It is a great honor to address this year’s General Assembly from the heart of Jerusalem and I am delighted to join you this morning, for the first time as President of the State of Israel.
I must say, after three years of working side by side with the Jewish Federations of North America, as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, this feels a little like a homecoming. The close partnership I shared with Mark Wilf, JFNA's Chair of the Board of Trustees and with Eric Fingerhut, JFNA President and CEO, and their team, was always both productive and enjoyable. (I'd like also to recognize this Assembly's chairs, Ann and Jeremy Pava- thank you for your remarkable efforts which enabled this important event to materialize.)
Nearly two years into this existential state of distance, Israel and North American Jewry- both modern day marvels, face their own version of the same unnerving question: "What's Next?" The first answer leaves me optimistic. In viewing this distinguished forum of leaders, volunteers, dedicated staff of all ages, from a myriad of organizations all across America, it is clear that 20 + months of Covid have inadvertently reaffirmed the deep significance of community, the unique strength of the established Jewish organizations, and the power of solidarity.
We have witnessed the extreme relevance of the Federation system- otherwise taken for granted, but during the pandemic absolutely critical for survival of so many Jewish communities; We encountered the wealth of experience, knowledge and resources which enabled the well-established organizations to prove their unparalleled value within the community; We saw JFNA exhibit outstanding leadership, on a national level, and step up for the collective, at a time when strong leadership was urgently needed. This is not praise- this is fact.
The organized Jewish community rallied and moved beyond its comfort zone. We saw this all over North America, Europe, and Latin America. The categorical value of the Federation system, mostly for individuals in need, at times Jew and non-Jew alike, as much as for families and congregations, became more visible than ever. I applaud my friends in each of the Federations for your inspirational work on behalf of the Jewish collective. מסירות נפש – The self sacrifice you have displayed will not be forgotten.
At the same time, as we contemplate "What's Next" for the future of the Jewish community, outside of this tight circle the core commitment to Jewish Peoplehood is under threat. No matter how we break down the numbers, there is no doubt that being Jewish, and love of Israel, is becoming a sensitive, complex issue for the young generation of North American Jews. Now, more than ever before.
It is almost too painful to express aloud, but an increasing number of young Jews no longer feel a bond with the Jewish collective. Too many American Jewish youths are disinterested in what being Jewish means and in the complex understanding of the realities and challenges facing Israel, and are too willing to accept distorted labels and libels against the Jewish State. At the same time, far too many Israelis show little interest in Jewish life outside of Israel, and lack a nuanced understanding of their sisters and brothers in the Diaspora.
Here we are among friends, so let me be clear, as I have repeatedly stated in numerous occasions: the two epic centers of Jewish life are growing apart. This is a threat to the very existence of the pillars of עם ישראל. Right now, today, we must declare our urgent duty and overreaching goal, to strengthen our shared sense of peoplehood, to enhance and deepen the links between us.
I cannot imagine a world in which Israel and North American Jewry are not intimately tied to each other. And I say this at a time when many Jews face hatred and antisemitism also in the United States. I cannot imagine a Jewish People who are not responsible for each other, a People whose prayers do not include each other, for whom the axiom of"כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה" is hollow.
I cannot imagine a Jewish world vacant of community and solidarity. I cannot imagine a world in which Jews in America are fearful of living publicly as Jews and experience attacks and intimidation, and the Jewish collective, as well as Israelis, do not feel compelled to act on their behalf, just as I cannot imagine a world in which the existence of Israel in questioned, and American Jews do not defend the Jewish State.
I cannot imagine a world in which the two epic centers of Judaism function in solitude and disconnect, without working to build bridges back to each other. We must all act together. We have the leadership, the strength, the resources, the structure to overcome any setback. We must do this.
As President of the State of Israel, I will make it my mission to strengthen the lines of communication, to reinforce the underlying bond and mutual responsibility. As President I will act with every group, every individual, every denomination, to ensure that North American Jewry knows that Israel is your home away from home, and to ensure that the Israeli people include and respect every Jewish voice.
As in any extended family, there are differences of opinion, style and substance. But I am confident in our ability to reverse this tide, both because we share history and values, and because of the close partnerships I was privileged to experience over the past few years, with The Jewish Federations of North America and The Jewish Agency for Israel.
The challenges are tremendous, but the vision for overcoming them is equally great, and preserving the bonds of our Peoplehood is the key to a Jewish future. This is the challenge of our generation.
My sisters and brothers in North America, the Mishna in "Ethics of Our Fathers"- פרקי אבות- teaches us: "It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it". ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור"" This is our watch and we must assume responsibility for our Jewish Future.
So "What's Next?'- We must work together: First, to deepen our mutual understanding by educating ourselves about the other, beginning by simply meeting each other: Hundreds of Shlichim- emissaries, who are annually dispatched from Israel all across the world, bring their own take of Israel to the Diaspora, and are rewarded with a personalized introduction to communities they never knew before; Trips to Israel, whether long or short, provide Diaspora Jewry with a real Israel experience, and let local Israelis see how many types and colors of Judaism there are outside of the Holy land; Programs such as The Jewish Agency's Partnership2gether Peoplehood Platform or the innovative informal Hebrew language education at summer camps throughout the Jewish world- These are but a few prime examples of avenues to promote curiosity, connectivity, and fact-based understanding of the lives the other leads.
Second, we must stand together, against the threat of rising antisemitism from all extremes; we must build alliances with other communities that have been the targets of hate; and we must ensure that Jews are safe to be Jews in America. From the depths of my heart I believe that if we remain committed to our shared peoplehood, joined by bonds mighty enough to withstand the winds and storms of disagreement, we will be able to overcome whatever challenges come next, and to seize the tremendous opportunities on the horizon. We can, and must, do this together.
Thank you, my friends, thank you JFNA leadership, for all that you do for Israel and the Jewish People. I am excited to continue working together to build a bright, vibrant and secure Jewish future. Stay safe, Shana Tova!