November 16, 2007
So this was my first GA… The General Assembly - The Superbowl of Judaism in all of its glory, in Nashville, Tennessee.
I arrived at this enormous hotel - The Gaylord Opryland Hotel Resort and Convention Center, but it might as well have been the Miami Orange Bowl. I checked in - “Nice hotel room!” I thought. “Remember, to thank the UJC for such a lovely overseas invitation.”
Later, I walked half way across the hotel - past this Christian Zionist convention that was also taking place there and Jews young and old began to appear. They were draped in blue name tags - pins with the Israeli and American flags intertwined and Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies in hand. These treats were available free everywhere within the GA - Don’t ask! I was honored with a customized name tag festooned with a blue ribbon hanging from the pin titled “Speaker” and a yellow one titled “Press.” As I passed by my fellow super Jews, I received nods of recognition - The honor of being a GA speaker.
I managed to sneak my way in to the Opening Plenary which was titled “One People, One Destiny” - A spiel on the collective Federation system’s ability to do a world of good. I heard from inspirational US and Israeli leaders about the impact of community volunteerism and teamwork. Both my countries’ national anthems are sung and then one of the highlight of the plenary stepped onto the stage - Chair of the Democratic Committee: Howard Dean. Dean made a political speech accusing Republicans of being less diverse than the Democratic Party, but I wasn’t feeling it. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was scheduled to speak that afternoon, canceled her visit because of her responsibilities as the chief negotiator with the Palestinians. I wasn’t surprised. She was replaced by Isaac Herzog, minister of Welfare and Social Services, who spoke about the upcoming Mid East Peace Summit in Annapolis, calling it a “golden opportunity,” stressing that Israel is taking a “sober” approach to the summit.
I spent the next 24-48 hours shmoozing. Part of that involved meeting other young Jewish leaders - though I have to say we were few in numbers. I ate corned beef with JAFI Foreign Press spokesman Michael Jankelowitz and dozens of other Journalism majors from various U.S. Universities. I spoke on a panel for JAFI’s “Do the Write Thing Program,” along with Jewish World Affairs correspondent for the JPost, Haviv Rettig. He’s awesome! I shared with budding cub reporters what it has been like to be a journalist in Israel and how in G-ds name I even acquired such a position.
I had several wonderful reunions with my fellow ROI 120ers like Esther Kustanowitz, Ahava Zarembski, Todd Schechter and Michael Novack…
I ran into some of my favorite Jewish communal leaders including the UJC’S Israel Director, Nachman Shai - (who I sat next to Nashville to NY on my way home, but that’s a whole other story) and Director General for Aliyah and Klitah at the Jewish Agency, Oded Salomon, Ophir Pines, Chair of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, and the list goes on and on and on…
I popped into various breakout sessions and plenaries including: “A New Approach to Investing in Israel,” A screening of the delightfully handsome Ari Sandel’s film “West Bank Story,” (An Academy Award Winner, By the way!) Quite hilarious actually… It features forbidden love between Israeli soldier David and the Palestinian Fatima.
I then headed out into “the Nash” for some good ole country classic fun, though I didn’t take it to the full frontal level of Pork Ribs and table top dancers. What a fun city with a whole lotta spice and spunk. But I don’t think the city has any Jews (I mean I know that they do, but not even sure where.) The Nash probably never saw so many Jews, or Israelis for that matter, converge on their itty bitty city…EVER!
By the last day of the trip, my jet lag was starting to take its toll and on top of that I still had the trans-Atlantic ride home to look forward to. The whole purpose of my flying half way across the world had nonetheless arrived - the last day was when I would speak on a breakout session about Jewish Peoplehood, appropriately titled “Young Jewish Leaders Explore Peoplehood.” Until this gig, I was never really sure what Peoplehood meant. After much research and picking the brain of every Jew I knew, I was able to draw my own conclusions and came up with a pretty descent speech. Others on my panel were David Bryfman, an NYU Ph.D Candidate - the audience just loved him - he even got a couple of standing ovations. Esther Kustanowitz of Jewlicious - and Senior Editor of PresenTense Magazine was the next speaker (Note: I’m a big fan of her now!). Next, there was Ahava Zerembski, Founder and President of the Yesod-Masad Initiative.
When it was my turn I had 2 minutes to convince the room that I had something meaningful and moving to say. I began with my definition of Peoplehood - which to me is a comprehensive sense of belonging to Judaism - Not Judaism uniquely as a religion or history or ethnicity or culture - Judaism simply as a whole; I spoke of my struggle to find Jewish Peoplehood outside of Israel and how even as a religious and secular Jew in America, I felt I had zero connection. I revealed my path of finding Peoplehood in Israel and though I am still unable to articulate what in fact it is - I do feel it here. How can you not when you live, sleep and breath it in the Holyland? Historically I feel it as I walk through the old city walls. In terms of culture and Nationality, I live within the framework of the Jewish Calendar - Now the holidays are my national holidays. I see my fellow black hat Jews everyday on the street. I concluded with the opportunities Peoplehood has afforded me. Finding my peoplehood meant finding a career - finding my life’s purpose and wanting to educate the world on all I have learned and love. The last point I brought home in the form of a trailer for a film I am working on along with Jaron Gilinsky, Elad Gefen and Yosef Adest titled: Destination: Zion.
Then our panel was cut short for the one and only Condeleeza Rice whose security team really shook the city (and the hotel especially) up - well you can just imagine. Condi said that she believed most Israelis would give up most of the West Bank in exchange for peace. Rice said Israelis today believe that the establishment of a responsible Palestinian state would be to their benefit, and that most Arab countries no longer ask whether Israel will exist, but what the conditions for peace are. Rice also added that everyone had waited too long for peace and urged forward movement.
After her speech I headed home feeling a little wiser, a bit more connected and at peace. It was a comfort to me to see at least a handful of Jews dedicated to Jewish Unity and the future and survival of Israel and the Jewish people at large. This was especially comforting given a survey I had read days earlier that stated that according to North American, non orthodox Jews aged 18-35, “It wouldn’t really be a big deal, if Israel ceased to exist.”
Now that’s scary.
On my El Al Flight home from JFK to Tel Aviv I sat amidst an Evangelical Christian tour to the Holyland. Me and 60 Christians and a Black Hat Haredi Jew sitting to my right. When we got to our seats on the plane… the Haredi and I just looked over at one another and smiled. At that moment, I felt peoplehood in all its glory. Though he and I were completely different, we both felt like family - especially given the company.
Get to next year’s GA - Scheduled to be held November 2008, in Jerusalem, Israel!