By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Blair Marks for Atlanta Jewish Times

WRJ President Blair Marks

At least four Atlantans have won seats at this fall’s 37th World Zionist Congress in the elections for the 145-seat American delegation, according to results announced Thursday, June 4, by the American Zionist Movement.

ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement, was the top vote-getter among the 11 slates, receiving 21,766 of the 56,737 votes cast, just over 38 percent. That total earned ARZA 56 delegates, matching the number it won for the 35th World Zionist Congress in 2006, the last time elections were held for the American delegation.

Temple Kol Emeth member Blair Marks, the president of Women of Reform Judaism; The Temple’s senior rabbi, Peter Berg; and Temple Sinai Rabbi Bradley Levenberg will be part of the ARZA delegation, based on their rankings on the ARZA slate.

Former Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Stanley Davids, who lives in California, also made it as No. 56 on the slate, although he said some people higher on the list likely won’t make the trip as ARZA delegates, so he won’t be the last qualifier.

Brad Levenberg for Atlanta Jewish Times

Rabbi Bradley Levenberg

“This was a massive victory for liberal/progressive Judaism, especially at a time when the values and concerns of the center and left were set aside in the recent Israeli national elections,” said Rabbi Davids, who recently marked his 50th anniversary as a rabbi. “ARZA has earned the right to speak as the largest American delegation.”

He added that he expects the World Zionist Congress, and thus the World Zionist Organization, “to embrace many if not most of our concerns.”

The congress establishes policies and leadership for the WZO, the Israeli government agency that, among other things, oversees the West Bank settlement program, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Jewish National Fund. Held every four or five years, the congress has 500 delegates: 190 from Israel, distributed based on Knesset representation; 145 from the United States; and 165 from all other nations. Additional delegates are admitted from such international organizations as Hadassah and B’nai B’rith.

Peter Berg for Atlanta Jewish Times

Rabbi Peter Berg

“The World Zionist Congress is the single best opportunity for American Jews to have [their] voice heard on critical issues facing Israel and the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, the president of the American Zionist Movement.

Finishing second and third in the elections were Mercaz with 9,890 votes, good for 25 delegates, and the Religious Zionists with 9,594, earning 24 delegates.

Mercaz, representing the Conservative movement, declined from 33 delegates in 2006. One of those delegates will be Ahavath Achim Synagogue member Margo Gold, the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Religious Zionist slate — representing the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Young Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America, Yeshiva University and other Orthodox organizations — suffered a bigger loss than Mercaz, dropping from 35 seats in 2006.

Overall, the three slates associated with religious denominations will hold 72 percent of the U.S. seats this year, compared with 85 percent in 2006. Eight other slates will have delegates at the congress in Jerusalem from Oct. 20 to 22: American Forum for Israel, representing Russian-American Jews, 10, up from two in 2006; Hatikvah, the Progressive Zionists, aligned with Israel’s Labor Party and Meretz, eight, a gain of one; Zionist Organization of America, seven, an increase of two; Zionist Spring, a new combination of old parties that combined for three seats in 2006, seven; World Sephardic Zionist Organization, a new contender, four; Alliance for a New Zionist Vision, a new group seeking leadership roles for young Jews, two; Green Israel, one, a drop of one; and Herut (the Jabotinsky Movement), one, a decline of one.

Declining Votes

The American Zionist Movement tried to make it easy to vote, giving people from mid-January to the end of April and offering the option to vote by mail or online. But the number of American Jews who cast ballots dropped from about 76,000 for the 35th World Zionist Congress to 56,737 this year for the 37th congress, a decline of about 25 percent.

Voters had to pay a $10 registration fee ($5 for those 30 and under) to cover expenses, but Jewish newspapers across the country, including the Atlanta Jewish Times, joined the 11 competing slates in spreading the word about the importance of the congress and trying to get out the vote.

“Those who cast their votes in this election became part of a great historical continuum and are now personally involved in crafting the future of the Jewish state,” said Judge Abraham Gafni, the chairman of the U.S. Area Election Committee, which oversaw the voting.