Saturday, February 26, 2011

the 2011 J Street National Conference Begins

As soon as the sun went down, Shabbos was over and the conference began. I got there a few hours early, so I talked with a few of the greeters. One was a staff member – a female rabbi from Chicago who was the national liaison to all 600 rabbis who’ve signed on to the J Street rabbinic cabinet – there to ratify statements with their clerical authority. When I mentioned I worked in theatre and TV, she told me her sister in law was a playwright. Turned out I’d actually heard of her. And little did I know, she to had recently moved to LA to write for TV. The difference is she got on to Weeds. She quickly elaborated that while work may be intermittent, certainly I was highly paid. I tried to dissuade her from this idea, but I don’t think she believed me. Next time I’ll travel with a copy of my 1040. Maybe she’d give me a $20 in pity.

Standing next to her was a staff member who did ‘media’ in New York. A guy in his 20s who’d begun working at J Street just at the beginning of the year. Later I ran into the new field director for Boston. He was maybe 30 and this was his first day on the job he told me. I wandered down to one of the only lounges searching for Wi-Fi and found a kid from Brown named Harpo (poor guy must have a hell of a time getting dates). He said the previous academic year things were just getting going on campus with J Street U and this year they’re taking off. That seemed in evidence when the initial plenary session began. Of the 2000 people there a full 500 were students. Later between the speeches, regional representatives from J Street U called out the names of every college represented at our conference which elicited cheers at each pronouncement.

Who else was here? I was curious to see. I knew there were only 80 people from all of southern California – the second largest population in the country. Somewhere between 550,000-650,000 depending on how one counts. In that regard, depending on the polling techniques, it’s either the fourth or fifth largest concentration of Jews in the world. There were lots of 60s peacenicks. And there was the next generation of (Americans for) Peace Now folk who were young adults when that movement was strongest in the 80s. But there was a gap.

And that gap was me. As I looked around I saw no one my age. That is besides a few staff members. I wasn’t surprised. Most everyone my age is at the height of their career requiring more attention than any time in their lives. Either that or they are in the thick of raising a family. My most fecund friends still have kids in high school. And the majority of my friends have small children at least. While I missed feeling like I had peers at this conference, more than anything, it reminded me I’m not a father.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that though. The parade of impressive speakers began. Rabbi David Saperstein of the national Reform Jewish Movement to Congress and the Administration as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism gave a fiery speech – barely giving himself a chance to breathe between sentences.

Then J Street Founder & President Jeremy Ben-Ami said: "We are profoundly and unapologetically pro-Israeli, [but] Israeli supporters have the right and obligation to speak out," he added...We believe that debate on Israel is good for the Jewish community. It stirs strong emotions, but it’s not something we can’t handle."

Moriel Rothman, a college senior and J Street U board President, said: "I love Israel but I do not love the war in Gaza. I love Israel, but I do not love its treatment of minorities. I love Israel, but I do not love the occupation of the Palestinian land."

Three guests were honored and had a chance to speak including: the author Peter Beinart, who wrote the MUST-READ, now infamous "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment"; Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist from the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement; and the Palestinian physician Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost his three daughters in January 2009, and established "Daughters for Life" foundation.

And that's who I'd like to focus on: Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

He was born in Gaza. He went to Harvard. He became an MD – an Ob/Gyn and he moved back to Palestine – Gaza – to practice medicine. He got married had children and became a respected member of the community. Then, during the Gaza War in 2008, a tank rolled into his neighborhood, and fired into his apartment. Directly into his daughters’ bedroom. Not once, but twice. His three daughters and one niece were killed.

Instead of promising revenge, he’s gone on to be an extraordinary spokesman for peace.

Now I’ll let him tell his story.

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