At JNF-USA conference, a focus on unity, support for Israel and a pledge to rebuild.
The cries of Am Yisrael Chai rang out again and again as Jews from across the United States and beyond gathered at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver last weekend for the annual Jewish National Fund-USA conference.
They shouted the words after discussions about how people can advocate for Israel and how Israel will rebuild the south. They sang the words at Shabbat dinner. Two thousand-plus voices — from teenagers to seniors — rising clear and strong to show that the Jewish people do not cower and stand united.
“As a people, we are stronger when we are unified. That is how the Jewish people have survived and thrived throughout history and it is how we will survive and thrive in these dark days,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, during the closing ceremonies. “In the wake of Oct. 7, we are unified as a people as never before.”
To be sure, the conference was not as originally planned given the Hamas terror attacks and the war in Israel. Programming had to be quickly reimagined in the face of the devastation in the south and the ongoing hostage crisis.
“If I were standing before you three months ago, I would have talked about Zionism,” said Talia Tzur, chief of staff at JNF-USA Israel, during the opening plenary. Instead, she talked about how life changed in an instant. How within hours of the attack everyone had to pivot to help evacuate 30,000 people from the south and the north and not only find them a place to go, but ensure they had what they needed: food, bedding, clothing and even toys for the children.
And with tears in her eyes and her voice breaking, Tzur spoke of her friend Shelley’s son, Omer Shem Tov, who was at the Nova music festival and taken hostage by Hamas.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations also addressed the crowd at the opening event and said that Oct. 7 made it “crystal clear that we are in a fight for the survival of the Jewish state.” He blasted the United Nations for their ineffectiveness and called for officials at colleges and universities where anti-Zionism and antisemitism are festering to be removed from their positions.
“The time for talk ended eight weeks ago,” Erdan said. “The time for action is now. The Jewish people are united, and we are stronger than ever. When we stand together, we can move mountains. We are standing on the frontlines as one people and we will prevail.”
That theme of unity was also on display and was referenced time and again throughout the conference at meals and at davening, and in workshops and impromptu conversations in the halls and meeting rooms. “I love us,” said one woman while playing Jewish geography and sharing support about what is going on in Israel and the Jewish world. “Where else are you going to find this?”
Shelly Lipman of New York agreed. “There are people here from all walks of life — the right and the left, different ages — and may go about things differently but we all have one thing in common: Israel.”
Among those in attendance was Marv Schlanger, who grew up in Newark and now lives with his wife Eva in south Florida. A veteran on JNF-USA events, he recalled that his connection to the organization went back to when he was just 5 years old and stood outside of Keil’s Bakery with JNF’s ubiquitous “blue box” and collected pennies for trees in Israel. During the second Lebanon war, he and his wife donated a fire truck to Israel and recently took their family, including their young grandchildren, to Hadera where the truck is now stationed.
Looking over at a group of college students sitting nearby, he said, “It is so important to get the younger generation involved. It is why we took our grandchildren to Israel. My generation had a sense of the importance of Israel because we were surrounded by Holocaust survivors. My in-laws were survivors, my parents’ friends were survivors.”
However, before Oct. 7, young people didn’t have that same connection as they always saw Israel as a “powerhouse,” Schlanger said, noting that he was glad to see how many came to the JNF-USA conference and wanted to learn about how to support Israel and the Jewish people.
Panels at the event covered a plethora of topics such as how to advocate for Israel on social media, what is really going on college campuses, and what role Israel plays in synagogues today. They also heard about plans to rebuild what was once referred to as the “Gaza envelope” but which as Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF-USA and a Livingston resident, now said is the “Israel envelope.”
Robinson announced that funds for the rebuilding efforts will come from a $50 million international campaign called “Livnot B’Yachad, Building Together” that JNF-USA will be undertaking in partnership with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and its affiliates around the globe.
As with any Jewish event these days, security was a key concern of organizers as antisemitism and anti-Zionism continue to rise worldwide.
In the days leading up to and during the event, protestors used social media to announce their plans to “disrupt” the conference. Law enforcement officials from local, state and federal departments worked to keep the conference attendees safe. Large chain-link fences separated the two groups. As conference goers moved from their hotel to the conference center, protestors held hate-filled signs including some that said “Palestinian liberation by any means necessary.” They would bang cowbells or two soda cans and shout a variety of slurs directed at both the attendees and law enforcement officers. According to one source, damage was limited to one broken window at the conference center and some graffiti. “We’ll take that as a win,” he said.
Indeed, despite their attempts, the protestors failed to intimidate most people, with many seeing them as an annoyance, and some referring to them as “the noise,” “bees,” or “flies.”
Rocklin, a high school student who attended the conference, said, “They’re just background characters. They are spreading antisemitism, not helping Palestinians.” Rocklin had been attending the Alexander Muss High School program in Israel when the war began and was one of hundreds of high school and college students who came to the conference.
His friend Elan, who also saw his year at Muss cut short by the war, said that the protestors kept repeating “three phrases that just don’t make sense.”
While protestors shouted about “occupation” and killing Palestinian babies, those inside made clear that is the opposite of what the Jewish people stand for and what Israel is all about. As Michal Uziyahu, a resident of the Eshkol region in southern Israel and JNF-USA employee, said, Jews are a people that choose and value life.
“Even from the grief [of Oct. 7] we have to choose life,” she said. “They did not break our spirit. We will bring each and every beloved person from Israel back home. We will rebuild. We will find the strength. We are b’yachad, together.
“We will choose life. We will choose light. Together, we will make a great life,” Uziyahu continued, adding “Together, we will [shine] a great light that will defeat the darkness.”
Faygie Holt is the author of the bestselling Jewish children’s book series, “The Achdus Clu” for girls ages 8-11. The books, “The New Girl” and “Trouble Ahead,” are available at Jewish bookstores across the country and online at menuchapublishers.com. An award-winning journalist and editor, Faygie’s work appears regularly on chabad.org and in The Jewish Link, among other outlets. Learn more about the author, her books and her writing at faygielevy.com.