More than 3,000 Jewish leaders from all over the globe gathered near
Washington, D.C., this week for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.
The three-day event, which ran from Nov. 9 to 11 and featured a talk from Vice President Joe Biden, offered participants opportunities to engage with their peers from across the country and forge new global connections. Speakers touched on challenges facing the Jewish community, including European anti-Semitism, the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the future of Jewry in North America.
Attendees navigated through long security lines and explosives-sniffing dogs to attend the opening plenary session on Sunday, which featured personal stories, high-quality video, set changes and a star-studded lineup.
Several people lined up on the stage and shared their emotional experiences of when Jewish federations became a part of their lives, from a young woman who protested as a teen in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s with her father as they stood up for Soviet Jews to a couple that met at a federation National Young Leadership Cabinet Retreat, are now married with two children and “have become a federation family.”
In her role as secretary of the board of trustees of JFNA, Cindy Shapira, secretary of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was among those seated on the stage during the opening plenary. She introduced Jewish spoken-word artist Andrew Lustig.
“He did a half-rap, half-poem that was so illustrative and engaging and really informational in terms of the mindset of young Jewish adults today, how his Judaism differs from his parents or grandparents but is so meaningful to him personally,” said Shapira. “It was important for people of older generations to hear that.”
National Public Radio political correspondent Nina Totenberg interviewed Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who spoke humorously and candidly of their work on the nation’s high court. “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell discussed fallout from the recent elections and foreign policy.
GA 2014 co-chairs Gail Norry and Howard Friedman set the tone for the GA crowd with the theme “The World Is Our Backyard.”
“Immerse yourself in the issues,” said Friedman. “This year’s GA will remind us of why federation is relevant and critical, and it will send us all home to our own backyards with a common agenda for the greater Jewish world.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, offered another challenge to GA attendees.
“We disagree better than any other people in the world,” said Sacks. “What we need is not agreement; what we need is that feeling that we’re all connected to one another and that we’re all responsible for one another.”
Ira Karoll attended with his wife, Shoshi Butler, co-chair of Shalom Pittsburgh.
“The panel the first day with Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan was really enjoyable and impressive,” said Karoll. “Justice Breyer ended by talking about social justice. … That really resonated with people in the room and resonated with what federation is all about.”
Participants had the opportunity to attend smaller breakout sessions and
FEDovations, which highlighted the most successful JFNA programs and activities.
Federation COO Deborah Baron was a panelist for a session titled “Federations as Businesses: Methods of Quantifying Success,” where she spoke about the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Scorecard. Audience members peppered Baron with questions on bringing the scorecard back to their communities, which she said did not come as a surprise.
“We get called all the time,” she said. “I think that there’s a lot of other communities that can learn from the scorecard. Every community is different; it’s not going to be applied the same way everywhere.”
The opportunity to learn about how Federation dollars and volunteers impact nationally and internationally resonated with Pittsburgh participants.
“I sat through a briefing with the head of the bureau of world Jewish affairs” at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Drew Goldstein. “We got a chance to get an understanding, from an insider’s perspective, as to what’s going on in the world in terms of anti-Semitism and BDS and how to fight that and what’s going on in the world at large.”
Approximately 25 members of the Pittsburgh Federation community attended this year’s GA, including nine members of the young adult leadership community, according to Katie Whitlatch, chair of Pittsburgh’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. On Monday, the Pittsburgh delegation had a private meeting with Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Said Whitlatch: “Having a strong contingent from Pittsburgh is important for the visibility of Pittsburgh in the federation system. It also gives us a really great understanding of the Jewish world overall, and that’s important to bring back and disseminate in our community.”
Melissa Apter is a reporter with the Baltimore Jewish Times. Melissa Gerr, Heather Norris and Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.