Reflections from the GA’s opening plenary

This year, the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) is holding its annual conference at the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) General Assembly. TIMAG0287his means that in addition to having the wonderful opportunity to meet and learn from colleagues at Jewish newspapers across the country, AJPA conference participants can also join thousands of leaders from around the world at the GA. This year’s GA’s conference theme is “The World is Our Backyard.”

Here are some reflections from National Harbor, Maryland.

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Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan spoke at the JFNA GA’s opening plenary on Nov. 9.

The opening plenary highlighted the variety of people affected by federations — from volunteers to those aided by the federation’s work. Then, Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s legal affairs correspondent, interviewed two of the three Jewish Supreme Court justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Among other things, they discussed the relationship between all the justices — they all get along and nobody raises their voice in anger when they are discussing issues; the importance of there being three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court — it’s significant for a people who used to be oppressed; and they shared some personal stories, too.

Justice Breyer quoted the Jewish obligation “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” and noted that the “you” isn’t just referring to Supreme Court justices or judges, but “it’s referring to everyone.”

Next, spoken word artist Andrew Lusting presented his poem “I Am Jewish,” and Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” discussed the results of the recent election. They addressed the Democrats’ losses in races across the country — candidates should have focused on national issues like the economy and immigration rather than on local issues — and they noted a distrust of Iran and the poor state of the Obama and Netanyahu relationship that won’t be fixed anytime soon.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks — who was Britain’s chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013 — closed the plenary, noting that the world is exactly like his backyard — “a mess.”

“But there is no better place for putting that right than here,” he said.

He noted that the buzzword associated with the 21st century will be “globalization.” “For everyone else, that is the newest of the new, but for us, as Jews, it is the oldest of the old” because Jews have been scattered around the world for so long. “And yet they saw themselves — and they were seen by others — as one people, the world’s first, the world’s oldest global people and we still are.”

What made Jews a nation, despite the different languages and varied cultures?

There’s one simple answer, Rabbi Sacks said: “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh — All Jews are responsible for one another.”  

It doesn’t matter if we disagree, he said. “What we need is not agreement, what we need is klal yisrael,” the feeling that we’re all connected to each other, that we’re all responsible for one another. “I don’t need you to agree with me, I need you to care about me.”

He also lauded the Internet as a “gift from heaven, courtesy of Sergey Brin (Google co-founder) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)” that should be used to make connections between Jews across the world.

“We are living in an age in which instantaneous global communication was made for the Jewish people. It abolishes distances between us. It is made for a people which is tiny and yet scattered and distributed throughout the world. … Let’s use the Web to initiate a global Jewish conversation so that our arguments can bring us closer together instead of splitting us apart.”

He ended his speech with the directive, “Now, go out and change the Jewish world.”

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