Monday, March 5, 2012

Travel Blog - AIPAC policy conference

On Sunday morning I left Omaha to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.

There are no Saturday night flights that I could take out of Omaha so since I leave Sunday morning I showed up alte at the conference.  Consequently, I had to miss the first two addresses, one by Israeli president Shimon Peres and the other by US president Barack Obama.

As I got off the plane I could hear the morning news on a nearby television.  CNN was reporting on the AIPAC convention and president Obama's address.

I arrived at the conference in the early afternoon.  This is my fourth time attending policy conference and every year it is bigger and bigger.  This year is the largest conference ever with over 13,000 people in attendance.

The conference is incredibly well organized.  It is held in the massive Washington convention center in the heart of DC.  All programs take place inside.  At any given time there are at least 30 or 40 breakout sessions going on, each with from 150 to 500 people.
For the last month AIPAC has been sending e-mails to the participants that allowed us to sign up for the sessions we want to go to before the conference.

Thus year we have the largest group ever from Omaha.  There are at least a dozen of us here.

Choosing breakout sessions is by far the hardest part of the conference.  Each one is given by leading experts in whatever topic is being discussed.  Many of the panels have notable congressmen or senators or Israeli government officials.

I chose to go to sessions that I thought would be useful to bring back to Omaha.  I chose one called "Israel on Campus: Creating Tomorrow's leaders."  It was a panel discussion with a number of leading Israel activists on dfferent college capuses including UC Berkley and UPenn.  There seems to be strong anti Israel sentiments on at Berkley and UPenn has a contingency of faculty and students that have made some serious anti Israel statements in the past.  These students stressed the importance of being knowledgeable about the situation in Israel and how AIPAC was a resource for them in organizing pro Israel groups on campus.

Some of the other sessions that went on at that time were about the arab states, the status of different terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, human rights activism going on in the Arab world that will be good for Israel, Inside the Iranian republic, understanding Palestinian public opinion, How Israel is helping the world in need, how the US and Israel join to fight global terror, Egypt's growing Islamic movement, China's middle East strategy, and the list goes on and on.

My second session was a special session just for Rabbis.  There were over 250 Rabbis in the standing room only crowd.  The Rabbis are from all denominations from all over the country.  We did a text study on Israel and also discussed the roles that Rabbis play in educating about Israel.  One point made was that much of the discussion about Israel is focused on the many crises that face Israel.  But there are all kinds of other aspects to Israel that people should be aware of.  Synagogue Rabbis are positioned to keep American Jews focused on the discussions beyond the crises regarding the importance of maintaining a Jewish state.  There was also discussion about the unique quality that Jews have always had to disagree and yet respect dissenting opinions.

A point that I especially liked was that all Israel advocacy does not have to be about responding to crises. Much Israel advocacy is about being character witnesses to Israel. If we conduct ourselves with dignity then Israel is by association portrayed in a better light.

After the Rabbis meeting I davened mincha.  This year they actually have a set area for davening.  There is a room for traditional services as well as a room for egalitarian services.  There are davening times throughout the day.

There is also an area with tables an kosher food for sale for participants to meet between sessions.  Between sessions I have been networking like crazy.  I am astounded not only by the number of incredible Jewish professionals are here, but also by the quality of the people who are working for the Jewish people!  I am seeing many old friends and making some new ones, and from everyone I am learning about exciting and innovative programming that they are doing in so many different areas, from education, to pulpit, to advocacy, to organizational work.  For me it would be worthwhile to come just for the networking.

Today we are going to hear from Joe Lieberman in the morning, I have a number of great break out sessions in the afternoon and then tonight is the gala event.

I hope to have time to keep everybody posted about this amazing conference and I hope next year we get even more people from omaha to attend.