OXON HILL, MD, November 11, 2014 – There were the vice president of the United States, two Supreme Court justices and an Academy Award-winning actress with a compelling Jewish story. There were Jewish professionals, lay leaders, clergy and recent college graduates. The West Point cadets’ Jewish choir performed. The Israeli prime minister appeared via satellite from Jerusalem.
Part pep rally, part training and part family reunion, the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, held November 9-11, drew some 3,000 people to a conference center outside Washington to cheer federations’ philanthropic work, listen to presentations ranging from European anti-Semitism to crowdfunding, and to schmooze.
Louisville’s delegation included Jewish Community of Louisville Board Chair Karen Abrams, YAD Co-Chair and Lewis W. Cole Young Leadership Award Winner Keren Benabou, Joseph J. Kaplan Young Leadership Award Winner Tracy Geller, JCL Vice Board Chair Jay Klempner, Jewish Community Relations Council Chair and Julie E. Linker Community Relations Young Leadership Award Winner Becky Swansburg and young leader and Campaign Committee member Ben Vaughan along with JCL President and CEO Stu Silberman and Jewish Federation Senior Development Associate Hilary Zappin. All agreed it was a good experience.
For Benabou, it was an opportunity to see how different communities work and to learn about “the challenges they are facing and how they are dealing with them.” She was particularly interested in learning about how other communities engage young adults, and she even came across something to share at this year’s YAD event, although she is keeping it secret so it can be a surprise.
Benabou particularly enjoyed meeting Harold Grinspoon, the patron of the Grinspoon Foundation and founder of the PJ Library program. “He was so kind and warm,” she said, “and excited to hear what we need and how much our kids enjoy the books. It was pretty amazing for me to see how he turned his vision and passion into something extraordinary – something my kids look forward to receiving.”
As usual, much of the talk at the General Assembly was how to bolster North America’s 153 Jewish federations.
“We can go beyond exchanging ideas to actually exchanging services,” Jewish Federations CEO Jerry Silverman said in a speech at the closing plenary. “JFNA expanded the resources of our consulting and community development department, but what if we also leverage and share the resident expertise in this room and across our federations?”
The federations face an uphill battle at a time when studies show younger American Jews are less affiliated than previous generations with Jewish institutional life and less likely to give to Jewish causes.
Though federation annual campaigns are up by about seven percent compared with this time last year, the number of donors has declined by about one-third since 2000, according to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. And last year’s Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that 43 percent of non-Orthodox Jews ages 30-49 donate to Jewish causes — in contrast to those ages 50-69, 60 percent of whom give Jewishly.
At the conference, organizers showcased dozens of federation programs that are piloting new models for programming and outreach. Billed by organizers as “fedovations,” they included case studies in reaching younger donors, providing services to the elderly, planning profitable events and finding ways to engage and excite unaffiliated community members.
The second answer was for federation leaders — and some of the plenary speakers from outside federation, including the actress Marlee Matlin — to drive home the message of the importance of collective action in the Jewish world.
“We do have the intellectual and financial potential to effectuate substantive change, but only if we work together,” Jewish Federations board chairman Michael Siegal said in a plenary address.
Swansburg found a session on how to talk to potential donors and supporters, helping them understand the value of their charitable giving, extremely helpful. “Too often we tend to be very focused on here are the programs you support,” she said, “when it is not necessarily the programs they want to support, but outcomes.
“We need to talk about what the programs accomplishing,” she continued. “We need to remind people that when your middle schooler is at an event and they’re offering a Christian prayer at a football game” or other similar issues, “the JCRC is there to help you talk to them and get issue resolved.”
Klempner said, “the most meaningful thought or idea I heard was confirming the importance of ‘friend-building’ before fundraising. First we must engage our friends, or even strangers to the organization. Through this engagement we can find their passions or issues they may have with the agency – this is done before you even ask for a donation.
“Once you have engaged the friend,” he continued, “then you can work on involvement. Maybe ask them to volunteer or invite them to an event. The more they get involved, the more informed they can be; and the more informed they are the more likely they may be to contribute.
