assembly. “They rushed Prime Minister Olmert out. He did not have much of an impact. After the anthems, it got to feel warm. The musicians were prodigies, all immigrants. It was incredible. They are our future, too.”
Halpern said he planned to attend as many sessions as possible. He was especially proud of the 15-person delegation from Calgary, among the more than 100 who attended from Canada. “There is lots of support for Israel.”
Arlene Greenberg of Montreal was attending her first GA, as a member of the delegation from Ottawa, where she was born. “It’s amazing for me to see this many people dedicated to Israel,” she enthused. “People come from so far away, from the States and Canada, and there is a common thread, a bond – the giving and the dedication.”
Greenberg’s sister, Janice, from Ottawa, found some of the organizational aspects confusing and irritating. Nevertheless, she was moved by the fact that there was a “special emphasis placed on the next generation.”