Nov. 19, 2004
What was missing at the GA?

By URIEL HEILMAN
CLEVELAND, Ohio

This week, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations put on quite a show for the 2,800 or so Jews that turned out in Cleveland for the United Jewish Communities' General Assembly.

There was dancing and musical performances, testimonials by Jews rescued from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and a nighttime trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that provided a rare opportunity to watch Uzi Dayan almost get groovy to the tunes of a band called Yiddish Cup. The evening culminated in a slightly inebriated rendition of Hava Nagila by the younger crowd under a huge model of Pink Floyd's The Wall as the midnight hour approached.

But even as the Jews in Cleveland feasted on cocktail franks and sparred over too-small trays of sushi, some were asking where was the meat of a conference that used to be a must-go for the American Jewish leadership.

This time, some major American Jewish groups did not even bother to show up to what has become the largest yearly gathering of American Jews. The relatively poor attendance at this year's assemblage-last year's G.A., held in Jerusalem, was about double the size-had conference exhibitors wondering whether it was worth their money to trek out to the Midwest to hawk their wares.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose speech here was supposed to be one of the highlights of the conference, canceled his plans to attend even before the death of Yasser Arafat. He chose instead to send his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom. Likewise, Shimon Peres was scheduled to speak at the conference, but he, too, canceled his plans to travel to Cleveland.

Some conference attendees attributed the lackluster attendance of this year's conference to its location. Last year the event was in Jerusalem, so it drew far more people than usual. In 2002 it was in Philadelphia, a major East Coast city, and the year before that it was held in Washington, just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Both of those conferences drew about 4,000 people. Downtown Cleveland, by contrast, has the feel of a ghost town even at high noon, and November is not the best time of year to go to a city entering its wintertime deep freeze.

To be sure, there were plenty of conference attendees who said they were impressed by the gathering and were glad they came. It provided an excellent opportunity for federations from mid-size and small American cities to hobnob with some Jewish community bigwigs and pick up tips on everything from strategic planning and fund raising to public speaking. That, after all, should be expected from a conference of federations, which are the central conduit for Jewish social services in local American communities.

It also provided an opportunity for Israelis to come and network with Americans, from representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is funded in large part by Jewish federations in North America, to Israelis from the Etzion bloc hoping to promote tourism to their settlements.

But the G.A. needs to be something more, said many of those who came to Cleveland-and those who skipped it this year. The G.A. needs to be a forum to talk about some of the broader issues facing American Jewry and plan for the future. It needs to be not only about how to bring more dollars into federation coffers, but how to bring more Judaism into the hearts and minds of American Jews.

As the planes unloaded in Cleveland on Sunday with perfume-scented Southern Jewish belles and turtleneck-clad federation hipsters from places like Tucson, a ballroom in Brooklyn was filling up with about 2,000 black-hatted Chabad hasidim gathered to mark the end of a conference focused on strategies for bringing non-Orthodox Jews closer to Orthodox religious observance.

With demographic studies showing American Jewish numbers and commitment steadily declining, Chabad officials say their mission could not be more urgent.

Why is the G.A. not also making the assimilation of American Jews a central priority-"renaissance and renewal" in UJC jargon? That's not the point of a federation conference, organizers said. But as the largest annual gathering of American Jewish organizational leaders, and faced with the demographic problems of American Jewry, the question on the minds of many was how it could afford not to.