The G.A. covered many topics. “Another thing really impressed me,” Swansburg said, was “hearing from a lot of Jews from around the world – France, Ukraine and Russia. It is a challenging time for Jews across the world and there is very real anti-Semitism in Europe. … This is an important place where our donations are going.”
Vice President Joe Biden affirmed the Obama administration’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security and talked about his experience taking each of his kids to the site of the Dachau concentration camp when they were 15 to teach them about the “incredible resilience and indomitable nature of the human spirit.” Benabou and Abrams were particularly moved by the vice president’s stalwart support of Israel.
Not everyone at the G.A. was supportive of Israel. “One of most impactful sessions,” Swansburg said, was about “Resetting the Table, a nationwide movement to foster better and more productive conversations with those who might have varying opinions about Israel.
“Aligned with civility project through JCPA” (the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), it addresses idea of increasing the civility of the conversation within the Jewish community, “even when we don’t agree,” she said. This year, that meant including in the G.A. some Jews who support the B.D.S. (boycott-divest-sanction) movement instead of Israel.
Along the same lines, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, gave a rousing plenary address about the importance of Jews’ commitment to each other despite their differences. “I don’t need you to agree with each other; I need you to care about one another,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, speaking to the assembly on Tuesday by video link, focused on Iran.
“Iran is not part of the solution, it’s a huge part of the problem,” Netanyahu said, referring to reports that the United States may be coordinating with Iran in their shared battle to crush the ISIS jihadist group in Iraq and Syria. “The Islamic state of Iran is not a partner of America, it is an enemy of America and it should be treated as an enemy.”
Netanyahu said such treatment should extend to nuclear talks now underway between the major powers and Iran “by keeping tough sanctions on the regime, by making clear that the international community is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from breaking out or sneaking out to get the bomb.”
In another plenary, NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg got U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to discuss the Jewish values that drive his work (tzedakah) and Justice Elena Kagan, who grew up Jewish on the Upper West Side, to reveal that she has become a duck hunter since joining the court.
“Justices Beyer and Kagan, Vice-President Biden and high profile speakers like Chuck Todd, created a high-energy environment filled with excitement,” said Vaughan. “Having an opportunity to engage with my peers and communities across the country was helpful when discussing existing community struggles and methods to address them.
“I participated in the NYL track for Ben Gurions and was amazed by the energy and focus placed on engaging young leaders from across the nation. I look forward to bringing this energy to our Federation programs and community at-large.”
There were some hands-on sessions dealing with best practices, too. Both Benabou and Abrams were impressed with the need for the JCL to get more involved with social media. Facebook, Abrams said, now speaks to the 50 and over crowd. Those in their 30’s and 40’s are on Twitter. The under 30 crowd can be found on Instagram and Pinterest. She is interested in using a wide range of vehicles to reach out to different parts of the community.
The conference’s theme was “the world is our backyard,” and it included a sprawling indoor space designed like a backyard replete with patio furniture, artificial turf panels and giant dandelions. The corners featured small stages where presenters – the list included author Peter Beinart; Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region; and Matt Nosanchuk and Noam Neusner, the current White House Jewish liaison and a predecessor in the post – held court during mealtimes.
“As I always find at G.A. or the JCPA Plenum,” Swansburg concluded, “while we come back with new ideas, a lot of what we hear reinforces what we are doing in Louisville, much of which we have already begun to implement.
There are several areas where Louisville is helping to lead, not to follow.
“I was completely inspired by the GA!” said Tracy Geller. “I almost cannot put into words how fortunate I feel to have been able to be a part of a national conference like the G.A. From the amazing speakers, to the breakout sessions, to just spending time “brain storming” with my fellow Louisville attendees, this was an experience that I hope to use to bring new energy to this Jewish community.
“I am excited about some of the events that we are planning in the next few months,” she added, “and look forward to working with Keren, Becky, Ben, Karen, Jay, Stu and Hilary in the future!”