GA delegates see the Israel beyond the headlines

Delegates from 156 federations and some 400 independent communities are taking part in the GA.Over 4,000 North Americans are seeing a different side of Israel this week than they are used to viewing on their television screens. As delegates to …

Delegates from 156 federations and some 400 independent communities are taking part in the GA.Over 4,000 North Americans are seeing a different side of Israel this week than they are used to viewing on their television screens. As delegates to the 72nd General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the 4,300 visitors are converging for 4 days to bond with their 2000 Israeli counterparts, to discuss issues related to the Jewish world, and to learn about Israeli society in all its facets including volunteerism, philanthropy, women’s issues, absorption, hi-tech, biotech, museums, and kibbutzim.

Over 6,000 people filled the Jerusalem International Convention Center Sunday night for the gala opening of the GA. Following a moment of silence in memory of the victims of Saturday’s Istanbul synagogue bombings, Israeli musical icons Achinoam Nini and David Broza performed and President Moshe Katsav and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed the crowd.

Delegates from 156 federations and some 400 independent communities are taking part in the assembly. Representatives of dozens of organizations, institutions and movements
will also be attending the GA, vying for the delegates’ attention.

The UJC, the predominant voice representing North American Jewry, was established to improve the quality of Jewish life worldwide. The UJC raises some $2 billion annually to support community projects in the U.S., Israel, and around the world.

UJC officials expressed satisfaction with the
large number of delegates who arrived, despite
the U.S. State Department’s recommendation to
Americans to avoid visiting the region.

“It’s heartening to see the hotels and the streets filled in Jerusalem,” said Michael Gelman the co-chair of the GA at an opening press conference on Sunday.

Nachman Shai, the Director-General of UJC-Israel praised the gathering as a show of solidarity with Israel saying, “This is the biggest GA ever. We have two Jewish communities gathered at the same time and the same place.”

This is the second time the GA is being held in
Israel. The decision to do so was taken at the
end of the first assembly, held in Israel five
years ago, marking the state’s 50th
anniversary.

According to UJC’s president and CEO Stephen Hoffman, the organization will consider reconvening in Israel earlier than the planned 2008 GA, but that the venues had already been set for the intervening years.

On the first day full day of the GA, delegates will participate in a “Day of Dialogue” on a variety of issues affecting the Jewish people today: philanthropy; safeguarding democracy; aliya and Jewish migration; the public and private image of the Jewish people; and the future of the State of Israel.

Other issues to be discussed in some 250
workshops, meetings and lectures include
integrating Jewish gay organizations in the
community, encouraging joint projects for
Jewish communities and Israeli local
authorities, and the situation of Jews in
Ethiopia.

In the afternoon, the 6000 participants of the GA, including representatives from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ukraine, and Venezuela – will march from the convention center to downtown Jerusalem. Mayor Uri Lupoliansky will greet the marchers, as will hundreds of merchants, restaurateurs and residents as they end their evening roaming the downtown area, shopping and tasting the local fare.

The next day, each participant will choose from 60 trips offered throughout the country, each offering the opportunity to interact with different people, places, and projects. Themes include volunteerism, philanthropy, women, immigrants, hi-tech, biotech, museums, and kibbutzim.

“Over half of the day trips have to do with the Israeli economy and the high tech sector,” said Shai.

“We want to show these visitors to Israel thar ‘it’s all business as usual’, show them a diverse and vibrant Israel through all the different activities and trips we have lined up for the participants,” added Eli Hurwitz the head of the Israeli Committee for the GA and the chairman of the board of Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva.

According to Hurwitz, holding the GA in Israel “underscores as never before the deep partnership between Israel and North America.”

Both Sharon and Katsav made reference to that partnership in their speeches which decried Saturday’s twin bombings in Istanbul, and also encouraged the North American Jewish community to immigrate to Israel

“During the last few years, our enemies have risen against us again; here in Israel by murderous terror attacks, and all over the world,” said Sharon, calling the Turkish attacks “a hard reminder.”

“Our enemies have yet to understand that the
Jewish people cannot be broken,” he said to a
standing ovation. “Can’t be broken and will
never be broken.”

Sharon also encouraged aliyah, saying Israel
would bring thousands of immigrants from the
Diaspora, including the United States and
Canada.

“Aliyah will strengthen Israel and ensure its
future,” he said. “A strong Israel is a
guarantee for preserving the existence of the
Jewish people. We are waiting for you here. We
need you. We need you now more than ever.”

“Fifty-five years after independence, the
majority of world Jewry still lives abroad, and
most of them have never been in Israel,” said
Katsav. “Aliyah to Israel should be on the
agenda of every Jew abroad.”

While mass aliya from North America is not likely, the GA leadership has a more modest goal of sparking a resurgence in tourism to Israel.

According to GA co-chair Susan Gelman, “At the end of the conference, there will be a call for a resurgence of regular travel to Israel by North American Jews.”