The Global Kenes That the World Needed
In English, the word “conference” comes from the same 15th century French word meaning “the act of consulting together.” In Hebrew, a conference is called a “Kenes,” which has its roots tied to the ancient (as well as modern) word of Bet Knesset. Bet Knesset is often wrongly translated as “synagogue” but it was, and still is, so much more than that.
After the destruction of the first Bet HaMikdash by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the subsequent exile to Babylon, the Bet Knesset replaced the holy Temple as the central physical location of Jewish practice and community. Simply, it was the place where Jews gathered, not just to pray and not just to consult, but to express their Jewishness in all its forms, and from which the strength of their Jewish collectivity would radiate forth throughout the world.
What happened in Denver over the first weekend in December was a kenes not a conference, and it was exactly what the world needed.
I was lucky enough to have been sent to the 2023 JNF-USA Global Conference (read: kenes) for Israel as a representative of Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and while I knew that Jewish National Fund-USA is a serious organization, I am not sure anyone could have anticipated the incredibly emotional and uplifting event that took place in times of such darkness and despair.
The reality of what we were up against was just a chain-link fence away. Just feet from the outside corridor guiding hotel guests to the conference center were pro-Hamas protestors brandishing giant signs reading “globalize the intifada,” throwing water bottles at passers-by and calling myself and others “f***ing Jews". A private security firm, Denver police, and representatives of the FBI were on hand 24 hours a day.
And yet, we did not cower and we did not hide. We gathered.
For me, of course, it began with the students. Nearly one hundred Muss alumni attended the conference, lead and participated in a brilliant High School Summit, and rededicated themselves to fighting for Israel back home and online.
Additionally, more then 150 college students held a parallel summit.
The attendance of these young people, so passionate about their Jewishness and Israel that they would give up a weekend to attend speeches and workshops, was all the more inspiring when contrasted with their peers outside screaming obscenities and justifying rape and murder.
While hate-fueled youth screamed lies and vulgarities outside, our young people spontaneously burst out with singing and dancing inside the dining hall during Shabbat dinner.
While the “international community” continued to slander the Jewish State, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, stood before a packed auditorium to explain how he refuses to back down to those lies as well as his efforts to keep the remaining hostages still held in Gaza at the forefront of the international conscience.
While many in the press were excusing or even justifying the murder of Jews, the family of Ofir Libstein, mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, a beloved member of the JNF-USA family, and the first person reported killed on October 7th, addressed the kenes as well. His brother spoke of Ofir’s love for the Negev, his desire for peace and the incredibly difficult but necessary task of carrying on Ofir’s legacy. By their side every step of the way was Miriam Peretz, an icon in Israel for her Zionism, faith and motivational speaking despite losing two sons, Eliraz and Uriel, IDF soldiers killed in action 12 years apart.
And while many have understandably found themselves frozen since October 7th, the Jewish National Fund-USA (along with Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael) announced that it would not stop looking towards the future, announcing a $54 million dollar project to rebuild Israel’s south and its inhabitants, who were so brutally devastated on that devastating day.
In response to a Hamas terror attack in 2010, I wrote “often times a society will react to destruction with retaliatory wrecking, such as the 1992 Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles. The Jewish people have always had the opposite impulse. Spiritually staggering in the desert, the Jews built the Tabernacle to bring G-d’s presence closer. From the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jews built up the previously desolate lands of Palestine. Retaliation by building sends a clear and strong message. No matter what you do to us, we are here forever.”
Not much has changed. In Denver, Jewish National Fund-USA pledged to continue that building yet again.
So, to paraphrase Commissioner Gordon in “The Dark Knight,” the Global JNF-USA Kenes wasn’t perhaps something the world deserved right now, but it absolutely was the event that the world needed.