The first meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Israel Action Coalition passed without a hitch, bringing together activists from across the political spectrum.
Some 120 local activists came to the June 7 meeting, representing a true cross-section of the community that included rabbis of different streams as well as members of both J Street and the Zionist Organization of America.
With the new communal advocacy effort now under way, it remains to be seen how some of the initiatives — including a campaign calling attention to the plight of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — will be implemented and whether the efforts will affect the public debate on the Jewish state.
In opening the meeting, Rabbi David Straus, president of Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council, which is overseeing the coalition, made a reference to this week's Shavuot holiday.
"Sinai is what unites all Jews," he said, even as Jews have vastly different understandings about the meaning of Torah revelation. "I hope and think the same can be said for Israel engagement."
The meeting came about as an effort to strengthen Federation's Israel advocacy efforts, which have been hampered by political disagreements and lack of staffing in recent years.
Federation is hiring a new staff member to focus on advocacy.
The program included a live video conference with Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States. The ambassador implored the audience to explain Israel's position and perspective to whomever they could, wherever they could.
Participants were given limited opportunity to ask questions, debate the role of political viewpoints in Israel advocacy or discuss whether the Jewish community or the broader public sphere should be the group's primary target.
Joel Sweet, a Philadelphia lawyer who is spearheading the coalition, stated that the effort would supplement, not supplant, the work of other organizations.
He outlined a plan to highlight the captivity of Shalit, an issue on which, presumably, nearly all Israel supporters can agree.
June 25 will mark the fifth anniversary since Hamas gunmen abducted the young Israeli soldier from the Gaza border region.
Attendees were asked to sign a petition aimed at the International Red Cross. It urged the body to insist that Shalit, at the very least, receive the benefits due a prisoner of war, which include regular visits from Red Cross personnel.
Sweet also discussed plans to show a documentary about Shalit locally and distribute arm bands for individuals to wear until he's freed.
Sweet also offered a plan to produce pro-Israel yard signs and bumper stickers for display before September, when the United Nations is expected to debate the Palestinian push for a unilateral declaration of statehood. The signs would emphasize Israel's commitment to peace and democracy.
One audience member commented that any yard sign would remain incomplete without a mention of the importance of a secure Israel.
Organizers distributed questionnaires seeking participants' interests in various areas of advocacy. Sweet said the coalition would reconvene in the fall to move ahead with its efforts.