For the first time, Baltimore will host the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, the largest annual gathering of Jewish volunteer and professional community workers in the United States and Canada.
The 60th assembly, which is expected to draw 3,000 people for plenary sessions, forums, workshops and speeches, opens Tuesday and continues through Nov. 24 at the Baltimore Convention Center.
The assembly is the second major national Jewish meeting in Baltimore in less than a month. A slightly larger number of people gathered here two weeks ago for a Reform Jewish convention, but that event is held every two years.
The CJF gathering brings together the leaders of 189 federations representing 6.1 million Jews of all major movements in 800 North American cities. Those organizations, including the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, provide social, cultural and educational services in their localities and assist Jews in Israel.
A key event will be Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's address to the plenary session, scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Shamir is expected to speak about the recent Middle East peace conference in Madrid.
At 4 p.m. Thursday, Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl and Rabbi Irving Greenberg will hold an interfaith dialogue sponsored by the local Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies. Stendahl formerly was the Lutheran bishop of Sweden and the dean of the Harvard Divinity School, where he now is chaplain. Greenberg is the president and a co-founder of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Of the 3,000 attending the session, 646 are voting delegates who will represent their federations at plenary sessions. The Baltimore federation will have 14 delegates, according to Associated president Darrell D. Friedman.
The delegates will elect new CJF officials and vote on federation guidelines, such as those for dividing funds among various social services. Each federation is autonomous, however, and not bound to the regulations of the New York-based umbrella organization, Friedman says.
Other issues include raising funds to help Israel absorb Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants; intermarriage; the federation's role in Jewish education; acculturation of Soviet Jews in North America; and the Middle East peace process.
The delegates also are expected to craft CJF policy statements on civil rights, family and medical leave for workers and other public policy issues.
Alfred I. Coplan, chairman of the Associated board, says "it's about time" that Baltimore, with one of the oldest and most active Jewish communities in the nation, finally gets to host the assembly.
Friedman notes that five of the past 18 CJF presidents have come from Baltimore, the most recent being Jerold C. Hoffberger and Shoshana Cardin. In addition, Baltimoreans have directed all major American Jewish organizations at one time or another.
"Baltimore's Jewish lay leadership sets the standard in the United States," says Friedman. "It's part of our tradition to provide leadership, not just here in our area but also on a national basis."
"We're known throughout North America as a very old Jewish community and one that takes care of its own with incredible services," says Barbara L. Himmelrich, the Associated official serving as the executive chair of the assembly.
Himmelrich and assembly coordinator Peggy Warner say the local Jewish community is supplying 1,200 volunteers to help with the details of the assembly, from meeting visiting delegates at BWI Airport to running information booths at the Convention Center.
The Baltimore assembly has been two years in the planning, says Warner, "ever since Barbara went to the 1989 meeting in Cincinnati to take notes on how things were done there."
A local steering committee formed and began making definite plans in September 1990.
"Be Strong, Be Strong and Let Us Strengthen One Another" is the theme of this year's assembly.