More than any of the content at this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, what fascinated me was the effect of social media – particularly Twitter – on the conference itself, and more broadly, on the Jewish community.
Although this was my seventh GA as a reporter, I’m a relative newbie to Twitter, having opened my account in June. Before the Nov. 6-8 meeting in Denver, Colo., I’d never tweeted from an event I was covering.
I discovered that not only was it not considered rude to use my Blackberry while presenters were speaking, it was encouraged. One moderator instructed us, “Please feel free to tweet throughout the session. It will enliven our discussion. It will spread the word.”
The online social media service features succinct “tweets” of up to 140 characters at a time, appearing onscreen in a personalized newsfeed from people, organizations and publications that Twitter users follow.
Instead of perusing my usual incoming collection of tweets, I searched for the hashtag #jfnaga (a Twitter identifier) to focus on GA-related posts. The posts were also available on a screen outside the main exhibit hall.
With multiple sessions being held concurrently – in one case 10 at the same time – and a constant stream of new tweets, highlights of other sessions were readily available.
Here’s one from Nov. 8, tweeted by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation: “R @Kaunfer at closing plenary: obligation can be incredibly freeing. A key Jewish teaching that we aren’t the centre of the world.” The “@Kaunfer” refers to the GA’s rabbi-in-residence Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar in New York.
In some ways, Twitter addresses the concern I heard one student share with another: “Wherever you are, you feel like you’re missing something somewhere else.”
I read many of the thousands of GA-related tweets that were sent out, although I only sent out a dozen myself. Logistically, it was easier to focus on using my notebook, tape recorder and camera without adding too much tweeting into the mix.
It was reported after the GA that the total number of conference-related tweets were 9,465; total twitterers, 922; total hashtags tweeted, 842; total URLs tweeted, 1,336. The oldest tweet was Aug. 22, and the most recent tweet was Nov. 10.
I did use Twitter to congratulate Toronto’s Shauna Waltman, director of UJA Community Connect, for the Young Professional award she received at the GA, including a link to a picture of her receiving the award.
I also tweeted from a session that used an innovative format to address dissenting voices in the Jewish community. It struck a chord with attendees, and I keyed in, “Kudos from audience at Big Blue Tent re play at Makom session. ‘Realistic.’ Re hypothetical anti-Zionist play. How to deal.”
Tweets, unlike published articles, are immediate and “raw,” having never been vetted by a copy editor.
Andres Spokoiny – president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network in New York and former CEO of Montreal’s Federation CJA – said that social media like Twitter and Facebook offer “radical empowerment with radical connectivity.”
Speaking at a session called “Federation of the Future,” he said that individuals are now “hyper-empowered. We live in a time where the individual has access to change the world, or he believes so. Somebody on Facebook can invoke a demonstration that can topple a 30-year-old regime.”
From a federation perspective, he noted, donors also want to be empowered and “take ownership.”
As well, the change in technology means that people don’t have patience any more, he said. “Who’s going to have a 10-year plan?”
Spokoiny said top-down structures are no longer going to work, and that changes have to be made now. “Organizations need to stop being hierarchical and start being more organic. Our identity is now a patchwork.”
Federations need to act as convenors, facilitators and catalysts, he said. “It is about convening people who are self-organizing… Inclusiveness is not optional. In a polarized world, it’s a necessity.”
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver, wrote in a GA supplement to his paper. “At a minimum, Jews need to talk to each other. All Jews. Otherwise, we weaken.”