Atlanta delegation mixes college students with older crowd

By Jan Jaben-Eilon

Reform Judaism Magazine Cover

Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, is one of the big names scheduled to speak at the J Street conference.

About a dozen Atlantans plan to join the more than 3,000 other activists at the J Street National Conference in Washington from March 21 to 24.

J Street, the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying organization, is holding its fifth national conference three weeks after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) drew some 17,000 pro-Israel advocates to the nation’s capital.

Perhaps more significant, the J Street conference, called “A Clear Choice for a Better Future,” comes just days after Israelis went to the polls to choose their next government.

Sarah Beller, J Street’s director of programming and education, said the conference sessions will focus on the choices facing the United States in terms of Israel, the choices of Israeli leadership, the choices before the American Jewish leadership and the choices to be made by the Palestinian leadership.

“This will be the first major Jewish gathering postelection,” she said. “Regardless of what happens with a peace initiative, we will continue to fight for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic homeland. We can’t give up on that fight no matter how difficult it looks.”

Among the conference speakers will be several members of the Israeli Knesset, members of Congress, former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Opening night, Beller said, will feature two sets of Israeli and Palestinian partners “who will talk about the difficulties they’ve been through and why it’s important not to give up.”

One pair consists of a woman from Gaza and a woman who lives on a kibbutz just outside Gaza. They have remained friends despite the wars in that area.

Also speaking Saturday night are the Israeli and Palestinian leaders of the Parents Circle, a group of people who have lost family members to violence in the conflict.

“They will conduct a moment of silence,” Beller said.

Eight Atlanta-area college students are among more than 1,000 students going to the conference. Atlanta native and Emory University junior Leah Michalove said she will attend because she has a lot of friends who will be there and because of the opportunity to hear “incredible speakers” and “to make sure students are heard.”

Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Hillel International, was scheduled to speak to the college students but withdrew from the conference, objecting to “speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”

J Street issued a statement saying that Fingerhut knew the list of speakers when he agreed to attend and expressing disappointment at his decision to pass up an opportunity to engage with so many college students.

Michalove, who is studying in the Middle East program at Emory, grew up in the Reform movement’s NFTY youth program and has visited Israel three times. The first was with her eighth-grade Davis Academy classmates, the second was when she spent a month visiting Israeli friends from camp, and the last was through Birthright Israel.

At Emory she is active with J Street U, the college-age arm of the Washington-based organization. Although unchartered, the group meets for discussions and screenings of Israeli movies.

“I ran an event on how to be pro-Israel and one about what the two-state solution would look like,” Michalove said.

Atlanta is home to an active J Street chapter. Board member Leah Fuhr said she didn’t grow up in a religious or Zionist home, but a Birthright trip in late 2007 ignited her interest. “At the time AIPAC was the only option, and what it was saying didn’t speak for me,” she said. “I was interested in social justice and learning more about Israel.”

In her 30s, Fuhr said she’s one of the youngest Atlanta chapter board members. “Most are in their 60s.”

Contrary to popular belief, J Street, which launched in 2008, doesn’t attract just young progressive Jews. Among the Atlantans who will attend the J Street conference is Gene Rubel, a father of four and grandfather of eight. “People say that J Street is for the young, and I’m delighted so many young people attend. But from my perspective it’s for everyone who cares about having a long-term solution. I am going as a statement of principle,” he said. “Somebody has to stand up for a two-state and fair solution. I’m proud of my beliefs and ready to stand up for those beliefs.”

This will not be Rubel’s first J Street conference, but it was almost the first for Atlantan Stephen Dix, who had to cancel at the last minute. “I have never gone before, but I have been a supporter since J Street’s inception,” said Dix, 63. “All my friends are AIPAC supporters but only because it’s for Israel. I think AIPAC expresses too much knee-jerk support of the Israeli government. I think we should be like a friend who always has your back, but then grabs you by the lapels and tells you when you’re wrong.”

He said he doesn’t feel like a “lonely voice in Atlanta. There are people I can talk to and disagree with for hours, and then we figure out that we’re really not that far apart.”

Dix said it’s important for “mature voices to be heard. I am really disappointed that I won’t be there.”