JFNA President:
'We need to recommit ourselves to one another as one people'

Jewish Federations of North America at GA 2018 in Israel: 'We've let our differences define us. We will find answers if we work together"

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Jerry Silverman
Jerry Silverman
JFNA/Eyal Warshovsky

Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) President Jerry Silverman spoke at the General Assembly (GA) at the Exhibition Grounds (Ganei HaTa’arucha) in Tel Aviv Monday. Over 1,200 members of Jewish federations from across North America are participating in the conference. The following is Silverman's full speech:

As many of you know, our work at jewish federation is guided by three ideals.

“klal yisrael” – a deep and abiding love for all jewish people, and a sacred promise that we will be there for each other.

“chesed.” caring for the most vulnerable. We will never turn away from people in need.
And “chinnuch” fulfulling the promise. The promise of strong, vibrant, and inclusive communities, rich in transformative jewish learning and jewish life.

And all of that includes protecting the unbreakable bond of the jewish diaspora with israel.

And yes, this year that bond has been tested. But that just means that we need to recommit ourselves to one another as one people.

That’s why the theme of our annual conference is: “let’s talk.” Israeli, american and canadian. Orthodox, conservative, reform and non-affiliated. Left and right.

We’ve let our differences define us. And the questions we ask tell a story about how much we have to discuss and how differently we view the world.

As north americans and israelis, we ask very similar questions, but each through a different lens. North americans ask: after nearly a century of unwavering support, do israelis really think our opinions should not be considered when it comes to policies that affect us? Israelis ask: why should anyone other than israelis have a say in the decisions of our democratically elected government? North americans wonder how israel can claim to be the nation state of all jewish people, when it doesn’t recognize the value of jewish practice of 90 percent of jews living outside of israel, while israelis feel that, well, we live here; so what makes you think you have the right to define what it means to be jewish in the jewish state?

How is it possible, north americans may ask, that the chair of the board from brandeis or a student from florida are questioned or prevented from entering israel because of their activism and views; is this a democracy or isn’t it? Israelis ask: what gives anyone the right to question our security decisions when we are the ones under constant threat?

These are some of the questions of two proud communities, who have learned to thrive in two very different environments. Two members of one family who operate in their own political realities, where north americans are seeking validation, empathy, partnership and understanding from israel. Israelis living in a sovereign state have largely been insulated from a global conversation about jewish peoplehood.

I don’t have all the answers to all these questions. But I can tell you this: we will only find the answers if we work together.

One of yesterday’s speakers, professor gil troy, said: “(diaspora jews) can become israelis at any time, which makes them a species of citizens-to-be. Even in choosing not to become israelis, the fact that israel is the jewish people’s home means that non-israeli jews remain, as it were, stakeholders in the jewish state.”

I agree. That’s one of the reasons that for the entirety of israel’s existence, jewish federations have worked to support israel.

We’ve helped build cities. Fought for the freedom of jews around the world and worked to bring them home to the jewish state. Partnered with programs for israelis who needed a helping hand to reach their academic and professional potential, and provided for those who needed special care.

And it’s also why I believe that yes, we do have a role to play in having influence on israeli policies that affect us as a people. Because israel is more than a piece of land, more than a sovereign nation. It is a concept, an ideal, of what defines us as a people, and the result of god’s covenant with all the jewish people.

And israel needs world jewry. It is strengthened by having partners that model vibrant jewish life outside her borders.

Where is the line between decisions that affect only israelis who live here vs. Those that affect jews worldwide?

Together we need to find it.

That’s why we have jewish federation. Federation is the hub of jewish communal life. It is the ultimate nexus point, and it’s here where these discussions can and must take place. We don’t have to agree, but we do need to appreciate and respect our differences. And, more importantly, we need to find new ways to move forward together.

Last week I received an email from one of my colleagues, the jewish federation’s ceo from greater metrowest new jersey. Travelling here in israel with nearly 500 community members, he wrote: Many of us were crying today because we made history. On the first ever train from jerusalem to ofakim, we held the first ever minyan and torah reading by orthodox, chabad, reform, and conservative rabbis.
Rabbis from all these different streams came together to lead prayer. (and on a moving train!)
Examples of bridging differences can be found everywhere. You just have to look for them. Or make them happen.

In the next day, before you leave, I challenge each of you: ask the hard questions. And find answers. Together. We have such dynamic leadership across the jewish world.

Today, how we are blessed in our jewish federations with great volunteer leadership.

From young leadership cabinet chairs, simone knego & mike teplitzky to our national women’s philanthropy chair wendy abrams, to our national campaign chair suzanne barton grant and our officers sheryl kimerling, jodi schwartz, cindy shapira and richard sandler. You have given above and beyond to the jewish people the past three years, and for many years before that and, I am sure, for many years to come.

Richard: a chair and an exec develop a relationship that is difficult to describe. I can’t thank-you enough for your leadership the past 3 years, your mentorship and for the way in which you have guided the organization. I look forward to our next chapter as friends. Ellen: thank-you for lending richard to us, we know it is not easy, and we appreciate all of your patience over the past years.

I want to welcome our newly elected leaders.

Mark: we have been discussing this for a while and tomorrow it begins. You have a great team in jodi, harold, julie, suzanne, wendy and michael and simone. You are following in a great tradition of leadership, and you take on an enormous responsibility at this moment in time. No one is more ready to step up to that challenge than you.

As many of you know this is my last GA in this role. I want to thank all of you for the privilege of serving these past 10 years. I want to thank my family for their love and support, my children and their significant others, and none more than my wife erica. I am also thrilled that my siblings and cousins are here today.

Each of us has an important role to play, not only in achieving our shared goals, but in how we achieve them.

As always, I turn to our tradition. Each time we finish reading a book of the torah, we say in one voice: chazak, chazak v’nitchazak. Be strong, be strong and we will strengthen one another.

This is my fondest wish for us all – at this time – and always. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek. And thank-you.

Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) President Jerry Silverman
JFNA/Eyal Warshovsky