I recently attended the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. The annual event convenes thousands of federation professional and lay leaders who raise and allocate significant portions of our community’s fundraising. Alongside federations, hundreds of allied organizations vie for attention, adding to the frenzy.
I love the GA. As a student I attended four. The energy of the conference, the pride of working for communal needs and the power of large crowds gathered in common purpose is inebriating. As a student, it was an unparalleled experience. I was taken by the whizz bang of the event: speeches by presidents, concerts by Jewish rock stars, and breakfasts in the federation suite. I haven’t attended a GA since it was in Toronto in 2005. It’s difficult to say whether the event or my understanding of it has changed.
The program serves as a barometer of issues facing the Jewish community. The topics discussed, and equally those not on the agenda, demonstrate the direction of the community and its challenges. Sessions exploring continuity, fundraising and advocacy remain stalwarts. This year, I noted growing emphases on aging baby boomers, multiple forms of attachment to Israel, innovations in education, and changing philanthropic trends.
Little session time, however, was devoted to openly discussing these issues. Rather than crowdsourcing, ideas were presented as a fait accompli, undermining their complexity and underutilizing the audience. Technology could have buttressed sessions with parallel online debates, but rather than a dialogue in step with presentations, online posts read as individuals preening before a digital audience. The brain power in the room was incredible, but the program failed to tap it.
One issue facing the federations was the structure of funding for Israel and overseas projects. While historically the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee were the primary overseas partners, a vote following the GA dramatically altered this relationship. Hardly a word about this critical decision was uttered in official sessions.
The weight of the GA lies not in the sessions, but in the hallways. The hotel lobby and coffee shop were abuzz with vigorous debates and conversations. To capitalize on the potential of the GA and capture the attention and voices of a younger generation, these conversations must be moved into the public sphere, in person or online.
With critical conversations pushed into the hallway, I was delighted when Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder of Mechon Hadar, raised the bar of reflection. Rabbi Kaunfer served as scholar-in-residence, a new role created since my last GA that roots the communal conversations in text and tradition. During the opening plenary, Rabbi Kaunfer questioned a basic assumption of Jewish leadership: “Jewish continuity is the end goal, and everything is in service of that goal.” he argued. “In our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue.” Unfortunately, Rabbi Kaunfer’s rich fodder for debate wasn’t picked up in ensuing conversations, and his challenging words were left unattended.
If the GA is to play a central role in defining the direction of Jewish communal life in a new generation, the debates of the hallway must be moved to centre stage, starting with Rabbi Kaunfer’s astute reflection on our basic assumptions.