The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh married an old venue with a trendy medium in a bid to bring the organization further into the 21st century. Its annual meeting — traditionally an opportunity to mark the past year’s accomplishments and announce seat changes on the board of directors — was redressed, repackaged and presented at the historic Kelly Strayhorn Theater in a format made popular by the Sapling Foundation: TED Talks.
The TED Talks, which concern technology, entertainment and design, and are presented on the TED stage, often propagated by viral videos or podcasts, have enabled scores to access new knowledge online. The decision to mimic such a model and do so at the East Liberty space was a logical necessity, said Meryl Ainsman, chair of the Federation’s board.
“The past few years have seen some major changes at the Jewish Federation in governance, focus, programming, fundraising and pretty much every part of what we do,” Ainsman explained at the Aug. 30 meeting. “The organization is even moving offices to a new location. We have transformed into a more dynamic organization, and we thought it was time for a new annual meeting that reflected that excitement.
“So in the tradition of those inspiring presentations called TED Talks … we present Fed Talks: Ideas to Power an Inspired Community.”
The abbreviated talks were delivered by three speakers, each of whom is noted for providing “creative ideas for use within the Jewish world and beyond,” said Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.
Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, explored Jewish texts and teachings, while highlighting advancements on university campuses, in articulating a need to “rededicate” Jewish organizations to their “core missions.”
Sweeping mission statements often allow for operational misalignment, he remarked, using his experience at Hillel as an example. In an effort to do good, organizations often take on work leading them astray of their stated goals.
What Hillel International realized, said Fingerhut, was that in “trying to be everything” to the younger generation, it was not going to be successful. Instead, the organization committed itself to “stay focused on that which is most important in order to achieve the transcendent results for the Jewish people that we see.”
The second speaker, Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt of Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills, referenced his own millennial status, as well as his previous rabbinic work, in describing the needs of the community.
Apart from voicing the generational angst of millennials, Weisblatt recounted tales of congregants yearning for connection, and touted programming sustained by people many considered the least likely to be engaged.
“I know when I say the words ‘the North Hills’ we don’t think of that as the hub of Jewish life, and I’ve learned that now, crossing the bridges and the tunnels, but Jewish community out there is growing,” said the rabbi. “I get calls almost every week [from] families seeking community and hearing what we’re doing out there. We’re finding meaning.”
The power of the Federation is it can be a “place to connect us,” said Weisblatt. “If we don’t begin these connections and bring that meaning, when will we do it? When will we see that success?
“They’re out there. They want to be a part. It’s up to us to continue to create communities that people not only just want to check out but want to cling to and be a part of.”
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin of Baltimore, who followed Weisblatt as the final presenter, echoed such sentiments by offering welcoming strategies — in the name of “radical hospitality” — to Jewish organizations.
“We live in the presence of each other. It is the spaces that we make for each other in our hearts and our lives,” she said. “Hospitality is a way of opening ourselves to meeting the other in moments of their social, emotional, spiritual and material needs. It is to say to the other, ‘Come in. Come in with your passions. Come in with your pain, with your questions and your needs. Come in with all you are and we will sit down together.’”
Cardin’s vision was supported by three examples: Abraham’s tent, which was open on all sides; the 12 Tribes, which granted every member a sense of belonging; and the Talmud, which represented a “raucous, sacred conversation.”
By committing to following these models and employing “radical hospitality,” all “have a seat at the table,” said Cardin. The plan “can be translated into action, recreated in every boardroom, every budget discussion, every program.
“These then are the three circles of ever deepening Jewish radical hospitality that should animate us to engage others so they are eager to visit in the tent, to engage others so that they are eager to belong to a tribe and to engage others so that they are eager to join us in this eternal sacred raucous conversation,” she added. “And in the end we will all be better for being part of this great conversation.”
In recapping the evening, Ainsman pointed out that the speakers and awardees addressed “similar themes” while providing insights into “what we’re doing in making Jewish Pittsburgh amazing today and tomorrow.”
Cynthia Shapira, who received the 2018 Emanuel Spector Memorial Award — Federation’s highest award — mentioned her earlier exposure to Jewish causes and praised Pittsburgh’s Busis and Shapira families for connecting her to “our people, and to our community and to the Pittsburgh Federation.”
In highlighting the organization’s myriad efforts, Shapira called it “the glue of our Pittsburgh community.”
Nancy Zionts, who received the 2018 Doris and Leonard H. Rudolph Jewish Communal Professional Award, employed Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” (1967) as a vehicle for recounting a life of service to the Jewish community.
“All of my work is done in collaborations that have enabled me to be creative and feel useful as a part of our community,” she said. “That’s a jackpot.” PJC