Nov 19, 2007 — As this year’s General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) unfolded with spirited discussions, presentations, and networking among its 3,500 delegates, one voice resounded loud and clear, bringing a scholarly approach and Torah wisdom to bear on the future of the North American Jewish community. As the GA’s scholar-in-residence, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter made a profound impact on the proceedings, turning to Biblical texts for inspiring messages about collaboration and community-building, and providing insights into possible directions on each of the five times that he spoke.
It was the first time in many years that the GA—held this year in Nashville, TN November 11-13—featured a scholar-in-residence. Rabbi Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), was an apt choice for the largest annual gathering of Jewish leadership in the world.
“The UJC and Yeshiva University share a mission–‘One People, One Destiny,’ which is the GA’s theme this year–and both are value-driven,” said Gail Reiss, senior vice president of development and major events at UJC. “We believe that when we work together we can realize our mission. As scholar-in-residence at the GA, Rabbi Schacter set the stage at the opening plenary, emphasizing the power of the collective federation system to do good deeds, and closed the gathering with a call to action.”
In the opening remarks of his keynote address at the plenary session, Rabbi Schacter used the rabbinic teaching about Abraham and his expelled son, Ishmael, as a departure point to speak about healing family rifts, coming together as a united Jewish people, and working to forge a positive dialogue with the Muslim world.
“[Abraham] doesn’t stand on ceremony. He doesn’t say, ‘Where is Ishmael? Why isn’t he calling me? I am not going to talk to him until he comes to me!’,” said Rabbi Schacter. “He picks himself up, he saddles his animal, and he goes to see Ishmael. He works out a compromise: she, Sarah [his wife], lets him go, he promises not to get off the camel.”
He exhorted the audience to think about how many Jews they know who feel banished “from the table of Abraham, from the communal household of the Jewish people.”
“It is our responsibility to embrace them, to love them, to find them an honored place at our United Jewish Communities table,” he said.
Rabbi Schacter also said the teaching reminds us of an earlier era when Jews and Muslims knew each other well enough to incorporate elements of one another’s traditions into their respective sacred texts. “Surely this, too, is an important value for us, to create a context where these two great religions can coexist with one another and engage in mutually respectful dialogue for the betterment of humanity as a whole,” he said.
Rabbi Schacter also spoke at the National Young Leadership Awards Luncheon, the UJC Board of Trustees meeting and the Rabbinic Cabinet session, and was the final speaker at the closing plenary.
As in previous years, YU had a significant student presence at the GA. Representing the largest group of university students in attendance at the GA, the YU students all reported that they felt enriched by the exposure to new ideas at the breakout sessions they attended and the wide range of Jewish people they interacted with. “I attended the session on ‘Linking the Silos: Program Continuity from Cradle to Dorm,’ and it made me realize the connection between shul and school. It opened my eyes to the fact that not only the yeshiva matters and gave me broader views, respect, and appreciation for Jews of all denominations,” said Philippa Hernandez, an education major in her junior year at Stern College for Women.
“Bringing our students to the GA allows them to interact with serious and passionate Jews from the various denominations of our community and to see how vital it is that they add their voices to discussions in the community,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the CJF, which organized and prepared the students for this experience.
In addition, 17 students from the Certificate in Jewish Communal Services program at YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work attended the GA to learn about challenges facing the organized Jewish community. “It was an invaluable opportunity to meet and explore career directions with Wurzweiler graduates who are directors of federations and agency executives in the Jewish community,” said Dr. Saul Andron, associate professor at Wurzweiler and director of the Certificate program.
As usual, YU’s booth in the exhibit hall created a buzz. This year it featured the “Shpiel of Fortune,” a Jewish spin-off of the popular TV game show, which attracted scores of national delegates.
Prior to the opening of the GA, the undergraduate and rabbinical student delegation spent Shabbat in Memphis. Accompanying them were Rabbis Ozer Glickman, RIETS rosh yeshiva, and Elly Krimsky, assistant director of Jewish career development and placement. They fanned out across the community, interacting with the rabbis, students, young couples, and families and attending services at the city’s three Orthodox synagogues: the Young Israel of Memphis, Baron Hirsch Congregation, and Anchei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Congregation. The students hosted an Oneg Shabbat for teenagers from the Memphis community at Margolin Hebrew Academy Feinstone Yeshiva of the South on Friday night and five Presidential Fellows took the lead in creating programming.
The students ate shabbat meals with different families in the community, including that of Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl, the new dean of Margolin Hebrew Academy, and his wife, Melissa.
At a seuda shlishit at Baron Hirsch on Saturday afternoon, Stern College senior Rina Cohen spoke about the experiences afforded to her by coming to YU from her native France. Yonah Bardos, of the student-run Medical Ethics Society, spoke about his achievements in organizing conferences on fertility issues and organ donation as a service to the Jewish community.