“Our goal is to help elevate AJC to the next level,” American Jewish Committee Regional Director Dov Wilker said at AJC Atlanta’s 73rd annual meeting Tuesday, May 9, at 103 West.

For the 2016-17 fiscal year, he said, “we have raised over a million dollars and have over 600 sold-out seats for the Selig Distinguished Service Award Dinner honoring Beth and Gregg Paradies” on Wednesday, May 24.

“We have increased interreligious programs to one a week and must continue to reach out to new people to join us by sharing each lineup,” he said.

AJC remains steadfast in resisting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Wilker said, noting that 47 U.S. governors have signed the national organization’s statement against BDS. “We have continued to reach out to members of Congress and diplomats to discuss similarities and differences in the community in order to fight BDS.”

Outgoing AJC Atlanta President Gregg Averbuch said that passing the reins to Melanie Nelkin “represents a happy moment and has added to the tapestry the AJC began 73 years ago. Since then, we have established a president and vice chair, continued to nurture ACCESS through the leaderships of Julie Katz and Matt Weiss, and enhanced engagement and leadership development, which has placed Atlanta as the top regional office.”

Photos courtesy of Sarah Moosazadeh
New AJC Atlanta President Melanie Nelkin presents her predecessor, Gregg Averbuch, a leadership award for his service as regional president from 2015 to 2017.

He added, “AJC is an irreplaceable asset of the Jewish community, which will reap dividends for years to come.”

Nelkin said, “AJC has become my place of advocacy, where we continue to build bridges in communities based on common values; however, the friendships I have made along the way are my crown jewels. I am humbled by your perspective, dedication and humility.”

Her goals as president include increasing participation in the AJC Global Forum in June, raising engagement, and elevating AJC via social media, print and personal interactions.

Keynote speaker Steve Bayme, the director of AJC’s contemporary Jewish life department and its Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, spoke about the tensions between Haredim and secular and liberal Jews in Israel.

Steve Bayme addresses the problems of religious pluralism in Israel.

The ultra-Orthodox compose a growing portion of Israel’s population, but many stay out of the military. While the unemployment rate among Haredi men is falling, it’s still 50 percent, Bayme said.

To help integrate them into society, Israel is recruiting them into universities across the state. “This is really nice,” Bayme said, “because the real price and value of the endeavor is building stronger relationships with the community.”

Bayme said 89 percent of Haredim put Jewish law above secular law, and 86 percent say the state should use religious law, causing clashes with the majority of Israeli society.

“The Chief Rabbinate, under Haredi auspices, maintains its control over matters of personal status, especially marriage and conversion to Judaism,” Bayme said. Civil marriage is not an option, and the rabbinate raises barriers to conversion.

The question of future American Jewish attachment to Israel is closely tied to the question of what kind of a Jewish state will Israel become,” he said. “More religious laws will make it more difficult for non-Orthodox Jews in America and worldwide to relate to Israel as a historical Jewish homeland.”

Religious pluralism is an important brake on extremism and helps maintain the special relationship between Israel and the United States, Bayme said, “but the sad reality is that the American versions of religious pluralism simply have yet to resonate within Israeli society. More likely, Israel will need to develop its own options appropriate to its culture and society.”

The place of religion gets at the core of Israel’s existence.

Israel’s very raison d’être is that it is the homeland for all Jews. Additional religious legislation passed under Israeli law signals that, to the contrary, Israel is not the homeland for Jews who are not observant,” Bayme said.

He added that the Haredim “merit great credit in two distinct respects. First, their numbers were decimated by the Holocaust. But rather than submit to the reality of history, they were determined to transcend history by rebuilding their demographic base. Second, Haredi culture has defined the content of Jewish identity as the serious, even daily engagement with Jewish text, tradition and heritage. To be a Jew entails ongoing and regular study of Jewish sacred books and teachings.”

Bayme concluded that “AJC’s farsightedness will continue to serve the Jewish community well.”