Douglas “Woody” Ostrow left the 82nd annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America with “a lot of optimism,” he said.
Ostrow, the board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was one of about a dozen Pittsburghers who attended the conference, held from Nov. 10 to 12 at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma (convention center).
The GA is held every fifth year in Israel.
The optimism felt by Ostrow stemmed from the opening session Monday, Nov. 11, during which several young Jews addressed the conclave, sharing unique stories of how they were vibrantly embracing their Judaism, according to Ostrow.
“They all were under the age of 25,” Ostrow said, “and they were all engaged in their Judaism. One had made aliya, and one or two were working in Jewish agencies in the States.”
In light of the results of the recent Pew study, Ostrow found that the energy of the young people was encouraging.
“These [survey] results always sound dire,” he said. “But look, we’ve been going out of business for 5,000 years, and we’re still here.”
At the GA, Ostrow found that Federations from across North America are all dealing with similar challenges, he said, including the retention of Jewish youth.
“The Pew study was on everyone’s list,” he said. “Everyone’s concerned about assimilation and losing our youth.”
Support for Jewish camps, day schools, and, especially youth trips to Israel, is critical in combatting the trends predicted by Pew, Ostrow said.
“No one comes back from Israel at that age without having their life changed,” he said.
The Israeli government also recognizes the importance of these immersive trips to the Jewish state, and understands “the symbiosis between Israel and the Jews of the diaspora,” Ostrow said.
To that end, it was announced at the GA that the Israeli government would be raising $100 million to help fund programs to boost Jewish identity in the diaspora, including initiatives similar to Birthright Israel.
“As the Israeli economy has gotten stronger and the middle class is growing, they can contribute more philanthropically,” Ostrow said. “They see themselves as a partner. Not every Jew is going to live in Israel, but they are conscious now that we need a strong diaspora.”
The aim is to have the $100 million contribution from Israel matched by the Federations, said Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of Pittsburgh’s Federation, who also attended the GA.
While the parameters of the funding initiative have not yet been defined, it may “change the dynamic between worldwide Jewry and Israeli Jewry,” according to Finkelstein.
There were plenty of discussions at the GA among Federation leaders about strategies to leverage the energy engendered by Birthright trips, how to get kids to return to Israel, how to get more kids to go to Jewish camps, and the importance of Jewish preschool, Finkelstein said.
“I think a lot of Federations are already there [in promoting these activities], including ours,” he said. “And Pittsburgh may be a little ahead. But we need to do more. There are tons of people we’re not connecting with yet.”
In addition to the Pew survey and its implications, other topics raised at the GA included the threat of a nuclear Iran, emphasized in an address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned that the agreement that was then still in the negotiation phase was a “bad deal.”
Netanyahu also spoke about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
“It cannot be that the Palestinians are forever pampered by the international community,” he told the GA. “It’s time that the international community, certainly the serious members of the international community, understand this is a two-way street, because peace is not a one-way street and it won’t be.”
Other speakers at the conference included Israeli President Shimon Peres and the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks.
The “highlight” of the conference, for both Finkelstein and Ostrow, was a service at the section of the Western Wall recently designated for egalitarian prayer.
“We met at City Hall [in Jerusalem] and marched to the Kotel,” Finkelstein said. “Most of the people who came from Pittsburgh participated in the egalitarian service. It was the first time many of us could [worship there] in an egalitarian way.”
The newly designated section of the Kotel was the compromise solution conceived by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to satisfy Orthodox leaders — who wanted exclusive control of the Wall — and those desiring a space for egalitarian prayer.
“It was powerful being there for an egalitarian service,” Finkelstein said.
“It was exciting,” Ostrow said. “It’s been an issue for a long, long time.”
Sharansky’s solution was “uniquely Israeli,” Ostrow said.
“No one is happy, but everyone’s going to live with it. I can appreciate where this won’t satisfy some people, but at least everyone has an opportunity to pray where they want to.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)