Jewish communities gather in Washington to ‘Think Forward’

Jewish communities gather in Washington to ‘Think Forward’

Pittsburgh’s delegation at the G.A. celebrates with hometown pride. (Photo by Geoffrey W. Melada)
Pittsburgh’s delegation at the G.A. celebrates with hometown pride. (Photo by Geoffrey W. Melada)

The theme of the 2015 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, “Think Forward,” played out earlier this week in Washington with lay leaders and staff members from 120 Federations coming together to strategize about the future of Jewish philanthropy, global Jewry and Jewish education and engagement.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh was represented by 25 delegates, several of whom showcased Pittsburgh’s innovations in community building to colleagues from across North America during various breakout sessions.

“I’m thrilled with the size of our delegation and its diversity in terms of age,” said Cindy Shapira, chair of Pittsburgh’s Federation. “Coming up together as a group, then fanning out with different aspects of the G.A., then coming together to share those aspects, is a very fulfilling experience.”

Pittsburgh delegates included longtime Federation supporters as well as newer volunteers and staff members involved in the Federation’s Young Adult Division.

Shapira, who has attended several G.A.s, praised the quality of the speakers and the programming at the event held at the Washington Hilton from Nov. 8 to 10 as “unprecedented.”

At the opening plenary on Sunday, attendees were addressed by Justice Rosalie Abella, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, and went on to become the first Jewish woman to hold a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada; David Gregory, a former moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” who spoke about the imperative of passing the Jewish torch from generation to generation and kept his commitment to address the G.A. despite the fact that his father had died two days earlier; and Emmy Award-wining actress Debra Messing, who spoke about the challenges of being raised in a community with few Jews, and learning to embrace her Jewish identity.

“The opening plenary was incredibly inspirational,” said Jason Oppenheimer, Pittsburgh’s Young Adult Division director, and a first-time G.A. attendee.

The sharing of best practices and innovations in community programming was another highlight of the G.A. for Oppenheimer, who said he was learning a lot from peers from across the United States and Canada.

Peer learning at the G.A. has been “invaluable” to Brian Eglash, senior vice president and chief development officer for Pittsburgh’s Federation who has attended 12 G.A.s.

“We are part of an incredible global Jewish community,” Eglash said. “We exchange ideas and consult and work with each other. It’s just so valuable to connect with people who are doing the same thing all over the world.”

Two innovations that the Pittsburgh Federation shared with members of the assembly were the SteelTree Venture Philanthropy Fund and its innovative Partnership2Gether strategies employed during its Centennial Mega Mission to Israel.

Scott Tobe, chair of the Federation’s Planning and Funding Committee, and Emily Richman, associate director of Development Operations, spoke at a breakout session called “Beyond Happy Hour: Solutions to the Young Adult Challenge.” Tobe and Richman highlighted the successes of SteelTree, a grant-making arm of the Federation that is run by young philanthropists who direct their giving to projects that help young adults and teens find meaning and participation in Jewish life.

“We are going to get a lot of calls about SteelTree,” Eglash predicted. “This is young people learning what it is like to be part of the collective. And the fact that they chose Jewish continuity [as the objective of their grants] is really inspiring. It’s huge. It says a lot for Pittsburgh.”

Sue Linzer, the associate director of planning/director of overseas operations for the Federation, addressed another breakout session, titled “Travel with a Purpose: Meaningful Missions.” Linzer explained how Pittsburgh used its Partnership2Gether community of Karmiel/Misgav for “meaningful engagement for the 290 participants on the mission [in 2012].”

Finding a strategy to connect with Israelis in the region was a challenge that was met by creating a survey to help assess ways to match Pittsburghers with Israeli families in Karmiel/Misgav, she said. The strategy worked, she emphasized, as evidenced by the fact that many of the relationships formed from the connections made on that trip three years ago remain strong today.

In addition to sharing the successes of the Federation’s mission, Linzer said she was impressed by other federations’ Israel initiatives, including a Christian Clergy Leadership Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee that has helped to build bridges across the faiths and to combat boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel.

Pittsburgh Federation leaders were briefed Monday by Alan Hoffmann, CEO and director general of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the single largest recipient of the community’s funding. Much of that funding helps to settle Israeli olim, Hoffman said, noting that the Jewish state expects to absorb more than 30,000 immigrants by the end of the year, the biggest influx in more then a decade. A large percentage of those immigrants — about 8,000 — will come from France, he said. Large numbers of immigrants are also coming to Israel from Ukraine and Moscow, making 2015 “an important year for aliyah.”

Hoffman also discussed the positive effects of connecting young Israelis to American Jewry through service as shlichim at summer camps and in broader Jewish communities as well as the impact of bringing American Jews to Israel on programs to reinforce Jewish identity, such as Birthright and Onward Israel, an internship program for college students initiated by Shapira and supported by the Shapira Foundation as well as the Jewish Agency.

“Onward Israel,” Hoffman said, “has a ‘Made in Pittsburgh’ stamp. We are very proud to be your partners in this very important initiative.”

With college presidents emphasizing the value of a global experience, Hoffman anticipates that participants in Onward Israel will continue to grow.

Pittsburgh’s Federation has been a key player, he said, in helping the Jewish Agency accomplish its mission of “connecting Jews to the Jewish people,” and in working with the vulnerable in Israeli society, particularly immigrants.

“We are proud of our work with Pittsburgh,” he said. “And we have a lot more to do.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the G.A. on Tuesday morning.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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